A quick visit to Portland this weekend didn’t feature much in the way of exploration, but it was a pleasure to stumble upon the Tanner Creek Tavern, a new restaurant in the Pearl District (corner of 9th and Everett) with a nice connection to hidden hydrology. The name says it all, but the spot has the distinction of housing some notable historical remnants celebrating Tanner Creek, including some maps and photos of the creek, which ran nearby for many of the early years of Portland’s history before being encased underground in the early 1900s.
The far wall of the restaurant contains a 1870s aerial lithograph of downtown, viewed from the east across the Wilamette River, with the ‘route’ of the creek highlighted in a faint blue. Some questions arise about the fidelity of the tracing of the mouth of the creek, but it does aid in reinforcing Tanner Creek.
Oddly enough, I’ve collected other versions of this map that are not as crisp of a reproduction (it typically comes with a chunky border and is oddly cropped on both sides, but hadn’t seen this particular one, via a link on their website gallery as well., which is beautifully shaded with the wooded West Hills up from the nascent downtown grid and a sparsely filled in east side.
There’s some references to the creek history on the menu, and a bit of a longer text via the website, a sidebar on the Legend of Tanner Creek:
“Tanner Creek was named after the tannery established in 1845 by Kentucky settler and Portland founding father, Daniel Lownsdale. With its headwaters originating in the West Hills, the creek traced its surface path down Canyon Road and through Goose Hollow before emptying into Couch Lake and the surrounding wetlands that now make up the modern Pearl District. Portland’s heavy storm runoff would often cause the creek to overflow, damaging property on the expanding Westside. City fathers tackled this problem in the late 19th century by burying the creek in an enormous brick-lined culvert excavated at some points to a depth of 50 feet. Today this subterranean public works project still functions much the way it did over a century ago. The creek meanders below the Pearl on its final destination to the Willamette River where it empties somewhere between the Broadway Bridge and the Portland Police Horse Paddock.”
A few other views show the space, an airy semi-industrial central bar surrounded by open seating with some wood accents. A really loved the central visibility of the map as the focal point.
Another wall visible from outside has photos of the demise, a set of 1920s era construction photos of the installation of the pipes that took the surface waters underground.
While I am probably same in assuming I was the only one in the place geeking out on a giant wall map of a hidden stream, it’s a decent attempt at connecting a place to place and imbuing a story into what are often sort of hollow legends that are crafted for bars and restaurants in lieu of real context. And, hidden hydrology nerdiness aside, the food and drinks are pretty good as well.
The margins of history, ecology, and culture overlap in stories about hidden hydrology. This is evident in a 2016 article by Putsata Reang in Oregon Humanities, entitled ‘The Farmers of Tanner Creek’ that looks at this convergence in Portland and the history in the Goose Hollow area to the southwest of downtown.
The article investigates the shadow economy of Chinese immigrants that gardened on the fringes of the city of Portland around the turn of the century. Alternatively referenced as “Vegetable Man” or “Chinaman”, Reang leads with the legders of the Mills family, who “likely hefted his produce in wicker baskets hung from a pole and slung across his shoulder, trekking uphill from the gulch along Tanner Creek in Southwest Portland where his garden grew and along the hill to the Mills’ mansion every day, faithfully, for much of 1907.”
The story also notes that around 1910 that these gardens and “vegetable men” started to disappear from life, a combination of urban expansion and racism which made the land more valuable and more likely to lead to displacement. Perhaps something we can learn from again with massive growth and gentrification that is occuring in Portland and many other cities. As Tracy Prince is quoted:
““It was real estate that was once undesirable and became desirable that disbanded the vegetable garden community,” says Tracy J. Prince, professor emeritus at Portland State University. “The same pressures are gentrifying Northeast Portland, having the black community move out.”
