Water has been a hot topic on the West Coast as drought declarations have moved north from California into Southern and Eastern Oregon. With all of this talk, why not take a quick look back at Portland’s water history?
Beginning in the mid-1800s, water was first supplied to the city of Portland from creeks in the West Hills and Portland Heights. As the city grew, reservoirs were built and water was eventually sourced from the Bull Run watershed near Mt. Hood. Today, Portland’s water system is on tap to undergo one of its largest changes since the 1890s. Over the span of 150 years and many technological changes, Portland has been able to retain the histories of these utilities so that the city’s water stories can be told to future generations.
Here is a Whitman Sampler of Portland’s historic water resources, past, present, and future.
One of Portland’s earliest water sources was Balch Creek near today’s Forest Park. Named after pioneer and scandalous criminal Danford Balch, Balch Creek was sold to the Portland Water Works in 1864 so the watershed could supply part of Portland’s water needs. With pipes connecting the creek to the growing city, this water supply operated until 1890s. Remnants of the concrete and steel dams once used to harness the water are still visible under the Thurman Street Bridge. Today the creek is an integral part of Macleay’s Park, with a plaque erected to honor the creek’s importance in the development stages of the city’s water supply.
During the later years of Balch Creek providing water to the city, a reservoir was built in the vicinity of Southwest Lincoln Street to store and supply water to the area that is now Portland State University. A small brick gate house was built in 1890 to pump water to residents at higher elevations. Between a shortage of creek water and the construction of larger reservoirs at higher elevations in the 1890s, the reservoir and gate house were abandoned and the reservoir was eventually filled. However, the story of this reservoir can be told even today with the gate house still standing on SW 10th avenue, hidden amongst new development.
Mount Tabor Reservoirs
The insufficient supply of water from local creeks led to the development and construction of Mount Tabor and Washington Park Reservoirs using water piped from the Bull Run River near Mt. Hood. In 1888, Portland’s Water Commission bought land on Mount Tabor and two reservoirs were completed in 1894 (Reservoirs 1 and 2). Fifteen years later, two more reservoirs were built on Mount Tabor and, a few years after that, a seventh reservoir was built underground. Reservoir 2 was decommissioned in 1976, but its Romanesque style gatehouse, located at SE 60th Avenue and Division Street, remained standing even after the reservoir was filled. The gatehouse was abandoned until the early 1990s and was slated to be demolished to make way for new residential housing, but was instead converted into a residential house in 1993. Both the orphaned gatehouse and the remaining Mount Tabor Reservoirs are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Washington Park Reservoirs were built during the same time as those on Mount Tabor, also opening in 1894. Construction of Reservoirs 3 and 4 supplied Bull Run water across the City’s westside and led to the development of Washington Park. Reservoir 3 has a grand staircase and historic gatehouse, while the downhill Reservoir 4 has only a smaller historic gatehouse. The Washington Park Reservoirs are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
In 2006, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a rule regulating the use of open reservoirs across the country. Because of this Federal change in how the City of Portland is expected to store water, local leaders have determined that all open reservoirs will be closed. While the process has generated much public dialogue, the plans for complying with the rule do include provisions to continue to tell Portland’s reservoir story.
On the westside, the Washington Park Reservoir Improvements Project proposes to build an underground reservoir in the same area as the existing Reservoir 3, covering the tank with a reflecting pool on top. Reservoir 4 will be partially restored to its pre-reservoir condition with a lowland habitat area, reflecting pool, and landslide abatement in the lowland area. Even though the reservoirs will technically be demolished, the project has been supported by the City’s Historic Landmarks Commission because of the planned restoration and interpretation of many of the site’s historic features. This is a big change from the intended purposes of the reservoirs, but will retain much of the historic look of the reservoirs and still allow them tell their story. The $76 million project will be completed by 2020.
On the eastside, Mount Tabor’s open reservoirs are also proposed to be disconnected. Even though they will no longer store potable water in their open-air configuration, the City still needs to identify a plan for how best to continue to tell the history these reservoirs. The Water Bureau’s website demonstrates the significant difference in planning for the Mount Tabor project as compared to the thoughtful compromises proposed for Washington Park. The Portland Historic Landmarks Commission has expressed concern regarding the lack of public process related to the Mount Tabor project, stating in a recent letter, “It seems irresponsible to approve disconnection of this resource from Portland’s water system—essentially rendering it useless—without having a plan or conditions that ensure its long-term care and stewardship.”
Although changes are likely ahead for Portland’s most known reservoirs, why not enjoy the wonderful summer weather with a trip throughout the city to see the historic reservoirs and learn some of the many stories they have to share?