Thursday, April 15, 2010

Willamette River pollution film, 1940

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.

Clarifying provenance: Film "Pollution in the Willamette"

The film above is available through the University of Oregon Archives (here). When you navigate to this page you'll note that the Archives identifies this film as “Willamette River Pollution Film, circa 1940.”[1] The title is incorrect, and the “circa” in this listing reflects previous ambiguity regarding the year William Joy Smith made the film.

Members of the Oregon State Sanitary Authority (OSSA) viewed Smith's film at their December 13, 1940, meeting, at which Smith called his film “Pollution in the Willamette” and explained that it was filmed in late summer of that year (more information below).[2]

Additional information supporting this 1940 date comes from the film itself, in a section at about minute 19. This section shows a sign at the city limits of Woodburn that reads: “Woodburn First Place Award Traffic Safety Division 4, 1939, Department of State Safety Division," indicating that Smith made the film no earlier than 1940.

Other versions of the film provide a date of 1938 or 1939. The latter dates come from sanitary engineer Kenneth Spies, one of two men long-involved in abating Willamette pollution, in a 1984 interview (further information below), but Mr. Spies' dates are incorrect. In this recording, Mr. Spies responds to a question about the year of the film by stating: “I would guess . . . the summer of [nineteen] thirty-eight or [nineteen] thirty-nine.”

Clarifying provenance: Narration accompanying some versions of the film "Pollution in the Willamette"

The Oregon Historical Society (OHS) Research Library holds the narration that accompanies some versions of this silent film. This recording, titled "A narration to a 1937 silent film about a boat trip along the Willamette River 1984 Nov.," is incorrectly dated, as the information above shows. The OHS' abstract of this recording does identify correctly the two interviewees in the recording: Kenneth Spies and David Charlton. Kenneth Spies was a long-time sanitary engineer with the Oregon State Sanitary Authority (OSSA) (precursor to the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality); David Charlton was a chemical engineer, long-time member of the state and national Izaak Walton League, and a leading pollution abatement advocate from the mid-1930s into the early 1980s.

Historical context for the film "Pollution in the Willamette"

The lamentable conditions of the Willamette River as of the summer 1940 were preserved in a color film produced by William Joy Smith. In 1940 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 shows a full range of municipal and industrial waste discharges into the Willamette from Springfield north to the Portland harbor. This film provides 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 echoes the tactics of the 1938 media campaign initiated by advocates of a citizen’s initiative to create the Oregon State Sanitary Authority: Men are shown immersing hatchery fingerlings in river water where, in most cases, the fingerlings die within forty-five seconds because of extremely low levels of dissolved oxygen in the water.[3]

Smith produced his film as part of a push from citizens groups to convince the City of Portland to commence its proposed sewage disposal project. Portland city leaders placed an initiative to fund sewerage infrastructure on the same November 1938 ballot that included the proposal to create the Oregon State Sanitary Authority. However, nearly two years after both of these initiatives passed by a two-to-one margin, Portland city officials still had not taken any substantive steps to develop the necessary plans--nor to fund the project fully by levying the full amount of water service charges voters had authorized in 1938. Smith contributed to the efforts of state Izaak Walton League members and others increasingly frustrated with this lack of progress. Sanitary Authority members lauded Smith’s film at its December 13, 1940, meeting, as Authority members themselves continued to pressure Portland officials.[4]

Portland officials continued to resist pressure from abatement advocates and the Sanitary Authority well into 1943. This intransigence, and voter disapproval of a 1943 city measure to levy the full water use service charge, spurred the OSSA to initiate a public campaign in June 1943 to increase pressure on city leaders and educate voters on the need for sewage treatment funding.[5] Confronting this coalition and faced with the threat of legal action, in late January 1944 three Portland City Council members—Commissioners Dorothy McCullough Lee, Fred Peterson, and Kenneth Cooper—agreed to craft a measure for Portland voters for the upcoming May election. Their proposal would authorize a $12 million bond issue that would replace the 1938 pay-as-you-go system. This funding mechanism followed recommendations of both the 1939 Wolman Report and Robert Moses’ 1943 planning report Portland Improvement. Commissioner Lee called this “the No. 1 project of the Moses report, because before we pretty up our city we should first clean it up.”[6]

Portland voters approved the measure on May 19 as part of a $24 million post-war funding package for schools, roads, docks, and sewers recommended in the Moses Report.[7] The City of Portland finally commenced construction of a comprehensive interceptor system and sewage treatment plant in 1947, and this facility--the Columbia Boulevard Waste Treatment Plant--came on-line in 1952. [8]

[1] See “Guide to the Willamette River Pollution Film, circa 1940,”, accessed Sept. 20, 2008.

[2] Oregon State Sanitary Authority Meeting Minutes Vol. 1, Dec. 13, 1940, pp. 95-96, Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, Portland, Oreg. [hereafter OSSA Minutes Vol. 1].

[3] William Joy Smith. "Pollution in the Willamette," film. Portland, Oreg., William Joy Smith, Producer, 1940.

[4] OSSA Minutes Vol. 1, Dec. 13, 1940, pp. 95-96. At their November 4, 1949, meeting, the Sanitary Authority allocated $900 to re-print the film and provide a soundtrack; see OSSA Minutes Vol. 2, Nov. 4, 1949, p. 217, Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, Portland, Oreg. [hereafter OSSA Minutes Vol. 2].

[5] For more on this, see James V. Hillegas, "Working for the 'Working River': Willamette River Pollution, 1926-1962," (Portland State University, 2009), particularly pp. 74-80.

[6] “Bond Issue for Sewage Plant Urged,” Oregonian, Jan. 21, 1944, sec. 1, pp. 1, 10; $12 million in 1943 is approximately $120 million in 2007. “Sewage Group Elects Heads,” Oregonian, Feb. 29, 1944, sec. 1, p. 11.

[7] Carl Abbott, The Metropolitan Frontier: Cities in the Modern American West (Tucson, Ariz., University of Arizona Press, 1993), 37.

[8] Hillegas, "Working for the 'Working River,'" 80-83.



  1. Thank you, spambot from!

  2. There is no stopping to the pollution and the water bodies are contaminated the life underwater is hampered.the Gulf Oil spill is a best example in case.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Thank you, spambot from Manhattan Air Conditioning Service! However, I don't agree that there is no stopping pollution -- I don't have quite the same negative spin that you do.

  5. Where can I obtain a copy of the narration? I contacted the OHS and they do not have a copy. Can anyone point me in the direction of another copy? Thanks!

  6. Hello Kristina,

    I spoke with Scott Daniels, Archivist at the Oregon Historical Society, last week and he said that they haven't yet been able to locate an audio copy of the narration, but that they're continuing to look for it. Your question and an email query I received recently have prompted me to post my interpretation of the content of this narration. You can find this post here.