One City, Two Rivers: Columbia and Willamette Rivers in the Environmental History of Twentieth-Century Portland, Oregon

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Cities and Nature in the American West

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Nature -- Effect of human beings on -- West (U.S.) -- History -- 20th century


At a regular Portland City Council session in late December 1909, Mayor Joe Simon called for a vote on an ordinance aimed at controlling nuisances in the city’s harbor. A steadfast ally of waterfront commercial interests, the mayor prodded the councilors to fix what he saw as a social and an economic problem. They responded by unanimously passing the ordinance, which made it unlawful “for any person to keep, anchor, moor or maintain, or permit the keeping, anchoring, mooring or maintaining of any boathouse, house boat, scow house or scow dwelling used for human habitation within the harbor limits of the City of Portland as now established.” Tensions had increased between shipping businesses at the Stark Street dock on the river’s west side and a legion of river denizens, who had been accused of dumping debris, managing floating whorehouses, running thievery rings along the waterfront, and generally behaving in an unsightly manner. Tension had also developed between the waterfront interests and the public, which saw the private control of the city’s dock facilities as a purloining of one of Portland’s great assets—its direct access to the Willamette River. In an era of Progressive reform, city policies chipped away at private business privileges: first in 1910, when voters approved a referendum to create a Commission of Public Docks to build and maintain public docks; and second in 1911, when the city council ended a decades-long privatizing of city streets by owners who had blocked off streets to create special entrances to their docks and warehouses.

The city council’s focus on the Willamette River harbor early in the twentieth century was timely and appropriate. Little happened in Portland at the time that did not have at least an indirect connection to the Willamette or the Columbia rivers. The Columbia, the “Great River of the West,” had been the key to economic development in the Oregon Country since the founding of Astoria at the river’s mouth in 1810. The Columbia connected the region, a vast 259,000-square-mile drainage basin, to the world. The Willamette, a 187-mile tributary that drains an 11,000-square-mile basin, flows north to the Columbia and divides the city of Portland into westside and eastside districts. These rivers have profoundly shaped the city. Like rivers that have created urban centers throughout history, the Columbia and Willamette have had a physical impact on Portland’s industrial, commercial, and residential districts—providing the city with wealth and opportunities to flourish, and offering their waters for navigation, recreation and aesthetics, and disposal for urban detritus. These three primary uses have dominated Portland’s twentieth-century relationship with its rivers, especially the Willamette. The Columbia-Willamette seaway project, which scoured a navigation channel from Portland to the Pacific Ocean, made the city a commercial entrepot. The riversides and lowlands in the metropolitan area offered opportunities for recreation, natural areas, and parks. Both rivers offered their substantial flows to wash away nuisance effluent generated by industrial and municipal activities. These relationships between rivers and city are symbiotic, each affecting the other and influencing Portland’s development as a “working city.” The relationships pulled and pushed Portland, forcing the city to embrace the riverine landscape or ignore it, to abuse it or restore it. No relationship followed a straight or singular path, and each major effort to adjust city to river or river to city forced multiple adjustments and helped create new conditions that raised yet new concerns and problems. Like thousands of other river cities in the world, however, Portland is best understood as a human community in intimate connection with a dynamic part of the natural world.


Copyright © 2010 by University of Nevada Press

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