15 historical spots to visit in Salem, Oregon

Salem, Oregon ~ Photo by Ron Cooper

Take a trip through history in Salem

If the Willamette Valley could speak for itself, you’d be spellbound with its tales spanning thousands of years of history – stories of geologic calamity, rich Native American cultures and Oregon Trail dreamers.
Historic Downtown Salem, Oregon ~ Travel Salem file photoSalem became the state’s official capital in 1859, when Oregon was granted statehood. Today, dozens of buildings, museums, cultural centers, neighborhoods and historic sites in downtown Salem tell the tale of the valley’s storied past. Take a trip through history at these 15 historical locations:

1. Salem Downtown Historic District

McGilchrist-Roth Building ~ Salem, Oregon ~ Photo by Ron CooperSalem’s Downtown Historic District is a seven-block area bounded by Chemeketa, High, Ferry and Front streets. Nearly 62 percent of the buildings downtown, 57 in total, contribute to the city’s history.
Once home to saloons, butcher shops and ballrooms, the buildings now house restaurants, retail stores and offices.

•  The Ladd and Bush Bank Building is arguably one of the most beautifully designed buildings in the downtown area. The bank was founded in 1869 as Salem’s first financial institution. The building has undergone extensive renovation, but has retained its original cast iron decoration. It continues to serve its purpose as a bank. 

•  At 11 stories tall, the Old First National Bank Building is hard to miss. It is downtown Salem’s only “skyscraper.” Built in 1927, the building has elaborate ornamentation – including griffins, a standing human figure and bearded human faces on the outside of the building. You can visit the Travel Salem Visitors Center on the first floor. 

•  Court Street Dairy Lunch, Salem’s first “fast food” restaurant, has been in operation since 1929. It moved to its current location in the Steeves Building in 1936. The eatery still serves breakfast and lunch five days a week. 

Reed Opera House ~ Salem, Oregon ~ Photo by Ron Cooper•  Since its opening in 1869, the Reed Opera House has been a significant cultural and social center in Salem. The building has housed the Oregon State Supreme Court, the State Library, an auditorium, hotels, stores and saloons. Today, you’ll find boutique stores, art galleries, a ballroom and restaurants inside the building.

•  Salem has an extensive network of underground tunnels. Throughout history, these tunnels were allegedly used for the transportation of goods, opium dens and socializing. The tunnels are closed to the public, but you may notice purple glass blocks and large metal plates in the sidewalk as you walk downtown. The glass provided light to the tunnels and the metal plates cover where elevators once were.

Learn more about the buildings downtown with the city's online historic walking tour map.

2. Elsinore Theatre

Elsinore Theatre lobby ~ Salem, Oregon ~ Photo by Ron CooperThe Elsinore Theatre has served Salem for more than 90 years. Built in 1926, the theatre was the brainchild of George B. Guthrie, a Portland attorney and private art collector. His dream was to design the best and finest theatre in the city.
From the moment you walk in, theatergoers can feel Guthrie’s dream come alive. The lobby of the theatre has murals designed to represent Shakespearean plays, grand staircases and stunning stained window glass.
The Elsinore also has the largest theatre organ in a performing arts center in the Pacific Northwest, the Parks/Murdock Mighty Wurlitzer. It has a total of 1,778 pipes.
In its early days, the theatre showed silent movies and vaudeville acts, including performances by Clark Gable and Edgar Bergen. The theatre now hosts a variety of theatrical performances, live music and movies year-round.

3. Union Street Railroad and Pedestrian Bridge

Union Street Pedestrian Bridge ~ Salem, Oregon ~ Photo by Ron CooperThe ability to move goods and people in and out of the Willamette Valley was a critical factor in settling the area. The Southern Pacific Railroad started building the Union Street Bridge in May 1912 with the goal of connecting Salem to the West valley.
The bridge required a lift section because the river was heavily used for water transportation at the time. It is one of only a few Waddell & Harrington vertical lift railroad bridges in the state.
The bridge permanently closed in 1980. Now repurposed as a pedestrian and bicycle bridge, it is one of two bridges that connects three Salem parks and more than 20 miles of trails. 

4. Gilbert House Children’s Museum 

Gilbert House Children's Museum ~ Salem, Oregon ~ Photo by Ron CooperBuilt in 1887, the Gilbert House is one of two large-scale examples of Queen Anne architecture in the city. It symbolizes the prosperity of the children of Oregon Trail pioneers.
The Gilbert House Children’s Museum, named after Salem native A.C. Gilbert, opened in 1989. A.C. was a world-renowned toy manufacturer, Olympic athlete and magician.
The museum offers 15 hands-on exhibits, an outdoor discovery area and educational programs for children. 

5. Bush House Museum 

Bush House Museum ~ Salem, Oregon ~ Photo by Ron Cooper​Asahel Bush II, a pioneer banker, newspaper publisher and public figure, built the Bush House from 1877-1878 for his wife and four children. The 12-room home is Italianate in style, with elaborate woodwork, marble fireplaces and a veranda.
Members of the Bush family resided in the home until 1953.
The Salem Art Association maintains the historic home and offers tours throughout the week. The home retains many original furnishings, embossed French wallpapers and brass fittings.
It sits on a 90.5-acre park, Bush’s Pasture Park, with gardens, wooded areas and open meadows.

