Narration to 1940 silent film “Willamette River Pollution”

[Originally published on my blog Historical Threads on Oct. 11, 2010. This version has been refined & corrected, where necessary.]

I recently received an email query from someone researching Willamette River pollution about the location and content of the narration to William J. Smith’s 1940 film “Willamette River Pollution.” I blogged about the content of this film here and here, but I haven’t yet written anything about the narration. Therefore, below the fold I’ll provide my interpretation of the film’s narration, by way of providing the substance of my response to that email query.

Also, below this, I’ve pasted the partial transcription of the narration that I made from a copy with rather poor audio.

The narration is held at the Oregon Historical Society’s (OHS) Research Library. The screen shot below shows the online finding aid for this narration.

OHS Research Library Finding Aid,"A narration to a 1937 silent film . . ."

One thing you’ll note in this finding aid is that the film’s is given as 1937. I discovered in my thesis research that the date of the film was actually the late summer of 1940 (and specify the evidence that leads me to this conclusion in this post).

I haven’t accessed the OHS’ original copy of this narration. However, there is one iteration of the film onto which someone overlayed the above narration. I received a VHS copy of the film+narration from staff at the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. The audio quality on this copy is rather poor; some words I could only discern by listening intently and repeatedly with headphones on.

There are at least two unidentified people asking questions in this recording, a man and a woman. These interviewers evidently showed the film to chemist & long-time abatement advocate David B. Charlton and former Oregon State Sanitary Authority (OSSA) engineer Ken Spies, and recorded the session.

There’s actually very little of substance in this narration, unfortunately. I only learned a few things from this narration. First, and most importantly, I was able to learn that William J. Smith was in the real estate business and President of the Oregon Wildlife Federation, which gave me some insights into his role in the pollution abatement issue. I also learned some minor insights into some general dynamics between the abatement advocates & the City of Portland, but the rest of the narration is rather cursory.

My take on this narration is that the people who made it—those who showed the film to Charlton & Spies—didn’t know enough about the topic to ask probing questions, and so lost the opportunity to go into depth with two people who were intimately involved in the story and who could have provided some really useful information. For example, in the OSSA minutes, there is mention that the OSSA board viewed the film at their Dec. 13, 1940 meeting, approved of it, and authorized funding its reproduction. I haven’t been able to find any evidence about what these films were used for, how many were made, etc. I suspect that the OSSA and other advocates used them to generate public support to put more pressure on Portland city officials, but it would have been great to hear from Charlton what happened, because he would have known (Charlton died in 1996). Also, Ken Spies could have helped explain the scientific experiments—what the beakers and jars were for (measuring BOD is what they were for), why these experiments mattered, what they told us, etc., but he wasn’t probed with such questions.

In summary, I was, unfortunately, underwhelmed by the content of this narration.

—-

Partial transcription of narration to “Willamette River Pollution” (1940)

Below is a partial transcription that I made while listening to the film+narration described above. The audio was rather poor. There were some places where I couldn’t quite make out what was said, and these I denote with “[unintelligible].” Other words in brackets are my own thoughts or basic descriptions of what the video shows. The ellipses (. . .) refer to long pauses.

I stopped transcribing at about minute thirteen because I realized that there wasn’t much in the content of the narration to warrant my continued strict diligence in this regard. Also, I wasn’t using any kind of transcription machine, so it was getting tedious trying to keep up with the narration, having to rewind the recording, listening to some sections repeatedly to try to discern what was being said, etc.

00:00:22
Male Interviewee [most likely Kenneth Spies]: [unintelligible] . . . one thing you don’t want to overlook [unintelligible] at the time, the economic condition, this was during the depression that this was done, and the legislature, the administration was reluctant to take ahold of an issue like this, and it had to be, the sanitary authority had to be established by initiative, by an election of the people, which was—it was a lot more difficult than it would be in more normal economic times. I think that’s one dimension that makes the fact that this issue was pursued significant.

00:01:14
Female Interviewer: Can everyone see it well enough, in the light?

00:01:23
Male Interviewee: A lot of this footage was taken at the sewage outfalls, the raw sewage outfalls, starting at Eugene, Corvallis, Albany, Salem, Lebanon, Portland Harbor, under the Steel Bridge right here in the harbor of Portland.

00:01:59
Female Interviewer: What year did you guess this to be?

00:01:58
Male Interviewee: I would guess this either 1938 or 39, the summer of 38 or 39, and this was taken by at that time the President of the Oregon Wildlife Federation, which is a citizen group still active in the state. It was a state member of the national wildlife federation, and one of their strong issues was the question of water quality in the state. They took this on as one of their major platform issues at that time, and it was picked up by the, later the Oregon division of the Izaak Walton League, and between those two citizen groups they stayed with this issue for a number of years. It was before the existence of the state sanitary authority, it was one of the efforts that was made to, resulting finally in the Oregon State Sanitary Authority. It was accomplished through initiative petition—people of the state voted on it. This is one of the visual aids that was used to foster interest and concern about water quality in the state.

00:03:50
Female Interviewer: You mentioned before they tried to get a bottle bill through at that time, too?

00:03:54
Male Interviewee: Shortly afterwards, not at the same time, but it wasn’t not long afterwards that the same groups attempted on two or three occasions to get a bottle bill enacted. It was fairly recently that we had our bottle bill legislation. [Referencing the film:] But this was one of the big issues of the time.