The draw for Chinese immigrants to the area may have been the location adjacent to the creek, which Reang mentions “the lure of that wild land and an interest in cultivating crops that many had brought from their homes in the agrarian Pearl River Delta of China, an area known for terraced farming,”
The land was considered less desirable by settlers, but for immigrants aligned with floodplain food production, using the rich soils to maximize yields. The first removal of the natural channel of Tanner Creek was also the reason for the gardens to exist:
“When a wooden bridge over the creek that connected the burgeoning neighborhoods from 14th Street to 17th Avenue North collapsed during a flood in 1873, the city used the calamity as an opportunity not only to repair the bridge, but also to tame Tanner Creek. That summer, the City of Portland contracted Chinese workers to build a 115-foot cylindrical culvert to pipe the creek sixty feet below Burnside Street, a solution that both controlled and ultimately prevented flooding in the area.”
The workers stayed and cultivated the areas, eventually growing on 20 acres of land, with many gardeners avoiding the perils of other urban jobs and selling their produce to local residents, many who employed Chinese cooks, according to the article. While the land was undesirable, there was no issue, even without ownership, to using it for production. The dark history of racism in Portland started early, as mentioned, and this was directed specifically at Chinese, as “Oregon’s state constitution of 1859 barred anyone of Chinese descent from owning property, which meant that the Chinese gardeners could be evicted from their farms at any moment.”
Eventually expansion and development led to the demise of both Tanner Creek and the gardeners that capitalized on the floodplains, land was taken for building the Multnomah Athletic Club in 1893, moving gardeners south, until eventually they were move out completely, as populations spiked around the turn of the century.
Ironically for a town that prides itself on food carts, the other mechanism, the adoption of policies limiting street vending – as the article mentions, quoting Marie Rose Wong, who wrote about the Chinese gardens in her book, Sweet Cakes, Long Journey:“In 1897, the Portland Common Council adopted an ordinance requiring street vendors within city limits to obtain a license—a move that angered white owners of several fish companies that were affected by the law. The white business owners protested and by 1910, the city adopted an additional ordinance limiting the area of downtown where street peddlers could sell their wares to an area that effectively covered most of downtown Portland. Those who sold meats, fish, ice, bread, and newspapers were exempted from the ordinance, which effectively banned only the Chinese vegetable peddlers from operating.”
The crux of the story is that there are hidden stories of people embedded in the narratives of hidden hydrology, in this case the fates of Tanner Creek intertwined with those that helped to literally build grow Portland, attempting to use the creek to cultivate a life amidst forces of racism and development.
The article is a great reminder of the layers of history that exist, from native peoples that occupied spaces these places prior to European settlement, as well as the diversity of those, many often overlooked in white washed histories, that contributed to the early life of these cities, and continue to contribute today. It also is a tale about development, and marginal spaces that seem worthless until pressures make them desirable, and that impulse to remove impediments to development.
A great additional narrative of Goose Hollow, and where I remember first seeing these images of farms, is the book “Portland’s Goose Hollow” by Prince, worthy of a good summary on the site as well, as it does unlock some mysteries about “how Goose Hollow got its name and how Tanner Creek Gulch was filled.” Another photo from the Oregon Encyclopedia history of Goose Hollow shows a slightly different view, capturing the view, circa 1890s, of the creek running under the trestle bridge, with the Chinese vegetable gardens in the lowlands and Portland High School in the distance.
Another from the same source shows the Chinese truck gardens sprawling around Tanner Creek Gulch a bit earlier, from the 1880s.
Many thanks to my Portland friend and hidden hydrology contributor Matt Burlin for this link.
Map-making is an inherently iterative process. Often finding an appropriate base layer is vital to providing a solid foundation for this process. In this spirit, I’ve been working on the digitization of the basic Public Land Survey System (PLSS), or the Cadastral Map series for both Portland and Seattle from the 1850s as base maps for the hidden hydrology studies of both cities. This data, which is the most uniform and complete snapshot of the landscape of the west, is a great resource for the locations of historic streams and other features. Because the use of the shared cartography of Townships with their corresponding Section grids, the PLSS maps provides a link to very accurately georeference the historic with the modern. Prior to diving into some of this work, I thought it prudent to discuss the Public Lands maps themselves.