6. Gaiety Hollow

Gaiety Hollow ~ Salem, OregonThe Lord–Schryver firm, founded in 1929 by Elizabeth Lord and Edith Schryver, was the first female-owned landscape design firm in the Northwest.
Through their 40 years of work, the duo designed more than 250 gardens in the Northwest, including several in the Salem area.
Gaiety Hollow was Lord and Schryver’s office, garden and home. It is considered the masterpiece of their life work.
The gardens, which boast seasonal floral displays, are maintained by the Lord and Schryver Conservancy and are open to the public on select days throughout the year. 

7. Deepwood Museum and Gardens

Deepwood Museum and Gardens ~ Salem, Oregon ~ Photo by Ron Cooper​Deepwood was considered one of the most impressive and beautiful homes of its time. The Queen-Anne style home was built in 1894 by Dr. Luke A. Port.
The home sits on a five-acre park and has formal gardens (designed by Lord and Schryver), nature trails, a greenhouse and a carriage house.
Tours of the home are available throughout the year and the grounds are open to the public. 

8. Gaiety Hill-Bush’s Pasture Park Historic District

The Bush House, Deepwood and Gaiety Hollow are not the only historic homes in the neighborhood. Many of the neighboring homes are associated with prominent Salem figures, including Governor LaFayette Grover and Benjamin F. Harding.
The 143-acre historic district also contains the city’s largest concentration of Clarence Smith, a well-known Oregon architect, homes and Lord and Schryver gardens.
The oldest home in the district, the Smith-Fry House, dates back to 1859.
Not all of the structures are open to the public. Please respect the privacy of residents within the neighborhood.

9. Salem Pioneer Cemetery

Salem Pioneer Cemetery, also known as Odd Fellows Rural Cemetery, was first used in the 1850s. At 17 acres, it is the city’s largest historic cemetery, with more than 8,000 burials on record.
Among the buried are prominent Oregon pioneers, who are credited with establishing the state’s first government and the capital city’s educational and social institutions.

10. Oregon State Capitol 

Oregon State Capitol State Park ~ Salem, Oregon ~ Photo by Ron CooperSalem hasn’t always been the state capital; both Oregon City and Corvallis once served as the state’s political center. Until a permanent location was decided on, the state went without a capitol building for 21 years.
After Salem’s first two state capitol buildings burned down, construction on the present-day capital building began in 1936. Completed two years later, the marble building is an example of Modernist Art Deco design.
Atop the capitol stands a 23-foot, bronze pioneer statue, which represents the independent spirit of Oregonians. It can be seen from miles away.
The grounds surrounding the capitol building have been designated as a state park. The park features dozens of statues and monuments that commemorate the state’s history.
Take a self-guided walking tour of the capitol and grounds or opt for a guided historical tour of the building and tower. 

11. Willamette University 

Willamette University ~ Salem, OregonFounded in 1842, Willamette University is the oldest higher education institution west of the Rocky Mountains. It is credited with establishing the first law school and school of medicine in the Pacific Northwest.
Although many of the buildings are not open to the public, there are several historic structures on campus that can be viewed from the outside.
Built in 1903, Gatke Hall once served as Salem’s post office. It was moved to its current campus location in 1938.
The oldest remaining building on campus, Waller Hall, opened in 1867. Originally known as University Hall, the building housed the entire school in its early days. Fire has ripped through the building two times, with the interior being rebuilt each time.

12. Willamette Heritage Center 

Willamette Heritage Center ~ Salem, Oregon ~ Photo by Ron CooperFourteen historic structures are located on the Willamette Heritage Center’s five-acre campus.
The Thomas Kay Woolen Mill, a National Park Service Designated Treasure, opened on the campus in 1889. The current mill building was built in 1896, after a fire destroyed the original mill.
After decades of producing flannels, blankets, tweeds and cassimere, the mill closed in 1962. It remains one of the only plants capable of demonstrating an entire manufacturing process by direct-drive water power in the United States.
Several other early settlement buildings, including two of the oldest standing wooden frame houses in the Pacific Northwest, have been moved to the campus.
The buildings have permanent and changing exhibits, learning centers and event spaces. Self-guided tours are available six days a week. 

13. Salem Southern Pacific Railroad Station

Salem Southern Pacific Railroad Station ~ Salem, OregonBuilt in 1918 for the Southern Pacific Railroad, Salem Station has been in continuous use since its completion. The station’s 1889 baggage depot also still stands on the property.
The station served as a venue for several significant historical events, including political stops by Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt, a temporary morgue for deceased World War II servicemen and a gathering station for Japanese-American families sent to internment camps.
The station continues to be used today as a train depot for Amtrak passenger trains

14. Oregon State Hospital

Oregon State Hospital Museum of Mental Health ~ Salem, OregonKnown in the 19th century as the Oregon Insane Asylum, the Oregon State Hospital is the oldest mental health hospital in the state. It sits on a 130-acre campus right outside of downtown Salem.
The hospital is still in operation today. The public can tour the hospital’s museum of mental health to hear the stories of the hospital and the people who lived and worked there.
In pop culture, the hospital was made famous in the film “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” The Academy Award-winning movie was filmed at the hospital and featured several staff members and patients.

15. Court-Chemeketa Historic District

Just shy of 40 acres, the Court-Chemeketa Historic District is located east of downtown Salem.
Many of the neighborhood’s homes were built from 1860-1937 and represent a variety of architectural styles, including Colonial variations, Gothic Revival and English Cottage.
While the homes in this area are not open to the public, you can still admire the architectural styles of the homes on a walk through the neighborhood. Please respect the privacy of the residents.