07 July 2008

[Address_Nerd] Salem Rural Routes, ca. 1958


Today, we grace the eye with a few views of a map. Before that,  a word about Rural Routes.

There was a time when 911 didn't prevail, when you had to know the local police number and write it down, and when urban-style address grids didn't extend to the limits of every county. In Oregon, most Boomers and Gen Xers from outside the Portland area will remember what it was like to have a Rural Route address.

A Rural Route is really a simple thing. An address on a country road might have a mailbox, and that mailbox would be marked (and assure that it could be read, else you won't get your mail) similarly to the following:

Joe Schmoe
Route 1, Box 265
Silverton, OR

The thought of Rural Routes came to the Address Nerd as we got an unexpected comment on a rather old post and answering it made us smile. The commenter wondered what was up with that. Here's what was up with that.

A Rural Route is, in its simplest form, a loop with mailboxes posted all along its traveling. They radiate out from the local post office, and boxes along it are simply numbered in order from low to high – Route 1 Box 1 (ideally) to Route 1 Box 827 (or however high it goes). As I recall, they did not necessarily were consecutive ... there were gaps. Route 1 Box 165 might have been followed by Route 1 Box 172, allowing room for new addresses.

Now, to the map. This is a thumbnail of an inset map scanned from a 1966 Chevron gas station map (distrubted by Erickson Chevron at Fairgrounds Road and Highland Avenue, locally printed) detailing the state-of-the-rural-route-art in the hinterlands of Salem ... as of 1958 (click here to go to the page in Picasa; click the zoom button, upper right, to embiggen):

Route 1 covered NW, or what we call today West Salem; Route 2, North; Route 3, South and West; Route 4, South, and Route 5, South and East.

A close look (at the resolution we were given, a patient, sharp, and un-fatigued eye will be required) shows how the system works. The arrows show the direction of travel of the carrier, and the number-notations give an idea of the run of the box numbers.

One thing that becomes clear real quick is the serpentine nature of the carrier's travelings. One would travel west into an intersection, go north to the next intersection, east and then NW then back to an intersection one went through before, then west and then turnaround and back in again, covering one side of the road going out and the other coming back.

For a better view, here's a clipping of a part of Route 5 ... a bit out of the center-right of the image above. this really gives an idea of the carrier's comings and goings and the way the box numbers play out:

Travelling east along the road straggling through the middle of the image (what we know today as Salem's State Street in its outer precincts), we come upon a crossroads called "Geer". Just below and to the left, there's the number 781; a house at the SW corner of State Street and Howell Prairie Road (the modern name of the N-S road at that junction) might have the address of Route 5 Box 781. Directly across the street, though, the address would be Route 5 Box 355, and the arrows tell that the carrier covered the area to the right of that intersection before covering the area to the left.

Another interesting point: look directly to the left of the word "Pratum" on the upper part of the image, and look for the numbers "795" and "604". Today, that's the intersection of Sunnyview Rd NE and Howell Prairie Rd NE, and the road completes that gap right there. Howell Prairie Road is the axis of those wide farmlands east of Salem, and at one time, it stopped at Sunnyview Rd instead of going straight though as it does today.

The Rural Route system had the benefit of having the road name being completely unnecessary in getting mail to its destnation. This also supplied the drawback – since it does not lay along a grid, quick and efficient location by emergency services is all but impossible ... never mind giving directions to your long-lost cousin who finally decided to see you after all these years. Hence the current systems of address gridirons that cover almost every county in Oregon.

But it's a pleasant memory, and hearing a "Route something Box whatever else" reminds me of some of the sweeter times of my childhood, and the beginning of an obsession with street signs that continue to this day.

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Isaac Laquedem said...

Your post brought to mind the former address of one of my aunts, a few miles outside Issaquah, Washington. Issaquah is much bigger now, but in my childhood it had maybe 2000 people in the city itself, and some more scattered outside. My aunt's address was Route 2, Box 52xx, Issaquah. This made me wonder: How did such a small town have two (or more) rural routes? And did that route really have more than 5000 boxes when the town itself couldn't have had more than 1000?

Samuel John Klein Portlandiensis said...

Well, I'm just guessing myself, but it seems to me that the rural route system is, to some degree, arbritrary. That is to say, if practical necessity or organizational desires require two rural routes, then they can set up two rural routes. It also may simply be more efficient to divide them that way.

In the reading I'm doing on it, it also appears that the rural route carriers were private contractors, at least the latter-day version were, and it might have made sense to have more than one contractor serve the area.

The box assignments could be equally arbitrary. While a logical arrangement would be consecutive, one-after-the-other (Box 10 followed by Box 11 followed by Box 12, &c) order, I suppose there's nothing really keeping them from having, say, Box 1, then Box 20, then Box 34, &c ... that way, there's room for new addresses between the old ones.

Another way that just occurred to me was that, if you wanted, you could assign them based on their position between notional mileposts. Say, for instance, you alotted 1000 box numbers per mile of route and assign them proportionally. If there was a box on Route 1 at the 1-mile mark, that would be Route 1 box 1000; if there was a box at a little past the half-way point of that first mile, that could by Route 1 Box 552; a quarter way into the second mile could be Route 1 Box 1250.

Such a system would also be a good way for the carrier to track mileage.

Just guesses, of course. Letting my mind wander. You asked a good question!!!

stan said...

When I was a kid, my grandparents' address was along a Rural Route in Cornelius. It made it very hard to find their place later on as an adult (even though they had long since moved away, I ventured out that way a time or two for the sake of nostalgia), because I never bothered to look for street names as a tyke - all I had ever known was the return address on the birthday cards!

John D said...

My folks place in Indiana is still on a rural route. One of the few remaining in the country I imagine. Coincidentally, that little slice of Indiana is also one of the last places in the country to have 911 service.
Earlier this year, the western part of the county which is relatively flat and grid-like began flirting with using actual street addresses, but the eastern side of the county where the homestead lies is much hillier and less populated. Folks there are slow to change, and I don't really see them abandoning the rural route system in the near future. The UPS man can find RR 3 Box 421, and the ambulance driver can find my folks place because he knows almost everyone in the area and where they live. Might as well keep it that way.
Does anyone know of anywhere else around the country that sill uses the RR?

Samuel John Klein Portlandiensis said...

John d:

Nothing around these parts that I can name. The possible areas would be far central and southeastern Oregon (well, as far as Oregon's concerned, anyway) where not so many of the roads run straight and people are miles and miles apart. It occurs to me that it's very likely that anyone working in those areas in mail delivery and emergency services are local stock, so already know the area pretty well.

I've the gut feeling that most of the services people in that area are much like the ambulance driver you mentioned, and any mail and package delivery doesn't have to worry about too many

Anonymous said...

Sorry I couldn't see the maps - hope you get your Photobucket account up soon - thanks for thinking and posting about old maps and how they tell a story of times gone by :-)

Samuel John Klein Portlandiensis said...


thanks for the kudo. I have been migrating my graphics over to either Posterous or Picasa Web Albums as these turn up.

I'll replace these, and you run into any others you'd like to see, don't fail to let me know! Thanks!