Archive for category 1920s

Portland harbor wall, then-and-now

Aerial of completed harbor wall, 1929 (City of Portland, Series 8402-01)

A few days ago, the Oregonian ran a “then-and-now” article on Portland’s harbor wall. In it, author John Killen referenced one of my posts, “Construction of Portland Harbor wall, 1927-1929.”


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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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Construction of Portland Harbor wall, 1927-1929

[Originally published on my blog Historical Threads on April 22, 2010. This version has been refined & corrected, where necessary.]

I recently discovered a source detailing the planning and construction of Portland’s west-side harbor wall, written by the city engineer who planned and implemented the project, Olaf Laurgaard.[1] There will be a short section of one chapter in my book that will provide an overview of the construction of Portland’s sewage infrastructure up to the 1930s, and Laurgaard’s source will help me immensely in describing the construction of the west-side harbor wall–which also included an intercepting sewer.

Laurgaard first proposed the project in February 1920 as a way to re-develop this portion of the harbor and protect a large section of downtown that was prone to seasonal flooding. This part of Portland Harbor was a center of waterfront warehousing, commerce, and transportation through the first years of the twentieth century. By the 1910s, however, the area became increasingly run-down, and by 1920 the area from Clay Street on the south to Flanders on the North was marked by abandoned buildings, empty lots, and derelict wharves.

Twenty-eight gravity-fed raw sewage outfalls lined this portion of the waterfront, a number of which were exposed during low-flow periods of the Willamette River. These gravity-fed lines backed-up during seasonal freshets, causing raw sewage to fill the basements of downtown buildings.

Decrepit infrastructure, crumbling buildings, vacant lots, and periodic inundations of sewage appreciably reduced the real estate values within a 425-acre swath of the downtown business district. The Portland City Council requested plans of City Engineer Laurgaard to clean-up this area and resolve the flooding issue. Laurgaard submitted his plans in May 1925, and City Commissioners awarded the J. F. Shea Company the $2,135,000 contract in November 1926.[2] On May 1, 1929, Laurgaard and his team ran an official pump test for the entire interceptor and pump station to check the quality of the contractor’s work.

Below are a selection of images and diagrams from Laurgaard’s 1933 treatise on the Portland Harbor wall project, supplemented by a few images from the City of Portland Auditor’s Office Historic Photos website (as indicated)
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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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“There is almost criminal negligence of city officials to permit this”

[Originally published on my blog Historical Threads on March 19, 2011. This version has been refined & corrected, where necessary.]

“River Looks Bad to Two Parties,” Morning Oregonian, Aug. 5, 1936, p. 3.

In August 1936, the Willamette River through Portland’s harbor looked and smelled bad. For decades, Oregonians had come to expect that during the low-flow months of July through October, the lower Willamette River would become a tepid, chunky, and foaming soup thickened with raw human excrement, filamentous cannery wastes, harsh sulfite pulp and paper liquors, and other discharges.

What to do about all of this filth?

Polluting a river is quite easy. Simply route an effluent pipe into the stream, push the refuse over the banks, or allow pesticides, herbicides, and other chemicals to drain into the water, and one is well on the way to polluting the river. Abating pollution, however, is difficult.

Abating water pollution requires many complementary and concurrent steps. One must, first, prove that a given pollutant is deleterious to the river’s health, and/or the public’s health. Along with this, one must prove that the harmful effects come from specific sources. Next, one must uncover or suggest technical, administrative, and procedural solutions. It’s easy to critique actions, but does the critic have anything productive to offer in the way of possible solutions?

Solutions cost money, so once it has been determined that pollution exists and that there are possible solutions, one must convince people to pay for abatement options. Payment comes either from private or public sources. In the American system of democracy, neither private nor public sources can be tapped without passing laws. These laws will generally provide for some form of proactive or punitive money generation. Proactive generation includes increasing taxes and fees, authorizing the sale of bonds, securing loans, etc. Punitive generation includes assessing fines for people or companies that do not follow abatement regulations.

What does all this have to do with a guy in a gas mask?

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Notable people remembered on a nondescript moss-covered boulder at the end of a rarely-traveled country road

[Originally published on my blog Historical Threads on Nov. 21, 2011. This version has been refined & corrected, where necessary.]