00:04:31
Male Interviewee: This, I’m guessing, is the raw sewage outlet below Eugene. [loss of audio to 00:04:46]

00:04:46
Male Interviewee: Those are some fingerlings [unintelligible] that were used as kind of a kept animal, and the livability of the water. This is a live boxer being released out of good quality water, out of hatchery water, into a live box, to test their ability to thrive in the river water. It’s supposed to show the clock and the time, but it doesn’t do it; kind if in the reflection there [loss of audio, glitch in DVD recording, at 00:5:23].

00:05:26
Male Interviewee: . . . as opposed to a . . . almost . . .

00:05:34
Female Interviewer: Did William Joyce Smith actually take these photographs, or did someone else do it?

00:05:35
Male Interviewee: Yes, this footage was taken by Bill Smith, William J. Smith, who was in the insurance business, he was an insurance agent here in Portland, active in the Portland Chamber of Commerce, and then an array of citizen groups and civic organizations in Portland, but a very devoted conservationist. Another individual who was just on on Monday of this week and who was just coming on to the scene at the same time, and is still very interested and very conversant on the history of the evolution of water quality legislation in this state is Dr. David Charlton. Dave is still active in it and was active at that time, and he was trained in bacteriology. He worked with water quality here, and in Oregon City, and was—

00:06:47
Male Interviewee: this is supposed to show the kind of fish on, that was able to thrive—as I remember he was trying to show some squaw fish or some other trash fish. Yep. Carp and so-called “trash fish” are highly tolerant, more warm-water fishes were all that were able to live in the Willamette, bearing in mind there were significant salmon runs, and to a somewhat lesser extent steelhead runs which were indigenous to the Willamette system, clear in to the headwaters, starting in the Clackamas, going right on up to the Middle Fork, or the North Fork, the Middle Fork of the Willamette, and this was before the Willamette Valley Pro[ject] [unintelligible] component involved, the manipulation of Waldo Lake was later de-authorized.

00:07:56
Second male interviewee [most likely David B. Charlton]: That’s got a lot of cannery waste in it.

00:07:58
Female Interviewer: Is that what this is, cannery waste? Somebody told me it was slaughter house run-off. [unintelligible] more dramatic than cannery waste.

00:08:03
Second male interviewee: No, probably beets. Corvallis and those al[unintelligible] [other voices unintelligible]

00:08:08
[loss of audio; video continues to 8:40]

00:08:40
Second male interviewee: . . . Corvallis and those all, all had the beets.

00:08:46
Male Interviewee: This is a traveling laboratory, the people in the department [OSSA or state public health dept.] had at the time, and we’d go in and run DO tests, quite a bit of it, at the time.

00:09:05
Female Interviewer: [unintelligible]

00:09:11
Male Interviewer: That is the Santiam[?] as I recall, and the bridge of the county road. Right here where the present-day[?] [unintelligible] crosses not too far from here. [unintelligible] running the dissolved oxygen test. [unintelligible] laboratory [unintelligible]

00:10:02
Second Male interviewee: [unintelligible] those procedures now [unintelligible]

00:10:05
Female Interviewer: Really? We may have to edit this book now [laughter].

00:10:30
Male interviewee: The fellow running that is [unintelligible] Dr. Frances [unintelligible] and I worked with him at that time and he ended up in what we called [unintelligible] scientific investigations [unintelligible] Game Commission, and it was headquartered at Oregon State University [unintelligible].

00:11:06
Female interviewer: What was his name again?

00:11:06
Male interviewee: Dr. Frances [inintelligible], [D?] R I [loss of audio, glitch in video, 11 :08 to 11:11] old friend of David Charlton’s, and Fred Merryfield, [unintelligible], on the staff of engineering at OSU, [unintelligible] just on the threshold of setting up [unintelligible] Cornell, Powell[?], Hays, and we used their lab to run some BODs this particular Summer, and [unintelligible].

00:11:46
[Unidentified male laughing]

00:12:01
Male interviewee: A lot of people, local folks who were leaders in this anti-water pollution movement at that time, William L. Finley was very prominent, Ed Averill, kind of a [unintelligible], but very prominent [unintelligible], and they travelled all over the state, [unintelligible] along with Bill Smith and Dave Charlton, but they all took an active part in it. [unintelligible] get this issue on the ballot so the people could really come to grips with it.

00:12:55
Female interviewee: Well the nice thing about showing this is that people come from whatever areas they’ll be able to pick up—not everybody but many—will be able to pick out [unintelligible].

00:13:00
Male interviewee: Bear in mind that the road system at that time was different [unintelligible].

[laughing]

00:13:33
Male interviewee: We found this condition almost all the way down the river, progressively more acute as we moved down [unintelligible]

00:18:50
[shows sign of Woodburn with safety award from 1939. This suggests the film was from the summer of 1940. Sign reads: “Woodburn First Place Award Traffic Safety Division 4, 1939, Department of State Safety Division.”]

00:26:47
[Male narrator finds that the significant thing about the issue was that the movement was initiated and sustained by citizen groups and not the government.]

00:26:47
[Shows people fishing right at the sewer outlets in Portland Harbor]

00:28:00
[Main male voice and another lament a bit about how the people of the early abatement efforts don’t get the credit they deserve. This is one of the things I tried to do in my thesis, was rectify this oversight.]

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