Salem, a mere clearing in the woods when settlers began the job of establishing a seat for the newly-formed Washington County, was to grow through the years as a center of industry, commerce, agriculture, education and a caring community that continues to provide a safe haven to thousands of residents who are proud to call it home.
William Lindley, a land surveyor who had already built a cabin just south of Blue River, hosted a group or men who were sent to pick a site for the town. His expertise helped them decide on the location of present day Salem. While meeting with them and during discussion for a town name, Mrs. Lindley suggested Salem, as that had been the name of the Lindley’s hometown in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Her suggestion was accepted.
In a short time word had spread about the new town. Pioneers crossed the Ohio River and made their way along buffalo and deer trails to the accumulation of cabins and sheds that were popping up around an early form of the present day town square.
Salem officially came to be in 1814. It was here that local government ruled a county that included parts of Orange, Scott, Jackson and a corner of Lawrence counties. Later the county was reduced in land area to its present size.
For much of its existence, the center piece for Salem’s town square has been the county courthouse. The first, built on pillars, gaining it the nickname “Stilted Castle of Justice,” opened in 1816, but by 1824 was deemed unsubstantial and was ordered replaced. The present day courthouse -- the third at that location -- opened in 1888, a spectacular structure that today stands as one of the crown jewels among Indiana’s 92 courthouses.
Salem grew rapidly, thriving on agriculture, and the products of its mills and tanneries.
By the mid-1840s, frustrated by efforts to ship goods and to travel on narrow, muddy trails, businessmen proposed establishing a railroad between Salem and the Ohio River. In 1847, meeting with New Albany businessmen at New Providence, now Borden, they organized the New Albany & Salem Rail Road. January 14, 1851, the first train arrived in Salem, marking the completion of the line and providing a major link for Salem to the outside world.
Ambitious organizers decided to continue railroad construction all the way to Lake Michigan, accomplishing this goal by 1854. Later the railroad would become the Monon Railroad, serving much of the state of Indiana.
In the mid- to late-1800s, Salem gained a reputation as a center for education, drawing young scholars from throughout southern Indiana to its high schools and colleges.
Among its most important contributions to the state, nation and, in some cases, the world, were individuals who became leaders in education, business, industry, medicine, government, the military and life in general.
The town attracted much attention as home to such notables as John Milton Hay, who became personal secretary to President Abraham Lincoln and twice U.S. secretary of state under Presidents McKinley and Roosevelt; several governors, a U.S. Senator and people of vision such as Lee W. Sinclair, who built the world-acclaimed West Baden Springs Hotel in 1901.
Throughout its history, the town has thrived on the abundance of timber available in the area. Several major manufacturers, including Smith Cabinet Company, for years the county’s largest employer, and O.P. Link Handle Company, that long held the distinction of being the world’s largest producer of wooden handles for tools, relied on timber from the area.
Following World War II there was more emphasis on other types of products, plastics and textiles, paving the way for additional industrial growth.
While agriculture continues to be a major factor in the area’s economy, the diverse selection of industry now calling Washington County home continues to provide residents with steady employment.
As a city, Salem has grown and thrived, today boasting excellent schools, major employers, a strong business climate, museums, housing developments, parks, playgrounds and other facilities that provide for the leisure activities of all ages. Excellent highways offer easy access to metropolitan areas.
For additional information on the history and residents of Salem and Washington County, Indiana please visit the Stevens Memorial Museum located on the grounds of the John Hay Center in Salem, Indiana.