04 May 2024

How Addresses Developed in Salem, Oregon: A Thumbnail Sketch


Thanks to a dear friend from my distant past and current future, today I stumbled on something I didn't know I wanted to know but actually did want to know.

Now, when it comes to Address Nerdery I'll take second place to few. I have literally obsessed about the way Portland grew its house number system since I was a child and long before I lived here permanently; something about the quadranted house number system suggested more than a basic level of design and my mission was, for myself, to find the reasoning, at least for myself. Then I ran into Eugene E. Snyder's book which Explained It All and a handful of kindred spirits in the online world who looked at things the way I did. I now know much more than I ever thought I'd know about Portland's address system but also a whole number of towns and cities.

And that's as maybe. But I was born of the Salem and Silverton area and I seem to have stumbled into exploring about that. And my friend tossed me a link that opened a little bit of history like a flower that I didn't know I was looking for.

See, unlike Portland, Salem was always just Salem; it didn't start out as four cities in a trench coat that had to co-ordinate street naming because otherwise it would be a crazy-quilt. Salem didn't even abut any other town until Keizer decided to stop messing around and organize as one back in the 1970s. But it did grow an address system, as it turns out, and it changed at least once.

The basic information was gleaned from a post at the Willamette Heritage Center's website at https://www.willametteheritage.org/house-numbering-address-ordinances/. And, I guess I hadn't found it myself because this only exists on the 'web since 2021. But it lays out a simple though interesting time line.

  • 1885: Salem City Ordinance 151 defines the address system with 40 numbers per block. Addresses increase northward from Leslie Street (runs east-west, one block north of today's Mission Street) and eastward from Water Street (runs north-south along the Willamette River bank). Addresses did not exceed 560 on streets paralelling the river (the north city limits at the time ran along Mill Creek) and went up as far as 280 on the east-west streets as far east as where the State Capitol is today. 
  • 1904: Salem City Ordinance 436 sets up the house number pattern used today though does not establish address directional suffixes: West Salem would not be added to the City of Salem until 1949 and Salem itself was limited to the east side of the river only. Streets did have directional prefixes, but only if they crossed a baseline. It was at this time, that State Street became the principal division between north and south Salem addresses, and the house number allocation per block was adjusted from 40 to 100.
  • 1957: The system established by the 1904 ordinance served until this time, but it was decided by 1957 that the city had grown enough to require grown-up address districts. It was at this time that the N/NE/SE/S/NW districts were established and deemed to be directional suffixes.

The media coverage of the day was very practical, even bland, which kind of fits for Salem. On Sunday, Oct 13th 1957, the Oregon Statesman ran a very modest article on page 30 about it with a somewhat-crabbily drawn map to illustrate:

 Some of the nomenclature is a little bewildering: Triangle Area, I must admit, leaves me a bit baffled, unless they were commenting on the general shape of the N and S districts. Some of the descriptions have not sustained: while the text seems to suggest that River Road North will be suffixed NE it is suffixed N, and Liberty Road was supposed to get a SE suffix it got S, but both roads are indeed the boundaries as otherwise stated. 

The one essential area that Salem lacks, SW, is only referenced as "a small stretch between the river and the NW area". The 100-block baseline to NW is basically a line formed by Edgewater Street NW and Hwy 22 going west from the core West Salem area. The only area that reasonably describes is Polk County south of Hwy 22 and west of Eola Bend, where the Willamette meets the highway. There has never been any residential development of any scale in that area, and west of that area, while the house number pattern is continued the street naming conventions are not; NW pretty much peters out at the Hwy 22/Hwy 51 intersection. So while there is room for SW as the pattern scales out, I doubt there will ever be a metropolitan Salem address that ends that way.

One other thing I was able to find was this article in the Oregon Statesman published the very next day:

The "oh, well, best get with it" attitude of the article is a scream, quite frankly. Suffixes are now with us, learn to like it, pal. Eventually we'll get used to it. 

And SW is but little populated as yet? Oh, 1957, you had such high hopes for us.

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