The Willamette River is featured in much of my writing. The river is a theme that permeates my memoir, My Music Man and my blog-based Then, Now and In-Between: Place, Memories and Loss in Oregon. My family last gave and heard public tributes to our dad while on the Willamette River. Just last month our Willamette River formed the boundary between Clackamas County evacuation zones 1 and 2 as the Riverside Fire advanced toward our metro area (see A Tribute to Clackamas County).
My brother’s birthday earlier this week made me recall this favorite photo of mine, an image caught between the covers of My Music Man.
“And then Oregonians began to talk about pollution. Our Willamette –some days loaded with effluent –touting sludge hazards awaiting would-be swimmers. The nearby town of Tualatin, known to us for its annual Crawfish Festival, was forced to stop developing until it created a sewer system to prevent the Tualatin River from becoming a permanent cesspool……”
“But what I knew then was that I had to pose holding hands with Andy with our backs to the camera while we stood on our dock, sadly looking at our sometimes effluent-encumbered river. I remember thinking it odd when Dad shot the picture, with us looking so sadly down into a river that was at least on that day clean enough for swimming. Or, perhaps, at least I thought it was….”My Music Man, 2014, Chapter: Summer
Others have written more prolifically and knowledgeably about the polluted history of this Willamette River, its subsequent clean up of sewage and effluent, and its contemporary Superfund cleanup of the Portland Harbor and surrounding areas. This history of pollution provides an intimate timeline of history, primarily of white people, here: increased development requiring sewage treatment, effluent from our leading pulp and paper-making industries, building and breaking of ships, PCBS from electrical operations and disposal, and other related operations. Best original sources include the still relevant documentary film, Pollution in Paradise. Every Oregonian and river lover should watch this piece at least once, a one-hour documentary produced by Tom McCall prior to his tenure as Oregon Governor, and aired on KGW-TV on November 21, 1962. Tom was a University of Oregon journalism graduate like our own dad, and a friend to both our dad and grandfather. Tom McCall, a Republican governor from 1967 to 1975 is considered by many to have shaped the identity of modern Oregon more than any other leader. Learn more about Pollution in Paradise via The Oregon Encyclopedia. Watch Pollution in Paradise on YouTube. Catch up to present time by reading A Brief History of the Willamette River by Sam Owens.
Even more powerful are stories that came before me and my family and other whites. Stories and lore about the making of the falls, the abundance of salmon and of times long ago. Those long ago days at the Willamette Falls and other river stretches before my great great great grandmother Chloe wrote, “As they break over huge rocks in a spume of white spray and to see the fish, shining silver, jump up the waters is a sight that I wish I might share with my dear sister.” For these stories I encourage you to read People Above the Falls: Canemah Village by David Lewis Ph.D., Our Story: Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs, Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians, Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation, and Confederated Tribes of the Yakima Nation.
And with that, some river memories…