Mill Ends Park:The Smallest Park in the World
I love visiting with my grandma. She has lived in southeast Portland for more than 50 years, and she always has a story to tell. Each story tends to get dropped into conversation without preamble or ceremony, and it was during one of those mundane conversations about work or politics when she let slip that Portland had the smallest park in the world.
My initial response was, “no way.” She assured me that it was true. It was called Mill Ends Park, and it was only two feet across, located in the middle of Front Avenue (one of the busiest streets in Portland, I might add). Now, I had driven down Front Avenue thousands of times in the past, and I had never seen a park in the middle of the street. Even the medians were larger than two feet. I began to wonder if she was having a “senior moment.” But I should know by now never to question Grandma.
So I hopped in my little red car with my brother, who had been with me at the time, and drove to downtown Portland. Sure enough, in the middle of a crosswalk on Front Avenue at SW Taylor Street sat a two-foot square bouquet of flowers. I couldn’t believe I had never noticed it before. After further research at the Oregon Historical Society, I discovered the origin of the park and details on the man who founded it.
Nearly 55 years ago, Oregon Journal editor and columnist Dick Fagen was working in his second-story office, which gave a pleasant view of Front Avenue and the Willamette River beyond. But one day a hole appeared in the concrete dividing the north- and southbound lanes of the street. Apparently, the city had intended to place a light pole at the spot, but the pole never came.
Fagen, who was well-known for his inventiveness and “puckish Irish humor,” grew tired of the ungainly sight and planted a few flowers in the hole. He named the park after the popular column he wrote for the Oregon Journal entitled, “Mill Ends.” (Trivia bit: Mill ends are the irregular, rough pieces of lumber left over at a lumber mill.)
On St. Patrick’s Day in 1948, the park was officially dedicated to the city. Since that time, Portlanders have made many curious contributions to the park including flying saucers, miniature Ferris wheels, statues and a tiny swimming pool for the entertainment of the leprechauns who were rumored to live there. (Leprechaun population at the park has yet to be determined.) Mill End’s Park is still the site of St. Patrick’s Day festivities, picnics and rose planting by the Junior Rose Festival Court.
In his column, Fagen often wrote about the “events” at Mill Ends Park and the clandestine meetings of leprechauns who called the little park home. He often met with his friend, head leprechaun Patrick O’Toole, to discuss management of the park. Fagen even published a heated argument with O’Toole about the 11 o’clock curfew set on all city parks. O’Toole dared the mayor to try to evict him and his followers from Mill Ends and threatened a leprechaun curse on him should he even attempt to do so. (No legal action was taken, and the leprechauns were allowed to stay in the park after hours.)
After learning this amazing bit of Portland history/lore, my brother and I were eager to see Mill Ends Park up close. We hit the crosswalk signal and trotted over to the park in hopes of catching a peek at Patrick O’Toole or any of the other leprechauns, but they were nowhere to be seen. It was then that we realized the park had one minor tourist flaw: There was no crosswalk signal to get back to the sidewalk. My brother and I “visited” the park for a full five minutes while cars whizzed by on either side of us, until the traffic signal changed. We hauled buns to the safety of the sidewalk.
Now that’s what I call a tourist trap.
Other Portland record breakers:
Youngest NBA player: Jermaine O’Neal, for the Portland Trail Blazers (1996-2000), born October 13, 1978
Largest city park in the nation: Forest Park encompassing 5,000 acres
Nation’s largest bookstore: Powell’s Books with more than 1 million volumes
Nation’s largest continually operated open-air craft and food market: Saturday Market (which is also open on Sundays, but who’s complaining?)
Portland has more microbreweries and brew pubs than any other city in the United States (37 and counting as of 1996)
If you want more information about this area you can email the author or check out our North America Insiders page.