The character of a city changes over time as residents come and go and buildings rise and fall. The physical makeup can shift even as the geography stays the same.
Often these changes are part of a conscious decision, but sometimes cities don’t get to choose how they change.
Recently I learned about Waters Field, an old baseball field that served as the home of the Salem Senators and other teams. The original spot for the field isn’t too far from where I live, and I was fascinated by the idea of a baseball stadium nearby, especially considering what’s there now (keep reading and you’ll find out, too).
Unfortunately, for me anyway, Waters Field burned down in 1966, forever changing the face of the neighborhood.
That got me looking through other fires in Salem history, and how those events altered the makeup of the city we now live in. Below are a selection of Salem’s biggest and most memorable fires, and a look at what has replaced the structure that used to call that geography home. Drag the arrows on each photo back and forth to see the historical fire and what’s taken its place.
This is by no means an exhaustive history of Salem fires — the city has had many — so let us know if we left out any that would be good for a part two.
Oregon State Capitol
Aftermath of Oregon State Capitol fire in Salem, Oregon, 1935. Ben Maxwell, Salem Public Library Historic Photograph Collections, Salem Public Library, Salem, Oregon.
Fire Date: April 25, 1935
Location: 900 Court St. NE
Now: Oregon State Capitol Any list of Salem fires has to start with the Oregon State Capitol.
Oregon’s legislative home has been destroyed twice by fire, first in 1855. The picture above came from the second fire, which occurred April 25, 1935. At that time the building was modeled after the U.S. Capitol, with columns and a curved copper dome. The structure was a total loss — the new Capitol eventually cost $2.5 million — but the only casualty was Floyd McMullen, a Willamette University student and volunteer firefighter. While it was determined the fire started in the basement (smoke was seen coming out of an elevator shaft), no specific cause was found. There are many great stories from that night, but there were also reports in the Oregon Statesman of young looters stealing guns as the building burned, and they weren’t the only ones looking to make a buck in the aftermath of the fire. The paper took the opportunity to remind readers:
Former Residents Want This News: It’s tragic news, the burning of the capitol, but former Salem residents will want the detailed story. Extra copies of Friday and Saturday papers available, 5c each.
Flames roar out of the wooden structure consuming Waters Field in Salem, Oregon, 1966. Salem Public Library Historic Photograph Collections, Salem Public Library, Salem, Oregon.
Fire Date: Nov. 11, 1966
Location: 25th and Mission streets SE
Now: U.S. Post Office
Salem got its first professional baseball team in 1940 when tobacco and candy wholesaler George Waters purchased a team from Bellingham, Wash., and renamed them the Senators. The team needed a home, so Waters spent $65,000 and had a field built at 25th and Turner (now Mission) streets. Nearly 5,000 turned out for the first game. Later that first season, legendary Oregon Statesman sports editor Al Lightner was married there. The team became affiliated with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1961, but folded in 1965 because of financial difficulties. Waters Field was abandoned and condemned, though local kids continued to play in the grandstands as leaves and trash began to pile up. A fire was reported at 9:20 p.m. on the evening of Nov. 11, 1966, and firefighters told the Oregon Statesman the structure was gone by the time they showed up. Salem realtors Grabenhorst Bros. had purchased the grounds for $90,000 shortly before the fire, but the field itself was considered worthless.
Capitol Lumber Co.
Dewey Johnson, employee of the burnt Capitol Lumber Co. in Salem, Oregon, 1968. Salem Public Library Historic Photograph Collections, Salem Public Library, Salem, Oregon.
Fire Date: July 8, 1968
Location: 2860 Cherry Ave. NE
Now: Cascade Warehouse (near Home Depot)
This one is included almost as much for the symbolism as the actual blaze, which itself was impressive. On the night of July 8, 1968, flames could be seen at the Capitol Lumber Co., Salem’s last lumber mill and the site of another fire three years earlier. The fire destroyed the mill, caused around $300,000 worth of damage and put nearly 40 workers out of jobs. Flames reportedly reached 200 feet high.
Oregon State Fairgrounds
Smoke fills the sky over burning buildings at Oregon State Fairgrounds in Salem, Oregon, 1967. Statesman Journal Newspaper, Salem Public Library archives.
Fire Date: July 31, 1967
Location: 17th and Sunnyview Road NE
Now: Oregon State Fairgrounds
Just 26 days before the opening of the 1967 Oregon State Fair, a fire destroyed two buildings, taking with it about 40 percent of the exhibition space. Fair Manager Robert Stevens told the Oregon Statesman he saw a fireball shoot out the windows of the Commercial Building and jump to the Natural Resources Building. “Just thank Almighty God it wasn’t during the fair,” he told the paper. The state fair board met that night and voted to continue with the fair, using tents to house exhibits. A 28-year-old patient at the Fairview Training Center was charged with starting the blaze, but pleaded not guilty by insanity.
Guardian Building fire, State and Liberty, Salem, Oregon, 1947. Ben Maxwell, Salem Public Library Historic Photograph Collections, Salem Public Library, Salem, Oregon.
Fire Date: Nov. 3, 1947
Location: State Street and Liberty Street SE
Now: Key Bank
The Guardian Building was the site of one of the largest downtown fires in Salem history, which caused $500,000 in damage and displaced about 30 businesses (including Grabenhorst Bros. Realtors — see the Waters Field entry above for more about them). The blaze was discovered around 7 a.m. after starting in a light well shaft. The site is now occupied by Key Bank, fitting since it was originally home to the Salem Bank of Commerce. The Guardian Building was the design of one of Salem’s most prolific architects, Fred Legg, whose work was most recently profiled by Capital Taps. In addition to the Guardian, Legg was responsible for Lausanne Hall at Willamette University (Legg was an alumnus), the current home of the Book Bin and a number of Salem schools, including Englewood, Richmond and the original Salem High School.
Firemen pour water on the smoking remains of the Marion Hotel in Salem, Oregon, 1971. Statesman Journal Newspaper, Salem Public Library archives.
Fire Date: Nov. 12, 1971
Location: Ferry and Commercial streets SE
Now: Grand Hotel and Salem Conference Center
Salem has a full history of hotel fires, with this being the seventh. On Dec. 26, 1970, the Marion Hotel celebrated its centennial, tracing its lineage back to the Chemeketa House, built in 1870. Unfortunately, the building never made it to 101. A maintenance worker discovered smoke in an alley outside the hotel kitchen early the morning of Nov. 12, 1971, and quickly the building was gutted by fire. Luckily many of the rooms were empty and there were no deaths, though many guests lost everything they had brought. Another smaller hotel was built on the site but closed around 1999, before the Grand Hotel and Salem Conference Center were built in 2005.
Chris Hagan is a co-editor of Salem Is. He would love to be able to walk to a professional baseball game in his neighborhood.