February 4, 2012 by David Gillaspie
New York City is a river town.
Chicago has their name river like LA has the Los Angeles river.
What’s the difference between those and Portland’s Willamette River? They look like man-made culverts, cement lined ditches to regulate river life. They look like dead rivers. Legend has it that the East River might not be dead, but does have plenty of bodies in it.
The Willamette River is still alive. Why? Maybe it’s due to less population pressure. When millions of people could be affected by flooding, they vote for water control. And who would blame them. Fortunately for the Willamette, there’s not that many people jamming its banks.
Imagine a sign advertising ‘Exclusive River Front Property.’ You buy it for the exclusive, not the flood, and if the first time a river jumps it’s banks doesn’t break you, you petition for safety.
Portland has had floods, some with water reaching six blocks up on the west side. That’s the side with the sea wall rising out of the water to prevent spectacular flooding. Unlike the big cities, the Willamette isn’t contained within two sea walls. It isn’t a canal, yet.
The question asked before an overflow crowd inside the Oregon Historical Society on a dry Tuesday night was ‘what does a river mean?’
Professors Carl Abbott and William Lang delivered the questions, along with possible answers. Is the river a means of getting goods to markets? A recreational playground? A self-cleaning sewer?
With eight sewer lines flowing to the river from the West Hills in the past, it worked for waste disposal. It worked just as well upstream for Eugene, Salem, and Albany. When early floods dropped smelly ‘silt’ on Portland streets, and inside businesses, the idea of river as open sewer changed.
The manufacturing base of the river changed the recreational aspects. Paper mills, metal making, and ship building used river water for their processes. The water they took out wasn’t the same water they returned. If certain fish are deemed inedible from pollutants, do you really want to take a swim with them in the same water?
Since the Willamette isn’t blocked in by cement banks on both side, the natural beauty of the past remains in places. For some it is a haunting reminder of what Oregon once looked like; for others it is a threat of potential disaster.
In a scale of worst to best, the four rivers mentioned:
1. This is a good view of the Los Angeles River. A bad view shows no water. How far do you drive to see a river rivering? Too far.
2. The Chicago River is nice and narrow with building right to the edge.
3. The East River has the works. The population pressure fills the roads, the river, and the bridges across. What chance does it have?
4. The Willamette River might look like any other urban waterway with defined borders, but the environment of what it was, and could be again, is a short drive away from downtown Portland.
Does the Willamette have a chance to avoid the fate of other urban rivers? Take a walk on Waterfront Park for an answer. A city that celebrates public values enough to preserve that much property says it: We love the Willamette.
When Executive Director Kerry Tymchuk of the Oregon Historical Society and Portland Harbor Partners join with PSU professors Carl Abbott and William Lang and over two hundred Willamette River fans for a SRO event at the Oregon History Museum, the future of the river looks clear.