There’s plenty of history out there for those in the mood, and my plan isn’t a deep dive, but more of some context. A good starting place is ‘The National Map’ page by the USGS on the subject of the PLSS, and a brief history page from the BLM. Everything else you may want to know about the Cadastral Survey is found at the Bureau of Land Management page of Tools, including the massive 1983 History of the Rectangular Survey System by C.A. White (46mb PDF). The terminology of the PLSS, is somewhat synonymous with the concept of Cadastral Survey, although in reality there is a difference, as one (PLSS) is the thing itself mapping the United States, and the other (Cadastral) a type of survey, defined as “having to do with the boundaries of land parcels.” Cadastral surveys of all types are done all over the world, and the origin comes from the “…Latin base term Cadastre referring to a registry of lands. So actually Cadastral Surveying is surveying having to do with determining and defining land ownership and boundaries” (via Cadastral Survey).
After the Revolutionary War, there was huge amounts of available land, and the need to distribute and sell tracts became necessary for the new survey. While the original colonies were laid out pre-PLSS using more traditional metes and bounds, but due to the immensity of the effort, Thomas Jefferson proposed a system of surveying massive open tracts of land. The Land Ordinance of 1785 set up the system and the subsequent 1787 Northwest Ordinance kick-started the process (although it referred to the areas NW of the colonies, not the actual NW Territories).
The surveying moved across the country over the next hundred years – as The extent of the surveying is captured in the map below, starting in Ohio and Florida on the east and encompassing the majority of the midwest, plains, and west including Alaska (which is still being surveyed today), with the only exception being Texas. Almost 1.5 billion acres were included.
Anyone who has looked at a survey will be familiar with the language of the PLSS. Any legal land description could be generated starting with“…the State, Principal Meridian name, Township and Range designations with directions, and the section number”. There are many versions of this diagram out there, but it breaks down the foundations of the PLSS using the Principal Meridians and Base Lines, and breaking the grid into Townships and the 36 smaller Sections.
The markers are vital to maintaining the integrity of the grid over centuries, and there are approximately 2.6 million section corners across the US. An interesting link to the ‘Corner Identification and Markings’ shows some of the layout specifics and one of the common protection measures employed for the corner monuments, circling the monument in a circle of stone. There is a shared geography continuity between the principal Willamette Meridian, established in 1851, with bisects both Portland and Seattle, and the shared baseline which runs parallel a bit south of the border between the two states.
“The Willamette Meridian was established June 4th, 1851 and runs from the Canadian border to the northern border of California. The base line runs from the Pacific Ocean to the Idaho border. All property in Washington and Oregon is referenced to this point. The original stake was replaced by a large stone in 1855 and is now part of The Willamette Stone Park in Portland.”
The PLSS is still updated, so if you want a deep dive in this topic, you can reference, the 1973 Manual of Surveying Instructions , which provides the most current info on PLSS surveying. Rather than a mere history lesson, the concept of the PLSS is vital to the understanding the ability to reference historical maps and . This is less important for East Coast but for a large portion of the United States, is the vital tool for hidden hydrology work. Also the extent of coverage that was all completed within a short timeframe (at least in local areas) provides a measure of comparability between areas.
A typical survey map shows the detail of the maps, in this case Township No. 1 N. Range No. 1 East, in the Willamette Meridian, with downtown Portland in the bottom of the map, and showing some of the topographic features, ponds, and streams. IN this case, the original 1852 map was redrawn in the early 1900s, which is pretty common. This info is downloadable via the BLM site.
And the typical surveyor notes, which are a tough read, but shows the information which was later interpreted by the mapmakers, based on the surveyors notations as they followed the specific section lines within the individual townships. The interpretation is a key item that implies the ‘filling in the blanks’ of these maps, as each line was not individually surveyed.
To see this in action, and to explain the correlation between georeferenced history maps and the modern GIS, you see the rectangular areas of the map Sections (this map is a composite of the map above (T01sn01e) and the Township below (T01s01e). This is the area in the Taggart neighborhood, in this case the upper Taggart Basin, showing the Willamette River (light blue), some small water bodies and streams (darker blue), as well as riparian wetlands (green).
