James V. Hillegas-Elting lives in Portland, Oregon, and is an historian of the 20th century urban environment in North America.
Posted in Portland Metro Area on April 18, 2018
Another thing I’ve heard said recently (and over the years) is that the Willamette River was so polluted through Portland Harbor that it caught fire. Like the Cuyahoga River had done. Wow–that’s spectacular, and tragic!
It didn’t happen.
I state that with a very high level of confidence, having read at least 700 newspaper articles between 1906 and 1996 and conducted extensive archival research into the records of the State Game Commission, State Fish Commission, State Board of Health, Oregon State Sanitary Authority, Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, and City of Portland. With this knowledge, the assertion that the Willamette caught fire seemed apochryphal. Out of curiosity, I then searched the Internet for blog posts or other sources for the urban myth. While I didn’t find any blog posts, I did find quite a few news reports of warehouse, dock, or houseboat fires over the years, but nothing about any grand conflagrations of the kind that occurred on the Cuyahoga.
So, if you ever hear anyone make this claim, you now know it’s not true!
I heard a statement recently suggesting that one of the reasons the City of Portland built its wastewater treatment plant where it did–at the far north of the city–was that this was where people of color lived. The decision was, therefore, an example of environmental racism, whereby white civic leaders burdened communities of color with urban infrastructure that wouldn’t have been tolerated in white, affluent neighborhoods.
Having read sanitary engineer Dr. Abel Wolman’s 1939 report on the Portland’s sewer system, I knew first-hand the engineering logic behind this decision. I didn’t know enough about the area in which the treatment plant was built to have a perspective on the question of whether or not its siting was an example of environmental racism. With help from the experts at the City of Portland Archives, it was time for some research!
The OSU Press Blog site recently published a post they invited me to write providing background on my motivations in writing Speaking for the River: Not the End, but the End of the Beginning.
There isn’t a place for constructive comments and questions on that blog, so I welcome them here.
A few weeks ago my book became available via pre-order.
On Monday I received my hard copies.
I guess this makes it real!
Luna and I had a fun time yesterday participating in Youth for a Livable Planet’s Environmental Justice Tour of Portland. At four locations on the east side of the city, we learned something about key environmental, social, and demographic changes in the city over the past 15,000+ years. We started at the Moda Center with a grounding in deep geologic history and the history of the Chinookan and Kalapyan peoples. Hopping-on the MAX Yellow Line, we alighted to the Albina Neighborhood, where we got an overview of the history of peoples of color in Oregon broadly and Portland particularly. Vanport was our third stop on the tour, where a representative of Portland Harbor Community Coalition spoke in depth about the creation (1943) and catastrophic dissolution (1948) of Vanport. The fourth station was at the University of Portland, where we had lunch and learned more about the Portland Harbor Community Coalition’s mission “elevating the most-impacted groups (Native Americans, African-Americans/Black, immigrants, and houseless) in the billion dollar federal cleanup of the eleven mile Willamette River ‘Superfund’ site, Portland Harbor.”
This was the second of three such tours the group has planned during the current academic year. This was my first time participating. I did so to have a fun, educational time with Luna and to meet the organizers. I also wanted to get a feel for the structure and content of the tour so I might prepare materials and contribute to the next one, planned for April.
To investigate and understand better historical landscapes, in September 2017 I took a field trip to Salem, Oregon, to discover what visible evidence might remain of the pulp and paper mill that used to exist in downtown Salem.
The mill began operations in 1920 as the Oregon Pulp and Paper Company, under the holding company Columbia River Paper Company. In 1962 the Boise Cascade Corporation took over. The mill ceased operations in 2007. In 2015, the South Block Apartments opened on the former mill site.
Read the rest of the entry to see my photos and learn a bit more . . .
Julia Rosen wrote an interesting article for the Oregon Humanities website on the topic of Willamette River cleanup titled “A City’s Lifeblood” (Aug. 22, 2017). She focuses on an important topic to investigate and document: racial/ethnic issues related to Willamette River and Columbia Slough pollution, including current clean-up and environmental enhancement plans. She had spoken with me a few months prior to publication to learn about the early days of pollution and pollution abatement.
As readers of my book will find, I don’t have much to say regarding the involvement of Native Americans, African Americans, or other non-white individuals or communities in cleanup efforts from the 1920s into the 1970s. This is because my research didn’t uncover anything explicitly on this topic. There are a few reasons why . . .
Good news: At long last, my book is available! A journey that began almost a decade ago has come to fruition! For those who are interested in purchasing a copy, see the attached flier for a promotion code for 30% off the retail price, valid for preorders placed through the OSU Press website (http://osupress.oregonstate.edu) before March 31, 2018.
Thanks to a chance introduction to Anne Richardson of the Oregon Cartoon Institute during the Western History Association conference this past Thursday, I learned about a fun 1974 film by Homer Groening (yes, Matt’s dad), The New Willamette. I’ve viewed the ~26-minute film a couple of times today, and, in the spirit of my analyses of other Willamette River films (such as here and here), below the jump are some of my initial thoughts . . .