Friday, November 6, 2009

Sewage, dead rats, and blood -- oh my!

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

William Joy 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!


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