The same area is georeferenced with modern GIS info (in this case the 2010 roads, parks, schools), and you can see the Section Lines (orange) that register on maps. The Taggart streams have long been buried, along with the filling of the wetlands along the Willamette for industrial lands. The modern topography is also shown, and you can see the tracings of the landscape channels still evident today.
The ability to tap into other map tools, in this case digital elevation ‘hillshade’ model (of the Lower Taggart Basin) again give some context for new and old, and graphically show some of the landform that exists today. There’s no shortage of analysis once the PLSS info is referenced. Lots more specific info on these maps in Portland and Seattle coming soon.
While amazingly detailed, the maps are, as mentioned, somewhat variable in nature due to the interpretation of survey notes and mapmaking. Thus, the PLSS becomes a great starting point, with good coverage and georeferencing, some they become a framework for overlaying other maps and data. Also, while the surveying standards were the same, as I will point out in a future posts, the quality and legibility of the maps often depended on the mapmakers themselves, and maps of one location could have very different information. This is evident from looking at Seattle versus Portland, and what i feel is a specific quality of maps in the latter versus the former.
Endnote: Having grown up in North Dakota, I was very aware both of the grid, and the ubiquitous grid-shift – as the rhythm of gravel roads cut through the state if perhaps more evident and legible when each ‘back road’ follows a grid. The excerpt below from Fathom shows the amount of contiguous one miles squares.
This making it infinitely possible to chart one’s path multiple ways to get to locations, and also comes with long stretches of arrow-straight road ending with a curve or more often a tee. Many a speeding or slightly inebriated driver was been surprised by this phenomenon. This comes up perusing such Instagram accounts like The Jefferson Grid, and for me more recently someone linked to re-posted from an article in Hyperallergic, featuring work of artist Gerco de Ruijter from 2015, as he masterfully documents this using a series of Google Earth images.
“By superimposing a rectangular grid on the earth surface, a grid built from exact square miles, the spherical deviations have to be fixed. After all, the grid has only two dimensions. The north-south boundaries in the grid are on the lines of longitude, which converge to the north. The roads that follow these boundaries must dogleg every twenty-four miles to counter the diminishing distances: Grid Corrections”
The recent post about the Mississippi River change illustrated in the Fisk maps reminded me of this lovely lidar image of the Willamette River, which encompasses the region around Portland, Oregon and south. The image Willamette River Historical Stream Channels, Oregon, 17 x 38 inches, by Daniel E. Coe (via the State of Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries – DOGAMI). From their site:
This lidar-derived digital elevation model of the Willamette River displays a 50-foot elevation range, from low elevations (displayed in white) fading to higher elevations (displayed in dark blue). This visually replaces the relatively flat landscape of the valley floor with vivid historical channels, showing the dynamic movements the river has made in recent millennia. This segment of the Willamette River flows past Albany near the bottom of the image northward to the communities of Monmouth and Independence at the top. Near the center, the Luckiamute River flows into the Willamette from the left, and the Santiam River flows in from the right. Lidar imagery by Daniel E. Coe.”
Via an article in the Oregonian, the utility of LIDAR in evaluating subtle changes that wouldn’t be visible via aerial photography is evident, and the “Lidar data is collected by low-, slow-flying aircraft with equipment that shoots millions of laser points to the ground. When the data is studied, an amazingly accurate model of the ground can be mapped. It is possible to strip buildings and vegetation from the images, so that only the ground is shown. In the Willamette River poster, the shades of white and blue show elevations. The purest white color is the baseline, (the zero point, at the lowest point near Independence on the upper part of the image). The darkest blue is 50 feet (or higher) than the baseline. The shades of white show changes in elevation, between 0 to 50 feet. This brings out the changes made by the river channel in the last 12,000 to 15,000 years, in the time since the landscape was basically swept clean by the Missoula floods.”
The evocative image that is fluid and abstracted, as mentioned in the Oregonian article by the mapmaker, Dan Coe:
“The different movements of the river make the image take a liquid shape, even almost like a cloud of smoke. This shows the magic of lidar.”
