The Intersection of Church and State

It’s one of the most-photographed spots in Salem, but likely one that even ardent Salemites would be hard-pressed to identify in a snapshot.

You can find it on stock photo websites and on dozens of blogs and random corners of the internet, but unlike the Gold Man, the Capitol or the cherry blossoms, it doesn’t stick out or draw crowds.

Welcome to the intersection of Church and State (streets).

The juxtaposition of the two street signs creates a mildly amusing bit of constitutional humor, but otherwise doesn’t attract much attention beyond photographers.

Salem is not the only city with this intersection. It isn’t even the only state capital.

You can find the two signs together in Redlands, Calif.; Knoxville, Tenn.; Doylestown, Penn.; Champaign, Ill.; and the capital of New Hampshire, Concord.

But Salem’s are easy to spot online. The signs jut away from each other instead of sitting one on top of the other. Church Street is labeled “SE” and falls in the 100 block. State is 500 or 600.

Salem ended up with its oddly-named intersection more or less by accident.

According to Lewis Judson’s “Street Names of Salem” in the 1959 edition of the Marion County Historical Society journal, Salem’s streets weren’t named until just before the city’s initial plat was filed in 1850.

Judson didn’t comment on Church Street, but he seemed to be amused by the origins of State and another thoroughfare: Capitol.

“Doctor [William Holden] Wilson and the trustees of the Oregon Institute must have consulted a ‘crystal ball’ or made good use of a horoscope when they named State and Capitol streets, as Salem was not the capital of Oregon when those names were chosen,” Judson wrote.

Judson noted State Street originally was called Waller’s Lane, because Alvin F. Waller — an Oregon missionary and namesake of Waller Hall at Willamette — lived on the north side of the street.

Church Street had a little more basis in fact, with the original building of the First United Methodist Church going up in 1851. The current building, which opened in 1871 and acquired the steeple in 1878, still occupies the southeast corner of the intersection.

“It was a little wooden church when the population of Salem was less than 3,000,” said Jean Hand, who works in the archives department at the church. “They outgrew it, so they rode it on logs to where the [Wells Fargo] bank is and started building a new church.”

Hand said that while the church gets visitors investigating the history of the building, she’s never seen anyone stop to document the signs.

Whether the namers of the streets knew or cared about what they created is difficult to determine.

The phrase “separation of church and state” was coined by the time the Salem streets officially were named in 1850. Its first use most often is traced to a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1802 to the Danbury Baptist Association, though many sources will point out it isn’t in the constitution itself, and the phrase wasn’t cited by the Supreme Court until 1878.

A series of Supreme Court cases beginning in 1947 brought more attention to the specific phrase “separation of church and state,” and the decades since then have made it even more political.

While Salem’s founders couldn’t have known that in naming the city’s streets they were creating future Flickr bait — and headers for any blog post about religion in politics — they provided another small Salem quirk that has lasted more than 150 years.


Due to overwhelming* public pressure, I wanted to add a note here about another quirk in Salem’s street naming history, the intersection of Capitol and Gaines — an amusing but unintended reminder of the capital gains of the investment world.

While we’ve already established Capitol was named almost at random, Gaines has a very specific (and unique) back story in the context of Salem street names.

John Pollard Gaines was born in Virginia in 1795 and volunteered in the War of 1812 and the Mexican-American War in 1846. He also served as a congressman for Kentucky from 1847-49.

During the second conflict he was taken prisoner, but escaped and rejoined another unit. After the war, president Zachary Taylor appointed Gaines governor of the Oregon Territory as a reward, and Gaines made his way to Salem in 1850.

Again, from Lewis Judson’s “Street Names of Salem”:

“[Gaines] proved up on 320 acres in the Prospect Hill Section of the Red Hills and imported some of the first, if not the first, purebred cattle brought to the Northwest. He died in 1857, and is the only Governor of Oregon to have a Salem street named for him.”

After his death, Gaines was buried in the Salem Pioneer Cemetery. His headstone reads, “Let me Go, for the Day Breaketh.”

*Meaning two Facebook comments.

Chris Hagan is a co-editor of Salem Is and often takes up research projects on subjects with a frustratingly meager historical record.