Archive for category 1940s

It couldn’t possibly get any more exciting than this!

[Originally published on my blog Historical Threads on March 13, 2011. This version has been refined & corrected, where necessary.]

Of late I’ve been extremely focused on my book project. Today I’ve been immersed in archival sources relating to the City of Portland’s attempts to design, fund, and build a comprehensive sewer interceptor and primary treatment system in the 1920s and 1930s. The story is fantastically complex and I’ve been piecing together the chronology, learning about the motivations and personalities of the key players, trying to condense the key events at the local, state, and national levels in a way that will convey the complexity in an intelligible way.

One of the key elements my book will stress is that while the Willamette River pollution abatement movement was centered in this region and abatement advocates worked within a specific set of technological, political, economic, and ecological systems, the movement at every stage relied upon public and private input. For example, in the 1930s Portland city officials benefited from the expertise of two of the foremost professionals in their field, Harrison P. Eddy of Boston, and Abel Wolman of Baltimore. In 1943, Portland city leaders benefited from the clout of renowned New York City planner Robert Moses to jump-start the sewage system plans that Eddy and Wolman had proposed.

Oregon’s abatement advocates also relied upon funds and research assistance from such federal agencies as the National Resources Planning Board and the Public Works Administration, and regional organizations such as the Pacific Northwest Regional Planning Commission.

As part of my research process, I’ve also discovered an interesting Internet resource:

    ** A collection of materials “related to the history of sewage conveyance systems. Many of these have been displayed in a traveling exhibit entitled “The Collection Systems Historical Photo and Artifacts Display.” The overall collection of sewer history materials covers the era from approximately 3500 BCE through the 1930s CE.”

It’s hard to have more fun with one’s clothes on, let me tell you!


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Native salmon threatened with extinction from a cleaner Willamette River

[Originally published on my blog Historical Threads on Sep. 8, 2011. This version has been refined & corrected, where necessary.]

Detroit Dam, Marion County, Oregon, July 1990. Photo Bob Heims, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Scott Learn has a very interesting article in today’s Oregonian about the negative impacts that Willamette River tributary dams are having on native salmon runs (“Getting salmon past daunting Willamette Basin dams could have a big price tag — and a big payoff“). This is a clear example of unintended consequences resulting from large-scale infrastructure projects.

When the Willamette Valley Project was first being proposed and planned in the 1930s and 1940s, advocates asserted that the dams would bring a great many benefits. Impounding tributary waters would help modulate the seasonal flow of the Willamette River which would, in turn, decrease the likelihood of downstream floods. The dams would also facilitate reclamation, irrigation, hydroelectric power production, and navigation improvements.[1] By storing water during the rainy months and metering its release during the dry months, Willamette Valley Project dams would modulate significant seasonal variations in the flow of the main stem, which would greatly help flush the river of industrial wastes and municipal sewage.[2]

Historian William G. Robbins has found that by at least the late 1930s there was significant opposition to Willamette Valley Project dams (and also dams along the Columbia, Rogue, Umpqua, and Deschutes rivers) based upon the projected negative impacts these dams would have on anadromous fish runs. These opponents included commercial and sports fishing groups, Columbia River treaty tribes, and wildlife conservationists in groups such as the Izaak Walton League, including renowned naturalist William L. Finley. Robbins quotes U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Paul Needham’s reference to these dams as “large-scale experiments” that did not sufficiently take the needs of fish into account.[3] It certainly cannot be said that Willamette Valley Project planners were entirely unaware of the likelihood of harm to salmon runs.

As Scott Learn writes in his article, in terms of healthy native anadromous fish runs, the Willamette Valley Project has certainly been a failed experiment. In terms of pollution abatement and flood control, however, the experiment has been quite successful. Therein lies the conundrum: How might we achieve the goals of healthy fish runs, a cleaner river, and a low incidence of catastrophic floods? Whatever the specific answers turn out to be, my hunch is that it will take both a fundamental shift in cultural values & priorities and a significant financial investment to achieve such mutually beneficial ends.


[1] William G. Robbins, “The Willamette Valley Project of Oregon: A Study in the Political Economy of Water Resource Development,” Pacific Historical Review 47:4 (Nov. 1978), 585-605; William G. Robbins, Landscapes of Conflict: The Oregon Story, 1940-2000 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2004), 47-76.

[2] For more on Willamette River pollution generally, see James V. Hillegas, “Working for the ‘Working River’: Willamette River Pollution, 1926-1962,” MA thesis, Portland State University, 2009.