Over the next week, I have been outlining some of the inspirations and precedents related to the idea of Hidden Hydrology, with a specific focus on Portland stories, as this project has been shaped and has evolves across many years to it’s present incarnation. One of the main inspirations was the map of ‘Disappeared Streams’ that was produced by Metro. My first encounter with this map was during a presentation at DaVinci Arts middle school, as part of the preliminary planning for what would become their beautiful water garden. At the time I was working with local non-profit Urban Water Works – and the students were showing off many of their water-related side projects, including hand-made flowforms, studies of water movement, and mapping. One student had a GIS application that was showing the disappeared streams – which has stuck in my brain every since. Metro now publishes it in map form – available at the Data Resource Center – along with many other great maps.
As I mentioned there are a few methodological caveats to this map – as it is not a historical representation of actual streams, but looking more specifically at locations of potential water routes. From the map, some of this language:
“Development patterns in the Metro region have historically resulted in piping, culverting, or filling of streams and stream beds. A computer mapping program was used to evaluate the terrain in the region, and to generate areas where major streams (those draining 50+ acres of land) may once have existed. While this does not represent an authoritative analysis, it does visually describe the effects of urbanization on the regions natural systems. This exercise indicates that an estimated 388 miles of previously existing streams are now underground.”
The coding of the map is pretty striking (the choice of ‘blood’ red I think fitting) when viewed as a whole (above) particularly noting the core area of Portland that has been denuded of streams over the course of 150 years (below, closeup of City of Portland), where flatter areas were developed for Eastside residential, and margins on the Willamette filled in for industrial development.
You can also get a close-up view,including the central business district – seen in closeup below. Notice the existing pattern, where streams are kept somewhat intact in the west hillsides (topography being somewhat of an antidote to piping), then quickly buried when they reach the urbanized area. Tanner Creek, one of the hidden streams we will be studying closer, is captured as it originates from the Oregon Zoo and cuts through the northwest corner of downtown.
A relatively simple map that is more evocative than accurate, but does much to reinforce the ideology of what is hidden beneath our developed urban areas. As I mentioned, it has stuck with me (and I’m glad Metro still has these available). One of the stronger and original inspirations for the project, it continues to entertain and inspire investigation into our hidden hydrology.
Another inspiration for Hidden Hydrology is the writing of David James Duncan (author of a couple of my favorite books, The River Why and The Brothers K amongst the best). In his book of essays from 2002 entitled ‘My Story as Told by Water‘ Duncan tells some stories with a Portland area spin about his youthful explorations in the area.
The idea of oral histories providing an additional layer to mapping and other on-the-ground study is intriguing, as the narrative is both informative and evocative of what these lost urban waterways meant, and what was lost along with them. Early in his childhood, he mentions growing up on Mount Tabor (the volcanic outgrowth in East Portland – not the biblical version, seen below between downtown and Mt. Hood in the image), and his quote worth discussing hints at the disconnect between the modern city and the natural processes which shape and feed these places:
“My birth-cone’s slopes were drained by tiny seasonal streams, which, like most of the creeks in that industrialized quadrant of Portland, were buried in underground pipes long before I arrived on the scene. … I was born, then, without a watershed. On a planet held together by gravity and fed by rain, a planet whose every creature depends on water and whose every slope works full-time, for eternity, to create creeks and rivers. I was born with neither. The creeks of my birth-cone were invisible, the river from somewhere else entirely.” (p.4)
The water system from early in Portland’s history, was stored at high points like Mount Tabor and piped to surrounding neighborhoods. This shot from 1912 shows one of the reservoirs that are still in operation today (for how long, is a good question).
The artificiality of the watershed is evident in Duncan’s discussions, as he makes do with building creeks using the hose and the power of gravity (much to his mothers chagrin) – using with water delivered to reservoirs and coming to his tap, as is common in many cities, from distant locales while burying the remnant hydrology that exists. A map of the water system shows the existing Bull Run watershed in relation to Portland.
