Salem’s Minto-Brown Island Park is one of the city’s most treasured and historic places, and this sprawling natural oasis serves as a living testament to the region’s past and present. Once mid-1800s farmland, the 1,200 lush, open, and wooded areas make up what is now the biggest park in all of Salem, having transformed into a vibrant natural area that offers a unique blend of recreational activities, historical discovery, and environmental appreciation. It’s not just any old park; it is THE park for the people of Salem, and the history behind its metamorphosis is just as captivating as its beauty.

Minto-Brown Island Park in Salem
Minto-Brown Island Park is named partly after John Minto. Photo courtesy: Willamette Heritage Collection

Minto-Brown Island Park Begins Life as an Island Farm in the 19th Century

The story of Minto-Brown Island Park begins with the two men who initially settled the land, Isaac “Whiskey” Brown and John Minto. Brown first homesteaded the island on the west bank of the Willamette River near present Salem in 1857, establishing his home of Brown’s Island, using the land for livestock grazing and raising tobacco.

Ten years later, an English immigrant and 1844 Oregon Trail traveler, John Minto, purchased the land on the east bank of the island, transforming it into productive farmland. This would be just another one of many hats Minto would wear during his lifetime, including that of a coal miner, militiaman, logger, 49er, politician, writer, historian, nemesis of John Muir, discoverer of Minto Pass, and perhaps most important role as the park’s story, rancher and farmer.

These island farms would thrive for both gentlemen until a terrible flood that would forever change the course of the Willamette River. As a result, the farm islands were no longer separate or true islands at all. After the flood, both men cleared their lands, successfully converting the acreage into thriving farmland.

Minto-Brown Island Park in Salem
John Minto had success on the land at Minto-Brown Island Park as a hop rancher, with these hop yards covering the land. Photo courtesy: Willamette Heritage Collection

Historic Farmlands Transform into a Bountiful Park in Salem

Minto and his family successfully cultivated a thriving hop ranch, which his sons John, Harry, and Douglas took over upon his death in 1915. The ranch operated under the new name of the Minto Brothers. Eventually, Douglas bought out his brother’s shares in 1920, with the hop yard having a few more seasons thereafter until the property was ultimately sold by Douglas’ son and daughter-in-law to the Oregon Pulp and Paper Corporation in 1946.

Regretfully, this decision to sell would allow the 1950s riverfront to be used as a dumping ground for industrial waste, a driving force behind the company’s land purchase. It was later sold to the Boise Cascade in 1962, which allowed the process to continue into the 1970s.

Around this time, as environmental protection concerns began to sweep across the nation, and that same year, much of the land that had previously been Isaac Brown’s farmstead and beyond had been given over to the city so that 899 acres of the former farmland could be established into a city park in 1970. Extensive renovation projects were soon underway to combat prior pollution and preserve the land’s enduring legacy.

Minto-Brown Island Park in Salem
Many amazing creatures call the Conservation Area home at Minto-Brown Island Park. Photo courtesy: TrailLink

The City of Salem Creates a Conservation Area at Minto-Brown Island Park

It wouldn’t be until 2013 that the City of Salem would finally purchase the remaining land that had once been Minto’s property from the Boise Cascade Corporation. By this point, the primary acreage had already been improved and now featured a number of trails, fishing docks, picnic tables and shelters, restrooms, and playground equipment for kiddos.

The 307-acre area acquired in the purchase was thus transformed into a “Conservation Area” through the Willamette Wildlife Mitigation Program, administered by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW). Funding for the acquisition was provided by the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA). This means that both BPA and ODFW hold a conservation easement on the property, and according to this easement, the area is to be managed as a fish and wildlife habitat, with limited trail access allowed for passive recreation.

With these stipulations in place, the park has since found itself serving as a community hub for outdoor activities in Salem and as a waterfowl and wildlife sanctuary. Though the stipulations of the easement limit physical activity within these 300 acres of the park, several observation platforms have been placed along the sloughs, giving residents a chance to see animals in the park. Several creatures call the park home, including blue herons, ospreys, squirrels, and rabbits, among many different wetland creatures.

Minto-Brown Island Park in Salem
Fishing docks are just one of several amenities for visitors at Minto-Brown Island Park. Photo courtesy: City of Salem Parks Volunteers

Minto-Brown Island Park Becomes a Green Oasis for the City of Salem

Today, Minto-Brown Island Park is one of Salem’s favorite local gathering places, with a plethora of paths just waiting to be explored and ample opportunity to get lost in recreational fun and activities.

Twenty-nine miles of trail make up nine loops in the park that are perfect for walking, jogging, or biking from one end of the park to the other. A 30-acre, designated off-leash dog area has also been added within the park, providing plenty of room for pampered pooches to roam, play, and visit with their very best doggo friends. The Riverfront Park is also accessible from Manito-Brown Island Park through a pedestrian and bicycle bridge known as the Peter Courtney Minto Island Bicycle and Pedestrian Bridge. The bridge is considered the last critical link to connect historic downtown Salem’s three riverfront parks.

Minto-Brown Island Park in Salem
Help maps guide travelers in Minto-Brown Island Park. Photo courtesy: City of Salem

From its humble beginnings as simple farmland for early settlers to its vibrant transformation as Salem’s largest park, the Minto-Brown Island Park has blossomed into the city’s crown jewel. Where crops once flourished, a haven for recreation now thrives in this natural oasis, offering a unique blend of historical intrigue and recreational activity, solidifying its place as a beloved public space for generations to come.

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