[3] Robbins, Landscapes of Conflict, 48-53.

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Smelling One’s Way to Cleaner Water? Comparing pollution abatement in Oregon and Maine

In the most recent issue of Environmental History there is an informative article on mid-twentieth century water pollution abatement in Maine’s Androscoggin River watershed. Author Wallace Scot McFarlane completed an undergraduate thesis at Bowdoin College in 2009, from which he drew the core of his 2012 article. McFarlane “explores how people’s views of science and the environment were reshaped during the transition from localized nuisance control to concerted environmental action, from the 1940s to the 1970s,” and he does so predominately by focusing on the work of a (if not the) prominent abatement figure in the watershed from the 1940s through the 1960s, Dr. Walter A. Lawrance.[1]

McFarlane’s article provides a valuable point of reference to compare and contrast water pollution abatement efforts in Oregon with those in other states and provinces. There are at least two other works that offer a state-to-state comparison of the history of environmental legislation generally, and water quality specifically, in Oregon and Maine.[2] McFarlane’s work effectively builds upon these other sources by focusing on the efforts of a single person intimately involved in the science and administration of water quality; therefore, his article provides details that the other works on Maine do not. McFarlane’s article is also a welcome addition to journal-length studies on water pollution in Washington State, Illinois, British Columbia, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, and Connecticut.[3]

From the second half of the nineteenth century well into the second half of the twentieth, the economies of both Maine and Oregon were heavily reliant upon the heavily-polluting pulp and paper industry, which is another reason why studies of Maine are relevant to the situation in Oregon. Maine’s Androscoggin and Oregon’s Willamette were both impacted significantly for decades from the effects of untreated pulp and paper wastes. (Historian Gregory Summers has written a study of water pollution in another watershed with long connections to the pulp and paper industry, Wisconsin’s Fox River, which I mention here in passing for reference. [4])

Comparing and contrasting events in Maine and Oregon brings to light important details that illustrate, in practical terms, the ways in which people’s values in North America relative to the environment changed over the course of the twentieth century, and how these changes happened differently in different cultural and political settings. Within the realm of water pollution, one can observe that Oregonians were relatively more progressive and proactive than Mainers in that they created their state water quality agency earlier than in Maine, they did so through citizen initiative, and they granted it stronger powers. Further, water quality oversight in Oregon from 1938 through 1967 involved a board of seven that included the head of the State Health Officer, State Engineer, State Sanitary Engineer, and State Fish Commission Chair (in addition to a staff of on-the-ground engineers and technicians) who were financed from the State General Fund and tasked with abating a wide array of industrial and municipal pollutants; oversight in the Androscoggin watershed, in contrast, appears to have been centered on one man whose work was constrained to sulfite pulping wastes only and who was funded to a significant degree by the very industries that produced these wastes. As a result, the Willamette River was significantly cleaner than it had been for decades (in terms of pulp and paper wastes) by the time Congress enacted the Clean Water Act in 1972, and the Androscoggin was not.

Below the fold I’ll provide a brief overview of Walter Lawrance’s work in the Androscoggin watershed and specify the evidence I’ve used to draw my conclusions. Read the rest of this entry »


A Graphic Post

[Originally published on my blog Historical Threads on Oct. 27, 2011. This version has been refined & corrected, where necessary. There are six comments at the original post location,, as of April 29, 2012.]

I must warn you: This is a graphic post. Below the fold you will see images of line graphs and bar charts that provide visual representations of data across time. They look something like this:

Image 1: Oregon State Biennial Appropriation to the OSSA, 1939 through 1965.

If this seems like something that might cause your stomach to turn, perhaps you dare read no further; if, on the other hand, you have courage, stamina, and are sure that the kids won’t be peeking over your shoulder, please do read on, because I’m seeking your input.

I would like any and all readers to weigh-in with comments and questions about the graphs below, and the conclusions I’m drawing from them, and to let me know if both of these are clear (or not). For those readers who have specialized training or experience in history, statistics, social science, mathematics, etc., I have some specific questions below that I would like help answering.

A common refrain I come across in both primary and secondary sources discussing the efforts and results of the Oregon State Sanitary Authority (OSSA) in addressing water pollution is that the Authority was not funded adequately. Authority members and historians have concluded that this lack of funding handicapped the OSSA between the time it commenced its work in early 1939 and the time that Governor Tom McCall restructured it and the Oregon Air Pollution Authority into the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality in 1969.

