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The Creeks of Salem

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 Mill Creek. 

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 generation station.

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.


Mill Creek

Mill Creek in Autumn
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Camas flower

Camas flower
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Willametter River
Willamette River
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