Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Blogging the ASEH 2010 (pt. 1): Willamette River Cruise

Hawthorne Bridge. 
Image taken while descending gangplank to the tour boat.

This is my first post discussing my experience at the 2010 American Society for Environmental History (ASEH) conference, held here in Portland from March 10-14. This post will focus on the Willamette River cruise on on Wednesday, March 10, from noon to about 4:00 p.m.

I'll commence with an admission: I spent about two years writing a thesis on the topic of Willamette River pollution, and I grew up on the Oregon coast, but until this river cruise I had not been on the river! Scandalous!! In some sense, however, this doesn't really mean anything -- after all, how many present-day historians of the Civil War were on the field at Gettysburg in the midst of the battle? Nonetheless, there is something to be said for experiencing the actual site(s) upon which unfolded aspects of one's historical research.

The cruise included the stretch of the river from just south of the St. Johns Bridge to the southern end of Ross Island.

Interior view of the tour boat Willamette Star.
(We definitely were not sitting on bait coolers in the open breeze for this tour!)

Speakers on the tour included Carl Abbott (Portland State University), Jorge Guadalupe Lizárraga (Washington State University - Vancouver), Mike Houck (Urban Green Spaces), Steven Kolmes (University of Portland), Bob Salinger (Audubon Society), and Joseph Taylor (Simon Fraser University / University of Portland). To quote the conference program:

As the Willamette Star cruises along the Willamette River, the speakers and passengers will discuss a variety of issues, including urban planning, salmon management, forestry, past land and water use, and the effect of contamination on local communities. We will specifically discuss the Portland Harbor Superfund Site.

I was struck by the still-visible evidence of heavy industrialization along the river. I also saw clearly how much of the east and west riverbanks are no longer clearly industrial, having been modified from industrial and transportation uses to condos and other non-industrial uses. As is the case in so many examples of waterfront development, within a few decades evidence of once-central industrial, transportation, and commercial uses can be all but erased -- and with it contextualizing evidence necessary to understand the past.
Juxtaposition illustrating change over time: 
"Working waterfront" warehouse and pier in foreground
(1400 block of NW Naito Parkway),
Pearl District redevelopment in the background
(west side, a few blocks south of the Fremont Bridge).

State and federal agencies have identified many cleanup sites in Portland Harbor, as the map below illustrates.

Oregon Dept. of Environmental Quality map of Portland Harbor, showing cleanup sites.

East bank. Southern part of Portland Shipyard, Swan Island. Portland Shipyard contaminated by metals and organic tin compounds from decades of removing paint from and repainting ship exteriors.

 East bank. U.S. Navy ship being worked on at Cascade General facility, Portland Shipyard, Swan Island. 
University of Portland on ridge in background.

 West bank. L to R: Willbridge Bulk Fuel Terminal, GS Roofing, and former site of Arkema (ATOFINA) chemical plant. GS Roofing site being investigated for potential Superfund listing. Willbridge Terminal source of groundwater contaminant concentrations that "may present current and future threats to human health and the environment via discharge to the Willamette River." Arkema site "contaminated by chlorobenzene and DDT that is migrating to the Willamette River."

  East bank. Triangle Park, owned by University of Portland; location of hazardous sediments, and a potential Superfund site. McCormick and Baxter Superfund Site left background.

 Burlington-Northern railroad bridge, looking South toward downtown Portland.

West bank. Texaco Terminal & Dock. DEQ and EPA investigations ongoing to determine potential for migration to Willamette River of hazardous substances released from facility and pipeline. Forest Park in background.

East bank. West edge of the Union Pacific Railroad - Albina yard, west of Greeley Ave., north of Fremont Bridge. DEQ identified as a potential source of contamination for Portland Harbor.

East bank. Freemont Bridge. Sakrete Pacific Northwest facility on right.

East bank, just north of the Broadway Bridge. CLD Pacific Grain elevators, Memorial Coliseum right background.

East bank, under Broadway Bridge. Memorial Coliseum.

East bank, just north of the Steel Bridge. Grain elevators.

 East bank, just north of Ross Island Bridge. Ross Island Sand & Gravel facilities.

 Inside Ross Island lagoon, east bank. Ross Island Sand & Gravel facilities.

 Inside Ross Island lagoon, looking west. Ross Island Sand & Gravel operations. South Waterfront buildings, background right

 To the west of Ross Island, looking northwest. Ross Island Bridge in foreground, Marquam Bridge in background. Beyond is downtown Portland.

 To the west of Ross Island, looking northwest. South Waterfront highrise buildings looking rather surreal in the grey afternoon glow.

To the southwest of Ross Island, looking north. South Waterfront highrise buildings in right background, downtown Portland beyond.


  1. For a historical perspective on pollution in the Willamette River, at the April 14th meeting of the Portland Harbor Community Advisory Group (www.portlandharborcag.info) we will present a restored film from 1938 about the polluted status of the river at that time. Meeting starts at 6pm at the City of Portland's Water Pollution Control Testing Lab, located at 6543 N. Burlington Ave, on the south side of the St. Johns bridge.

  2. Thanks for alerting me to this event, Jim. This reminder prompted me to do something I have been planning to do for a while now -- sign up for the CAG listserv. (I have no good excuse, but I do have an excuse: So many intentions, so little time!) Now I can keep abreast of these events more directly!

    I'll definitely be at this meeting, unless something completely unforeseen comes up.

    You mention a film from 1938; I wonder if it's William Joy Smith's summer 1940 film available for streaming through the OSU Archives website? I'm not aware that there was a film from 1938, but if there is, I'm very excited to see it. I would suspect that if it is from 1938 it was somehow part of the successful campaign to pass the citizen's initiative to create the OR State Sanitary Authority (OSSA) and Portland's ballot measure to establish a pay-as-you-go sewer funding mechanism. Voters approved these on Nov. 10, 1938. Both passed by a two-to-one margin.

    Smith's 1940 film was part of citizen and OSSA efforts to get the City of Portland to levy the full water service charge authorized in Nov. 1938 in order to establish a fund that would enable the project to be built incrementally. Once the war started and local and national priorities shifted to war production, citizens and the OSSA continued to press Portland city leaders to implement this full charge so as to have money for post-war projects. City leaders continued to balk at this, fearing political repercussions from disgruntled voters. Frustrated that city leaders were not making adequate progress in spite of the overwhelming vote in support of the sewer project nearly two years previously, Smith created his film. The OSSA lauded the film at one of their regular meetings in late 1940.

    Advocates, OSSA representatives, and a few key city commissioners (incl. future mayor Dorothy McCullough Lee) finally forced the city to draft and present to voters in May 1944 a $12 million infrastructure funding package. This package was based on the 1943 report Portland Improvement by urban planner Robert Moses (the sewer plans in this report, in turn, were based on Abel Wolman's 1939 report outlining options for the city's enhanced sewage infrastructure). From this source of funding sprang, finally, Portland's Columbia Boulevard treatment plant (broke ground summer 1947, completed 1952).