Archive for category 1900s

Swimming in the Willamette River in and near Portland

[Originally published on my blog Historical Threads on March 26, 2010. This version has been refined & corrected, where necessary.]

For quite a number of weeks now I’ve intended to finalize this post about swimming in the Willamette River in and near Portland Harbor. Two discussions about swimming in the river can be found at this Portland Mercury Blogtown post, and at this archived “Think Out Loud” program from Oregon Public Radio.

Now, for some historical context . . . Read the rest of this entry »



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A Sketch of Water Quality-Related Events in the Eugene Area

A staff member at the City of Eugene recently contacted me with a question about events related to water pollution abatement in the Eugene-Springfield area. I replied that my research has largely concentrated on pollution from the valley’s two primary polluters through the 1960s—the pulp and paper industry and the City of Portland—but that I have uncovered some items of note specific to Eugene/Springfield. A typhoid outbreak in 1906, a significant fish kill in 1926, and the annual Commonwealth Conferences held at the University of Oregon were all significant events within the larger context of Oregon’s clean streams movement.

An important dynamic in the early history of Willamette River pollution was the fact that the earliest Euro American settlers to the valley took their potable water supplies from the river. As water quality deteriorated, municipal governments throughout the watershed secured other sources of potable water, beginning with Portland in the 1890s. I wrote the following in my thesis regarding this transition:

Other Willamette Valley cities ceased drawing municipal water from the river from the 1900s through the 1930s. After an outbreak of typhoid fever in 1906, Eugene residents lobbied successfully to have the city take over water treatment responsibilities from private ownership. In 1911, Eugene city engineers completed the Walterville Power Plant, primarily to pump McKenzie River water into the city. The city of Corvallis replaced their Willamette River water supply in 1906 with water drawn from the Mary’s Peak watershed west of town. However, in 1949 city officials did authorize construction of a water treatment plant on the west bank of the Willamette River to augment supply during high demand periods. The city of Albany has drawn its municipal water from the eighteen-mile Santiam-Albany Canal at least as early as 1912. The canal was built in 1872 to serve transportation and power generation purposes by diverting water from the Santiam River to the Willamette River.6 Salem city officials developed the North Santiam River watershed in 1936-1937 in reaction to public pressure since the 1910s for a healthier water supply. Securing new municipal supplies solved one pressing issue, while decreasing the need to address Willamette River pollution directly, contributing in some ways to the continued use of the river as a waste sink.[1]

During the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, public health was a significant motivator—not to clean the Willamette River, but to give the river over to the function of waste disposal:

Representatives of the State Board of Health, newspaper editors, and others were aware of the steadily deteriorating quality of water in Portland and along the entire Willamette River. In February 1906, the Oregonian reacted to a typhoid epidemic linked to Eugene’s Willamette River sewer outfalls by calling the river a “common sewer for the entire valley between the Cascade and Coast Ranges of mountains from Cottage Grove to the Columbia.”11 Later in 1906 the Oregon State Board of Health observed typhoid in the Columbia River for the first time and identified the sources of this contagion as tributary streams in eastern Oregon as well as the Willamette. The Secretary of the Board of Health noted that the “Willamette River has not been free from typhoid germs for years.” In response, an Oregonian reporter concluded that “it evidently behooves the many swimmers about Portland to cultivate the gentle art of keeping their mouths closed while in the water.”[2]

The Oregonian allocated “censure where censure is due” in blaming Eugene city officials for the February 1906 typhoid outbreak. Editors recognized that Eugene’s small size precluded city leaders from investing in costly treatment facilities or in securing water sources from away from the town, but lambasted city officials nonetheless for not providing healthful drinking water and, instead, delivering to its citizens water from “a great open sewer running through the town, and a water system contaminated at its very source.”[3]

Six years later, Read the rest of this entry »

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