My colleagues at the Oregon Encyclopedia invited me to give a presentation on the topic of Willamette River water pollution as part of their History Night series. On Monday, January 14, I gave this talk at McMenamins Mission Theater here in Portland. I supplemented my presentation by showing short clips of Tom McCall’s 1962 documentary Pollution in Paradise and William J. Smith’s 1940 film Pollution in the Willamette. There was a great turnout and I extend my thanks to everyone who attended and to those who asked probing questions in response to my talk.
The McMenamins team did an excellent job on the poster:
The press release for this event that Tania Hyatt-Evenson of the Oregon Encyclopedia and I collaborated on reads:
- Fifty years ago, Portland’s KGW-TV aired a gripping documentary – Pollution in Paradise – that succinctly summarized the deplorable condition of Oregon’s air and water that had become degraded as a result of more than a century of intensive resource extraction, industrialization, and urbanization. Revered journalist (and soon-to-be governor) Tom McCall produced and narrated the hour-long color film. Appearing during the same era as Edward R. Murrow’s pioneering television documentaries and just a few months after Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring, McCall’s film helped convince Oregon citizens and legislators that much more could be done to balance environmental and economic considerations. McCall has rightly been lauded for helping to clean up the Willamette River and, more generally, helping to conserve and preserve Oregon’s environmental treasures. Though an important milestone in the evolving narrative of Oregonians’ relationship to their natural surroundings, McCall’s 1962 documentary came after nearly forty years of sustained efforts to abate Willamette River pollution.
- This presentation will begin with Pollution in Paradise and progress backwards in time to identify the key moments and give voice to some of the many other people who made important contributions to cleaning-up the Willamette. Just as the river’s water quality was not degraded by one person alone, it was not improved solely by one person.