Izaak Walton League Memorial Plaque, Oak Island Game Management Area, Sauvie Island, Oregon, Nov. 19, 2011. Photo Seth S. Moody.

A few weeks ago, I went a-looking for a plaque in North Portland that was not to be found. A few days ago, my intrepid co-explorer Seth Moody and I braved the wilds of Sauvie Island to find another plaque. I’m proud to report that neither of us were disemboweled by the Sasquatch, and that we achieved our goal (and we have proof!).

The plaque we found was installed by the Oregon Division of the Izaak Walton League on September 14, 1957, to commemorate the life and work of Edgar F. Averill and William L. Finley. Both men were long-time members of the League, long-time active conservationists, and long-time water pollution abatement advocates.

Our trek to discover this plaque was somewhat of a pilgrimage for me. In my ongoing research on Willamette River pollution, I have discovered an extensive amount of information about the in-the-trenches work of men and women like Averill and Finley. With every discovery I am increasingly more appreciative of this work, and conscious of these people’s relevance and resonance to the present day. I locate my spiritual center in nature and human consciousness, so, in my interpretation, Averill and Finley are two notable and fully human figures—among many—who illustrate the ways in which real people can take real actions in the real world to effect real and positive changes to benefit present and future generations. In my interpretation, this is precisely the realm of the highest spiritual practice.

I will explain what I mean and ground these men in the real world. Below you will find some details of the lives of Averill and Finley to help explain why their names are glued to a nondescript moss-covered boulder at the end of a rarely-traveled country road in an out-of-the-way place like Sauvie Island. Follow me after the jump . . .

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Who defines “pollution,” anyway?

“River Looks Bad to Two Parties,” Morning Oregonian, Aug. 5, 1936, p. 3.

The talk I gave last week—”River City Confidential: The Willamette River Pollution Story Revealed“—seemed to have gone well, based upon the feedback I’ve received thus far. I certainly had a great time, and I hope it was both entertaining and educational.

Based upon some of the questions I got at the end of my talk, I should have made clearer at the outset that I was following the lead of pollution abatement advocates themselves in identifying the City of Portland and the five (later seven) pulp and paper mills as the primary polluters in the Willamette watershed. From the 1920s through the 1960s, abatement advocates within and outside of the Oregon State Sanitary Authority were focused on alleviating oxygen-depleting, point-source pollution (from mills and sewage) and bacteria (from raw sewage), because these two sources were by far the most pressing concerns to the river’s health and public health.

I indicated in my presentation that abatement advocates were primarily focused on these two sources of pollution, but that they did not ignore entirely other types of pollution from other sources. From the 1920s, they were also able to measure turbidity, temperature, ph, and other biochemical aspects of water quality, and they worked to abate pollution from meat, vegetable, and flax processing, logging, mining, and other sources.

Regarding other kinds of pollution, it was not until the 1960s that scientists really began to focus on non-point sources of pollution generally. The earliest evidence I have found for specialists’ concern with radiological pollution was in the late 1950s. Dioxin was not a land pollution concern until the Agent Orange issue of the early 1970s, and was not definitively linked to water-borne pollution from pulp and paper mills until the mid 1980s.

In most (if not all) cases, the current complex types of pollution that came to define the Portland Harbor Superfund site did not concern pollution abatement advocates into (and often beyond) the 1960s because the effects of these pollutants were not known, and scientists quite often had not yet developed ways to measure either the pollution or the effects. This knowledge would really only begin to be uncovered in the last decade or so of the period of my talk (from the late 1960s).

From my research in primary and secondary sources, Read the rest of this entry »

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River City Confidential: The Willamette River’s Pollution Story Revealed

Still from William Joyce Smith's 1940s film, Pollution in the Willamette, showing two men fishing at a raw sewage outfall in Portland Harbor, ca. Aug./Sep. 1940.

Come one, come all!

“River City Confidential: The Willamette River’s Pollution Story Revealed.”

March 21, 2012 7:00-8:30 pm.

EcoTrust Jean Vollum Natural Capital Center, Billy Frank Jr. Conference Center, 721 NW 9th Ave., Portland, OR, United States View on Google Maps

“James Hillegas shares insights from his upcoming book on the original Willamette River pollution cleanup, from the 1920s to the 1970s. Co-hosted by the Portland Harbor Community Advisory Group and Oregon Historical Society.”

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