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by Jim Scheppke

What is today South Central Salem was occupied for millennia by native peoples. In the early 1800s it was the home of the Santiam Kalapuyans. Their Chemeketa Village was situated along the bank of the Willamette River to the north, where Riverfront Park is today. There is evidence of another village near South Salem High School. The remnant Oregon White Oak savannah and camas field in Bush’s Pasture Park are part of the traditional landscape — the result of active fire management of the ecosystem by the Kalapuyans.  

Jason Lee and the Methodist missionaries came to the area in 1841 and built a sawmill and a flour mill on Chemeketa Creek (now called Mill Creek), and later moved their mission there from 10 miles downriver on the Willamette. The Kalapuyan population had been decimated by diseases such as smallpox and malaria due to their lack of immunity. It is estimated that the Kalapuyan population declined as much as 92% between 1770 and 1840.  This enabled the American resettlers to occupy their land without a treaty or compensation until finally in January 1855 the surviving Kalapuyans signed onto the Willamette Valley Treaty and were forcibly removed to the Grand Ronde Reservation, 33 miles west of Salem in Polk County.


By 1844 the Methodist mission had failed in its efforts to “Christianize” the Kalapuyans and train native children and was disestablished, and the land that the resettlers had colonized was divided up among the missionaries and others. When the U.S. Congress passed the Donation Land Claim Act in 1850, after Oregon had become a U.S. Territory, it recognized the land distribution that had happened previously. 


Two large land claims roughly comprised South Central Salem. Missionary David Leslie’s claim was 625 acres and extended from today’s Mission Street in the north to McGilchrist Street in the south and from the eastern edge of Bush’s Pasture Park west to the Willamette Slough. Rev. Leslie came in the second group of “reinforcements” to work with Jason Lee in 1837 and served many important leadership roles in early-day Oregon including organizing the provisional government in 1843, serving as President of the Oregon Institute which later became Willamette University, and serving as the chaplain of the first territorial legislature. He may have given Salem its name in 1842, though some give credit to another missionary, William Willson, who platted the town on his donation land claim.


In 1845 Leslie built a house that was located southeast of the present Bush House. It was the first house to be built in South Central Salem. He cleared the land and planted a large orchard of apple and pear trees. In 1860, nine years before his death, Leslie sold 100 acres of his claim to Asahel Bush, the publisher of the Oregon Statesman newspaper. Leslie’s house was moved north to Mission Street and Bush built a new mansion in 1878. 


The second large land claim that comprised South Central Salem was that of Fabritus Smith who came over the Oregon Trail in 1846. His 635 acre claim bordered Leslie’s claim to the north and extended east to west from present-day 12th Street to Commercial Street. Smith married Virgilia Eliza Pringle and built a log cabin on the eastern edge of his property. In 1870 he moved into a large farm home that still stands at 2655 E. Nob Hill and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Smith was a successful farmer and also served two terms in the Legislature.


What is today Gaiety Hill north of Mission St. was the southern edge of the donation land claim of William Willson, and the eastern edge of South Central Salem, including Deepwood, was part of the donation land claim of Francis Hoyt.


The second oldest house, after the Leslie house, still stands at 606 High Street in Gaiety Hill. The Smith-Fry house was built in 1859 by Joseph Showalter Smith, a lawyer and later president of Willamette Woolen Mill.


In 1865, George Jones, the son-in-law of David Leslie platted a 20-plus block subdivision to the west of the Bush property for development, but settlement of South Central Salem occurred very slowly in the latter part of the 19th century with most of the land continuing to be devoted to orchards and wheat farming. Nathaniel Colwill built a flour mill and a sawmill on the riverfront at the end of today’s Owens St. to mill timber logged on Fairmount Hill. Three dairies were established in South Central Salem, the most prominent being the Fairmount Dairy, belonging to Swiss immigrants, the Schindler family, located at the end of Myers Street above South River Road, then called Riverside Drive. 


It was the coming of horse-drawn street cars beginning in 1889 that spurred residential and commercial development in South Central Salem with the first street car line running down Commercial St. to Odd Fellows Rural Cemetery (today’s Pioneer Cemetery). Another street car line extended down 12th street beginning in 1892. By 1903 development had advanced to the point where what was known as unincorporated “South Salem” was finally annexed and became part of Salem.


Another spur to commercial and residential development was the Oregon Electric Railway constructed in 1911-12 and running south along the Willamette Slough, extending all the way to Eugene and north to Portland. It was in operation for 30 years, with 21 trains a day at its height.


The first school in South Central Salem was called South School. Located at Fir and Myers Streets, it was built in 1866. It was replaced in 1891 by the Lincoln School, located at Myers and Liberty, the site of today’s St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, where students were enrolled in grades one through seven and tuition was charged at the rate of $5 per four and a half month term.


By the 1920s the Jones addition to the west of the Bush property was mostly built out, as was most of Gaiety Hill. Despite development pressure, the Bush family continued to maintain their 100 acres as a farm until in 1917 when they gave 57 acres, the eastern half of their property, to the city to establish a park, and later, in 1944 sold the remaining property, except for the Bush House and grounds, to the city to establish today’s Bush’s Pasture Park. The Bush House and grounds were acquired in 1953.


South Central Salem continued to develop rapidly in the early 20th Century and is today one of the most desirable neighborhoods in Salem. Bush’s Pasture Park and neighboring Deepwood serve as the centerpiece for neighborhoods that preserve a number of historic homes and residential architecture from the 1920s and 30s along its tree-lined streets. South Central Salem includes two historic house museums, Bush House and Deepwood, an historic garden, Gaiety Hollow, as well as the Oregon Governor’s residence, Mahonia Hall. Along with David Leslie and Asahel Bush, famous former residents of South Central Salem include Governor Lafayette Grover, Senator Mark O. Hatfield, pioneering landscape architects Elizabeth Lord and Edith Schryver, and famous Oregon bridge engineer Conde McCullough.

Note: The view of South Central Salem at the top of this page is extracted from a birds-eye view of Salem in 1876 drawn by E.S. Glover from F. A. Smith's photograph, A.L. Bancroft & Company, lithographers.

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