A Brief History of Salem, Virginia

Salem’s story–first explored by Europeans 64 years after Jamestown, settled in the 1700s, and developed as a town serving travelers along the Great Road westward in 1802–is unique to a specific locality, but it is also the history of a community within the context of state, national, and world events. The narrative Salem City has to tell is that of every American city touched by wars, economic upheavals, and civic challenges–as well as by a few healing, helping hands along the way. The way Salem and its residents faced the world in which they have found themselves over the years makes their history distinctive, and worth a closer look.

Contact with Europeans changed the Native Americans’ lives drastically. In addition to introducing the native population to new technology, colonists also brought with them diseases such as smallpox and influenza which killed a significant number of Indians. Those who survived often joined other tribes to the north and south. Attacks by the neighboring Iroquois drove the Toteros and their allies, the Saponis, out of their villages. By the early 1700s, few Native American tribes remained in the region.

Skirmishes between settlers and Native Americans heightened during the last half of the 18th century. Fort Lewis, named in honor of Andrew Lewis, was constructed to the west of what became Salem in 1752 in order to protect area settlers. Andrew Lewis distinguished himself in the French and Indian War, serving under George Washington in 1754 at Fort Necessity.

Lewis later led Virginia troops against the Confederacy of Indian Nations in the Battle of Point Pleasant in 1774, which was a precursor to the Revolutionary War. During the Revolution, Lewis drove Lord Dunmore, the last British Governor, out of Virginia.

After the American Revolution, Salem began to make the transition from an insular settlement into an emerging town. In 1800, General Lewis’s son William sold to his neighbor James Simpson a thirty-one acre tract of land for $100. At this time, fewer than twenty-five families inhabited the area between the Roanoke River and Fort Lewis Mountain, but Simpson subdivided the land he bought from William Lewis into purchasable lots on each side of the area’s main roadway, and Salem became a town in 1802. Through the sale of those lots, Salem quickly grew into a prosperous community serving travelers as they headed west along the Great Road. In the first decades of the 1800s, local businesses included taverns, stables, blacksmith shops, wagon and buggy repair facilities, groceries, clothing stores, a horse racing track, and a canal navigation company.

With the impending creation of Roanoke County in 1838, Salem citizens saw the opportunity to benefit from becoming the Roanoke County seat. John McCauley, a resident of Salem who had served in the House of Delegates, was commissioned by the town to lobby the legislature in Richmond, and his efforts were successful. Three months after Salem obtained county seat status, eighteen justices commissioned by Governor David Campbell gathered at Faris’ Tavern (where Salem Presbyterian Church now stands) to set the governmental machinery in motion. Three days later, the County Court convened and swore in six lawyers to practice in the new territory.

In 1847, the Virginia Collegiate Institute (later renamed Roanoke College) moved from Augusta County to Salem in a single wagon. The Lutheran school, drawn to the community due to its central location, soon grew into a thriving academy for young men. In fact, Roanoke was one of the few colleges in the south which operated throughout the Civil War, with a home guard troop of students drilling weekly on the campus lawn.

While hardships and losses during the Civil War were many, Salem managed to avoid complete devastation. Two Union attacks on the town resulted in the destruction of railroad lines, depots, barns, storehouses, horses, and supplies –but in relatively few deaths. Salem’s most active engagement occurred on June 21, 1864 as retreating Federal forces under Major General David Hunter met up with Confederate cavalry under Brigadier General John McCausland at the Battle of Hanging Rock. Both sides suffered casualties: the North lost about 30 men (killed, wounded, and captured) and 10 pieces of artillery; the South lost a fraction of that amount.

The locally organized Salem Flying Artillery fought for the South in a number of battles during the Civil War, including Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Spotsylvania Court House and Cold Harbor. When the war ended with Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, the Salem Flying Artillery is recorded as having fired the final Confederate shot.

Following the Civil War, Salem faced a period of great civic change. In addition to repairing streets and bridges after years of neglect, the town worked to establish free public schools for both white and black children. Electricity, a public waterworks, and telephone lines were all advancements which came to Salem in the 1870s and 1880s and helped boost growth through the next decade.

During World War I, Salem won national prominence as one of the few towns in the country in which every child owned at least one War Saving Stamp. Due to fuel shortages, churches suspended Sunday night services, but the mayor called on residents to pray silently at the sound of church and fire bells during a lights-off moment at nine o’clock each night. Before the praying stopped, 15 Salem men were killed in World War I.

After the War, Salem adopted a council-manager form of government–leading to an increased emphasis on the improvement of public works. Salem paved its streets with concrete in order to accommodate the increased automobile traffic through town. New business buildings, including Salem’s first federal post office, appeared on Main Street. Older stores were renovated and decked out with modernized fronts. Lakeside Amusement Park opened its “concrete lake” swimming pool on the outskirts of town; rides and a roller coaster were added by 1923. The park was a favorite spot in the Roanoke Valley for over 60 years.

This burst of growth, however, was stunted by the Great Depression. Economic setbacks due to the stock market crash were felt as early as 1930 when Salem workers lost paychecks during a two-week shutdown of the Norfolk and Western railroad shops. Welfare recipients in Roanoke County increased from 263 families to 1,407 families in a matter of months. In response, a predecessor to the Chamber of Commerce was formed on a voluntary basis to seek new industries and stimulate trade. Its efforts, along with the arrival of the Veteran’s Hospital, gave Salem’s economy enough strength to pull itself out of the worst years of the depression and face the approaching challenges of World War II.

Of the hundreds sent into battle, 43 Salem men died in the war. Those who returned found a different hometown than the one they left. Salem’s new wave of economic and municipal development carried the town and its citizens into the coming years.

With the annexation of South Salem in 1953 and an eastern tract in 1960, Salem was the state’s largest “town” with a population of 16,058. On December 31, 1967, the Town of Salem officially became Salem City at midnight. Population: 22,500.

In the fifty years since its birth, Salem City has grown considerably, even as it maintains an old-fashioned, small-town community feel. The opening of the Salem Civic Center in 1967, Lewis-Gale Hospital in 1972, Salem High School in 1977, Salem Stadium in 1985, the Salem Museum in 1992, Memorial Stadium in 1995, and the Salem Visitor’s Center in 1997–all have contributed to making Salem a thriving, progressive city.

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