Salem has had an abundance of waterways from its earliest
days. It is believed that in ancient times the North Santiam
River emptied into the Willamette River by flowing through
what is now downtown Salem rather than flowing south of the
city as it does today.
Mill Creek, perhaps Salem's best known creek, originates in
the hills on the south edge of Silver Falls State Park. In
the period 1840 to 1841 missionaries built Salem's first grist
and saw mill along this waterway. Unfortunately, the mill
was frequently idle because of the light flow of water in
In 1855 this situation was rectified when settlers cut through
the gravel bar at Stayton, east of Salem, thus bringing Santiam
River water into Mill Creek. It is said there was great celebration
at the newly-established Willamette Woolen Mill when the first
surge of water passed. (Today this man-made canal is known
as the Salem Ditch.)
In approximately 1864 a dam was built in the vicinity of present
day State and 20th Streets; it was reconstructed in about
1915. At Waller Dam (so named because the land was donated
by Reverend A.L. Waller) Mill Creek splits into "the
millrace" and North Mill Creek. The millrace runs along
Ferry Street, (where it once powered the Thomas Kay Woolen
Mill) and through the campus of Willamette University.
The millrace, a man-made channel, was originally constructed
in 1864 for power generation. Over the years it has been utilized
by a lumber mill, Boise Cascade, an oil company, and a power
North Mill Creek winds its way in a generally northwesterly
direction through Salem until it empties into the Willamette
River near the foot of "D" Street NE.
Shelton Ditch, also a man-made canal, was built in the mid-1800's.
It flows from Mill Creek east of Airport Road, through a corner
of the Main Post Office property, and through the southern
edge of downtown Salem. Shelton Ditch continues along the
north side of Pringle Park before merging with Pringle Creek
to form South Mill Creek.
Pringle Creek is formed from several smaller streams. It flows
between Bush's Pasture Park and historic Deepwood estate and
along the south side of Pringle Park. Each Spring a stretch
of this creek displays wild blooming camas blossoms used by
Native Americans and pioneers as a source of food.
Other creeks in Salem include Clark Creek, Jory Creek, Battle
Creek, Croisan Creek, and Claggett Creek. Glen Creek and Brush
Creek flow through West Salem.
Compiled and written by Dick Lutz.
This essay is based on an article by Joan Marie "Toni"
Salzmann, published in volume 14 of Historic Marion, a publication
of the Marion County Historical Society.