From its beginnings, the city of Salem was built above and among waterways that originated in the foothills of the Cascades and flowed through town to the Willamette River. When they first enter city limits, these waters are still more than 200 feet about sea level; by the time they discharge into the Willamette River, they are less than 115 feet above sea level.
The story of Salem’s ‘waterfalls’ is the record of how human beings have channeled that approximately 90’ drop in elevation to manage flooding, allow commerce and create power.
Before it even reaches town, Mill Creek is supplemented by Santiam River water carried in a ditch dug prior to 1860 by early settlers. The purpose of the ditch was to enhance Mill Creek’s natural volume; the creek tended to dry up in the summer, which made it unreliable for the fledgling wool and other mills in developing Salem.
1) Diversion Falls
This falls is located just southwest of the Kettle Chip plant (3125 Kettle Court SE) in a wooded, natural area maintained by the company. Mill Creek divides at a dam.. One section goes northward in a waterway still called Mill Creek; a significant portion goes into Shelton Ditch, which heads nearly straight west. The Works Progress Administration (WPA), built the picturesque dam in the 1930s.
In its flow west through Salem neighborhoods, Shelton Ditch is a straight, man made waterway for the three blocks between 24th and 22nd Streets SE, passing to the south of Lee City Park. This direct route squared it with residential streets, but the creek resumes its historical course at 20th Street SE, rushing west along Mission St, passing near the Railroad Station and under 12th St. SE where it emerges deck side of The Ram.
2) Waller Dam
Up to the north, Mill Creek flows along State St. past the Oregon State Penitentiary. Between State and Ferry Streets, the creek tumbles down Waller Dam, built in 1864 and modified in 1915 – our second waterfall. Waller Dam is best reached through the back parking lot of Muchas Gracias Mexican Food restaurant at 1980 State St.
To the south across the waters, tiny Mill Race Park sports signage about the historical diversion engineered here; while the larger portion of water goes over the dam, the smaller is directed into Mill Race, a narrow 1-mile manmade straightaway originally constructed in 1864 to generate power and pump water for Salem mills and factories.
Mill Creek itself winds sleepily through North Salem, eventually entering the Willamette River just West of Boon’s Treasury near the foot of “D” Street NE.
Along this route, Mill Creek has no falls, but plenty of history, since Jason Lee built Salem’s first sawmill on it in 1840 as part of a Methodist Mission. The Willamette Woolen Mill was built along Mill Creek in the 1850s as well, but an 1874 fire destroyed it.
3) Falls at Willamette U.
Mill Race passes through Willamette Heritage Center, runs through Willamette as a leisurely stream and spills over this appealing waterfall behind WU Law School.
4) Pringle Plaza Falls
Mill Race once again adjusts altitude by means of this waterfall set in Pringle Plaza, at High and Trade St. SE, spilling into a waterway favored by ducks and people alike.
5) Mill Race Falls
One block lower, Mill Race reconnects with Pringle Creek in this waterfall, seen from a developed walking and viewing area off Commercial St. SE just south of Trade St. SE. The combined waterways of Mill Stream and Pringle Creek then dash over rocks and cement pilings below Commercial St. SE and join the Willamette Slough on their way to the Willamette River.
Salem’s waterfalls aren’t Niagaras and they aren’t Silver Falls, but they aren’t meant to be. They tell the history of a practical, working city that managed and directed its water to improve the quality of life for its citizens.