Perhaps the OSSA was underfunded, but that brings up at least two important points. First, it seems that the majority of government agencies, non-profits, for-profits, and individual households would prefer more money; I know I certainly would, and I also would prefer it if all of the non-profits that I support had much more funding. Therefore, it is quite common to hear complaints about a lack of money . . . but does that make it a pointless refrain, a case of “crying wolf?”

Second, is there some kind of objective reference point that one can call upon to gauge whether or not a given entity is “underfunded,” “adequately funded,” or “over-funded?” Maybe there are such metrics in some instances, but what might these be? In the case of the OSSA specifically, I suppose this metric would be whether or not the Authority was achieving it’s legal mandate: Was the OSSA making substantive progress in abating water pollution? If not, to what extent does lack of progress correlate with a shortage of funds?

Asking these kinds of questions is important in a democracy. It’s important for taxpayers to know where their money is going, and if the agency is using the money as effectively as possible. When voters turn-out overwhelmingly in favor of the creation of a new government agency — as was the case with the OSSA in 1938 — it’s important for citizens to know that the agency is doing the work that they authorized it to do. Of course, there is at least one important dynamic that confounds this straightforward logic: Are citizens willing to pay for achieving the purported goal of a given piece of legislation or citizen’s initiative?

The pattern of my pursuit of these answers regarding the OSSA can just as easily be applied to other local, state, or federal government agencies.

The first graph I want to show you is straightforward:
Read the rest of this entry »


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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The 1940 U.S. Census & Willamette River pollution: What’s the connection?

Recently, there have been a few articles in the Oregonian about the U.S. Census Bureau’s release of details from the 1940 census. The Oregonian‘s David Stabler wrote on April 3, 2012:

The 1940 Census, released Monday after 72 years of confidentiality expired, is like a vast shoebox of old photographs and letters discovered in a cobwebbed attic.
Interest in Oregon is high because the state is among the first of five to make the census searchable by names. Volunteers around the country are working quickly to index all 1,086,000 names in the 1940 Oregon census. They expect to finish indexing names as early as this summer.[1]

There is a direct connection between the 1940 U.S. Census in Oregon and the push for clean streams in the Willamette Valley and throughout the state. I’ll make the connection 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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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.

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Willamette River pollution film, 1940

[Originally published on my blog Historical Threads on April 15, 2010. This version has been refined & corrected, where necessary, on March 22 and April 17, 2012.]

A version of the film above was shown at the April 14 Portland Harbor CAG meeting. I wrote a brief post in November 2009 about the Willamette River film. In this post today I’m going to expand on what I wrote previously to clarify the film’s provenance and provide a bit more historical context for the film.

Read the rest of this entry »


Sewage, dead rats, and blood — oh my!

[Originally published on my blog Historical Threads on Nov. 6, 2009. This version has been refined & corrected, where necessary.]

Still showing two men fishing at raw sewage outfall in Portland Harbor, late summer 1940. (William Joyce Smith. Pollution in the Willamette, (Portland, Oreg., 1940))

This is just an amazing film, and I have to tell everyone about it!

William Joyce Smith produced this color film in summer 1940 showing the lamentable conditions of the Willamette River. Smith was a member of the Portland Chamber of Commerce, state manager of the National Life Insurance Company, and president of the Oregon Wildlife Federation. His film showed municipal and industrial waste discharges from Springfield north to Portland Harbor, providing graphic evidence of the thick, discoloring discharges and mats of detritus in the river from raw sewage outfalls and pulp and paper, meat processing, canning, textile, and other industries. Smith’s film also echoed tactics used in the 1938 media campaign in support of water quality initiatives: Men were shown immersing hatchery fingerlings in river water where, in most cases, the fingerlings died within forty-five seconds because of extremely low levels of dissolved oxygen.

Smith produced his film as part of efforts by citizen’s groups to convince the City of Portland to commence its proposed sewage disposal project by preparing for post-war sewer construction. Nearly two years after Portland’s sewage funding measure had passed, city officials still had not taken any substantive steps. Smith contributed to the efforts of the state Izaak Walton League of America and others increasingly frustrated with this lack of progress. Members of the Oregon State Sanitary Authority viewed Smith’s film at its December 13, 1940, meeting, as the authority continued to pressure Portland officials.

Praise be to the dedicated archivists and librarians (such as those at Oregon State University) who commit themselves to preserving, cataloging, and making available invaluable resources such as these for all of us to enjoy!