Although Southern Oregon has a wealth of natural beauty to share with us, one of her special places is Lithia Park. This was one of the first places my family and I discovered upon moving here in June 2004, as we attended the City of Ashland's 4th of July Parade, enjoying the many different food, art and craft booths lining the entrance drive to the Park on this special day. We enjoy this park so much, every person who comes to visit us is brought here to experience the glory this National Historic Reserve has to offer, strolling through the many paths picking Mulberries and Blackberries, putting their feet in Ashland Creek, laying on the grass deciphering cloud formations, feeding the ducks, viewing the incredible landscape and wildlife that present themselves.
In the heart of downtown sits Lithia Park, Ashland's crown jewel. Lithia Park started as an 8-acre gathering spot, growing to what is now a 93-acre gem that has gorgeous lawns good for picnics, tennis courts, a sand-pit volleyball court, fabulous landscaping and playground equipment including some of the best swings in Southern Oregon. The park follows Ashland Creek through undeveloped woodlands, and includes a Japanese garden, two duck ponds, a formal rose garden, groves of sycamore trees and a number of secluded spots great for enjoying a good book or a romantic snuggle.
Lithia Park's History
Ashland started out in the 1800's with a water-powered sawmill and a flour mill which stood on the banks of Ashland Creek. This mill occupied what is now the entrance to Lithia Park. The plaza at the entrance was a popular gathering spot for early settlers. These early settlers had ties to Ashland County, Ohio and Ashland, Kentucky, hence the town's name, which became official in 1855 when the Ashland Mills Post Office opened.
From 1859 to 1900, the city grew from 50 to 3,000 people, growing faster than any town South of Portland, and was the largest in Jackson County. Hotels, schools, churches and mills sprang up throughout the 1870's and 1880's. Natural spring water, discovered a few miles east of Ashland, was being piped into town and bubbled out of the three new fountains in the park. This water has a high concentration of lithium and is said to have been used by the Native Americans to care for the sick and the elderly.
The Chautauqua Association brought entertainment to Southern Oregon in 1892, building a domed building for their shows whose walls now surround the world famous Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Elizabethan Theater. Visitors came from miles around in the summers to participate in various attractions offered, camping in what has since become Lithia Park. In 1935, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival began with a three-day summer festival of Shakespearean plays under founding director Angus Bowmer.
Today, 42 of Lithia Park's 93 acres are listed in the National Historic Register. Visitors approaching Lithia Park may first see the towering Tree of Heaven at the Plaza entrance, which according to legend was planted in the 19th century by Abel Helman's Chinese cook. In 1908 with the urging of the Women's Civic Improvement Club, the people of Ashland passed a measure to include park maintenance in the City Charter.
In 1909 the old flour mill was torn down, a park board was elected, and additional acres bordering Ashland Creek were acquired. By 1910 the lower duck pond and waterfall that feeds it were constructed, while Bert Greer, an ambitious newspaper editor conceived the idea of making Ashland a world-famous spa capitalizing on the Lithia Springs of the area. The development of today's park began in 1914 with the hiring of John McLaren as the landscape architect. John McLaren also designed San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. Lithia Park embodies the distinctive characteristics of park design in the tradition of Frederick Law Olmsted. McLaren's landscape plan for Lithia Park was organic in layout, following the natural canyon of the water course. The plantings were naturalistic to the extent that native alders, oaks, conifers and madrones were incorporated, but other plants, such as willows, maples, sycamores, and numerous ornamental varieties were introduced and selected for hardiness, form and color.
Lithia Park is located at 59 Winburn Way and is open to the public. Trail guides and other booklets about the park can be obtained from the park office of Ashland Parks and Rec. Dept., open Monday-Friday 8:00am to 5:00pm, and free performances are frequently offered at the Butler Band Shell. For performance schedules and further information call 541-488-5340 or visit the Ashland City Band's website. The Ashland Chamber of Commerce offers nature walks Sundays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at 10:00am; call 541-482-3486 to confirm tours.