Portland parks series: The smallest park in the world

Portland parks series: The smallest park in the world
KATU photo.

PORTLAND, Ore. - In downtown Portland there is a teeny tiny little park that tourists from all over the world stop to gaze upon while they're visiting the Rose City.

Every Friday we're putting the spotlight on a local park and for this week's installment we headed to downtown Portland to check out the famous Mill Ends Park.

The park has earned notoriety as the 'World's Smallest Park' (it was actually recognized as such in the Guinness Book of Records in 1971).

For over 60 years, the little park has sat in a median in downtown Portland. For those bustling around trying to get from one place to another, it can be easy to miss. But the park, which is listed in guide books and pinpointed on maps, is a draw for tourists.

Mill Ends Park was created by Dick Fagan, a columnist for The Oregon Journal who noticed a hole in the concrete dividing the lanes of Front Avenue and decided to plant some flowers there to spruce it up. He then named the little spot after the column he wrote.

Another story, a whimsical one, states that Fagan had seen a leprechaun there and grabbed him. As the story goes, Fagan then got one wish granted to him and he asked for a park of his own. But he forgot to specify the size, so the leprechaun gave him a tiny one.

The park was dedicated on St. Patrick's Day in 1948 but didn't become an official city park until St. Patrick's Day in 1976.

Fagan wrote about his little park from time to time in his Mill Ends column.

"I stopped at Mill Ends park the other day, and sad it was to see," he wrote on March 18, 1960. "The golden fence was blackened and bent, and inside was the dead rattle of bright flowers long gone."

Fagan was also known for weaving tales of leprechauns who lived at Mill Ends Park into his column, something his readers enjoyed.

"It was Dennis O'Toole himself, the head leprechaun of Mill Ends park, standing there with his hands on his hips and glaring at me with a baleful look in the eyes of him," Fagan wrote in the same column on March, 18, 1960. Fagan explained that he had been remiss in taking care of the park and his lack of attention had angered the leprechaun.

According to Portland Parks & Recreation, the O'Toole character even complained about the 11 p.m. curfew at city parks and dared the mayor to try to evict the leprechauns from Mill Ends. O'Toole went so far as to threaten a leprechaun curse if it was ever attempted, which of course it was not. To this day, the leprechauns are allowed to stay in the park after hours.

Fagan wrote for the Oregon Journal for three decades. He passed away in 1969 at age 58 and Mill Ends Park, along with its leprechauns, became a part of his legacy to the city.

Over the years, the little park that Fagan created has been one of the quirky curiosities of our town. In 2001, the park even drew the attention of Comedy Central's The Daily Show, which flew all the way here from New York to produce this funny little spoof:

A few years later, in 2006, construction on the Big Pipe Project on Naito Parkway forced crews to move the park. For a year, the park sat across the street in a plain pot without so much as a sign to mark what it was. KATU Reporter Anita Kissee reported on the move back then:

A year later, in 2007, Mill Ends Park was moved back, but not to its original location. It ended up being placed about seven and a half feet from where Dick Fagan had planted it decades before.

Mill Ends Park was returned to the median with great fanfare. The Fagan family, including Dick's 92-year-old wife, Katherine (pictured at right), was at the celebration. She was joined by  Mayor Tom Potter, city officials, the Royal Rosarians and bagpipers.

Throughout the years there have been various flowers and trees and such planted at the little park. Scott Gibson, a Park Technician for Portland Parks & Recreation, is the person charged with maintaining Mill Ends Park. His main focus is on Waterfront Park but he regularly checks on Mill Ends while he's there.

"The arrangement is changed due to circumstances," he told us in an email. "The last tree I planted was run over. I tried a banana tree but someone immediately vandalized it."

Gibson said he doesn't recall a tree surviving more than a year and added that he plants annuals about twice a year. He also said a mysterious visitor helps out every March.

"Someone always plants flowers there around St. Patrick's Day," Gibson wrote. "I suspect leprechauns."