Most locals know the sprawling site of the new headquarters for the Salem Police Department as a former car dealership. But for generations, the area was a residential neighborhood. In the mid-20th century, the area began to be used for commercial and industrial purposes.
Last summer, a team of archaeologists spent about three weeks on the site, located just north of downtown Salem. The researchers focused their work on 16 one-meter-by-one-meter squares. “This is just a small snapshot.” said Kimberli Fitzgerald, the Historic Preservation Officer for the City of Salem. “I’m sure if the archaeologists had their way, we would have been out there doing twice as many units and could have collected a lot more.”
The presence of homes and apartments at the location meant archeologists turned up remnants of household goods, such dish fragments and broken bottles. Fitzgerald said you can learn a lot from stuff that might, at first glance, look like part of someone’s trash. “They tell us a lot about what the people did on the site and the kinds of things that they used, everyday items that I’m sure if they saw them in a museum would be surprised,” she said.
The archaeological dig was factored into the construction timeline, said Salem Assistant City Engineer Allen Dannen, who is serving as project manager for the police station build. Still, Dannen said there was some uncertainty about how long the historic preservation efforts would take, in the event that something unexpected turned up. “It’s the kind of thing that makes project managers nervous, because you don’t know what’s going to happen and how much time it’s going to take,” he said.
Some Native American artifacts were uncovered, including fragments of glass and ceramic that were made into tools such as knives or arrowheads. Fitzgerald said this suggests the material dates from the 1840’s, when Christian missionary Jason Lee established a mission just across Mill Creek from the present-day construction site of the new police station.
Not everything is being saved. Fitzgerald said archaeologists found a lot of building materials from the houses that once stood on the site, such as brick, wood and nails. That’s likely headed to the rubbish heap. “We keep things that we can learn from,” said Fitzgerald. “They already have examples of building materials and technology from that period.” And items that are less than 75 years old are not considered historic, according to Oregon state law.
Only a small fraction of the artifacts unearthed are on display at the Willamette Heritage Center, in what the museum is calling a short-term “pop-up exhibit.” The collection will eventually be turned over to the University of Oregon’s Museum of Natural and Cultural History for long-term preservation. Fitzgerald hopes some of the objects will find their way back to Salem to be displayed at the new police station, which is projected to open in September, 2020.