Millrace Park starts at the corner of Liberty Street and Trade Street and runs three city blocks east along Trade Street. Its distinguishing feature is Millrace, a manmade channel that was used for power by the city and local factories starting in the second half of the 19th Century. By the late 1960’s, the factories along Trade Street were abandoned and Millrace was confined to a buried concrete flume. Thankfully, City leaders launched an urban renewal project that in 1973 brought Millrace into the daylight as the star of a small park. (See endnote for complete history.)

From an aerial view, the park’s first segment is shaped like the human body with its arms and legs outstretched in an X. The arms and legs are pathways to and from the park. The body is made up of Millrace, a narrow stream on the east side, which flows through numerous man-made spillways into a sunken pond in the center. Open, concrete platforms are cantilevered over the spillways. A concrete plaza with benches and planters form the pond’s south side.

I walked this segment of Millrace Park on a sunny weekday in July around 3:00 pm. It was quiet, green, and nicely shaded. It was also showing its age. The concrete surfaces are pitted and the edges are eroded. The benches and planters are worn. Many of the trees are at the end of their lives, while a few others are unhealthy. A number of areas are now too shady to support the grass originally planted there.  The bones of a good design, and a link to Salem’s past, make this small park one of Salem’s most promising opportunities for a park renewal.

Treatment Plan

Millrace Park needs to be refreshed rather than extensively renovated or re-conceived.

  1. Similar to Mirror Pond Park, Millrace Park needs extensive weeding to remove invasive plants and other undesirable material.
  2. The trees and shrubs need to be inspected. The dead or dying ones need to removed and replaced. The healthy ones need to be pruned. In the alternative, a new planting scheme can be developed and different plant material can be added as existing unhealthy material is removed.
  3. The banks of Millrace would benefit from flowering plants. There are a variety of native and naturalized plants that would add interest and beauty. I see Japanese iris planted on the banks, but native options include river lupine (Lupinus rivularis) stream violet (viola glabella), and Hall’s aster (Aster hallii).
  4. Replace the existing benches with tables and chairs. Benches are for individuals. Tables are for groups and they encourage lingering.
  5. Remove the planters entirely or replace (or restore to keep that 1970’s look) with new planters. The plant selections should include plants with height. Currently, the planters contain impatiens and geraniums, both of which are visible only if looking straight down on the planter. From a distance, the planters appear empty.
  6. The clipped grass is healthy and appealing in a number of places. There are a several places, particularly areas shaded out by dense tree canopy, where the grass is thin and patchy. In these areas, the grass should be removed and replaced with a ground cover that tolerates shade and is dense enough to keep out weeds. Native options include wild ginger (Asarum caudatum), inside-out flower (Vancouveria hexandra), woodland strawberry, (Frageria vesca), and Oregon wood sorrel (Oxalis Oregana).


“The Millrace is a man-made water channel that was originally constructed for the purpose of power generation. The channel was completed in 1864, taking waIMG_5275ter from Mill Creek near 20th Street and running westerly to discharge in the Willamette River near Trade Street. Early users of Millrace included a lumber mill located at the former Boise Cascade site, a City power generation station just south of this sign and the Thomas Kay Woolen Mill at its present location.

“Currently, the City of Salem takes a small amount to supply Mirror Pond in front of the Civic Center. In the past, Boise Cascade used the water at their former paper-making operation just west of Mirror Pond on Commercial Street.

“Prior to 1972, the area along the south side of Trade Street consisted mainly of old industrial buildings. These were dilapidated structures, including one large building, unusable due to a major fire. In this area, the Millrace was contained in a deteriorated concrete flume flowing beneath the old buildings.

“During the preparation of Central Salem Development Plan in 1971, the City’s urban design consultants saw an opportunity to dramatically improve the deteriorating area. Their idea was to clear the inappropriate industrial buildings and relocate the old Millrace channel. They envisioned the channel being raised to the surface in the form of a meandering channel. The new stream would flow through a lush park with waterfalls, plazas, pathways, and many kinds of plant materials.

“Mitchell-McArthur-Gardner-O’Kane Associates, a Portland, Oregon landscape architectural firm, was then retained by the City of Salem to design and prepare working drawings for the proposed Millrace Park. In early 1973, the construction firm, of Schubert Co., Inc., of Clackamas, Oregon was awarded the construction contract and the work began.

“In the succeeding month, the Schubert Co. contended with major excavation problems and otherwise employed innovative construction techniques in creating the new channel, placing large pipe culverts for the streets under crossings and constructing water bypasses at each end of the new channel.

“On July 2, 1973, the Millrace water was diverted from the old channel to the new channel, completing the operational phase of the project. Subsequently, work on the project included the construction of pathways, plaza area and bridges. The final phase included instillation of lighting, irrigation, lawn areas, many different types of trees and plant materials. The new park was substantially completed in early 1974 at a construction cost of $501,000.

“Today the park is used by strolling pedestrians, picnickers and by downtown employees, while the Millrace continues to supply water for commercial uses.