Continuing this discussion on Johnson Creek on a youthful visit, showing the degradation of some of the existing waterways that has been occurring for many years. “It was just one of Portland’s dying creeks. Really, one with a much-needed but long-lost Indian name. Johnson Creek was now its anemic title. But it was twenty-six miles long, hence a little too big to bury.” (p.10)
It’s heartening to see the restoration of the creek, which is one of the few to remain on the east side in some natural form, through the work of a number of local groups such as the Johnson Creek Watershed Council, and recently there were reports of dead coho salmon found 15 miles upstream – which is significant as it is the furthest upstream anyone has noticed these species in many years, and a testament to the work on restoration and improvement. Something Duncan would appreciate, no doubt.
While water and rivers was of importance to Duncan, the main driving force for him was fishing – which drove the explorations to the wilds of the city. After leaving Mount Tabor, the family moved further east towards Gresham, and lived for a time on Osborne Road, the future route of I-205. Duncan mentions the lure of possible fishing holes, but the inaccessibility: “A spring a quarter-mile from our new house flowed into a series of backyard trout ponds for neighbors, but these ponds were picture-windowed, guard-dogged, private. The closest fish-inhabited waters to my house, so far as I knew, were the Columbia, three miles due north.” (p.17)
The story continues around the small town of Fairview, under Halsey Street, where Duncan spotted a kid and discovered a hidden world amidst the underbrush: “…the shocking thing, the magical thing, was that he was standing knee-deep in clear, lively creek water. A creek surrounded on all sides by briars so dense I’d never noticed it before.” (p.17) Later in the same spot, he saw a guy catching a trout there “a secret trout stream” and found his new exploration spot, as mentioned “Fairview Creek, it turned out, was five miles long, two-thirds wild, and amazingly full of life.” (p.18) See the location on the far right edge as it interfaces with the Columbia Slough watershed.
Following the course, he found gravel pits headwater at Mud Lake that were stocked rainbow trout, near the Kennel Club, a pond with bullheads, and always adventure in the streams. “In the plunge-pool below the Banfield Freeway culvert, I caught a thirteen-inch Giant Pacific Salamader that stared straight into my eyes, flaring and hissing like something out of Dante Volume one, till I apologized, cut my line and released it.”
The approximate area is interesting to see and compare – although the historical imagery from Google Earth (which is awesome btw) only goes back to 1990, there’s a telling transformation in a twenty year time-span (although still a fair amount of stream left intact with development. I remember this area, as my mother used to live just North of the Salish Ponds Park (south of Halsey) and we took the trails through behind the Target and over into Fairview, which is a real gem and one of those places that, like Duncan, you may walk by many times without realizing it’s there. I’ve highlighted Fairview Creek in Blue.
The same area in 1990 where you can see the residential development along Fairview Creek
The denouement to this story of youthful exploration comes after a few years of fishing these urban creeks and streams:
“At six-thirty or so on a rainy April morning, I crept up to a favorite hole, threaded a worm on a hook, prepared to cast – then noticed something impossible: there was no water in the creek. …I began hiking, stunned, downstream. The aquatic insects were gone, barbershop crawdads gone, catfish, carp, perch, crappie, bass, countless sacrificial cutthroats, not just dying, but completely vanished. Feeling sick, I headed the opposte way, hiked the emptied creekbed all the way to the source, and there found the eminently rational cause of the countless killings. Development needs roads and drainfields. Roads and drainfields need gravel. Up in the gravel pits at the Glisan Street headwaters, the creek’s entire flow had been diverted for months in order to fill two gigantic new settling ponds. My favorite teacher was dead.” (p.22)
A case of disappeared streams, captured in a moment of time from someone that was there. The sadness in this loss is palpable, as it isn’t just a line on a map, but a leaving & breathing part of someone – both their history and their essence. This sort of study of writings offers many opportunities for exploration through history, and can reveal much about a place in the past. Combined with oral histories from residents and other qualitative study, it offers a dimension that maps just can’t on their own. Thus looking beyond the map to the history is vital and inspirational going forward.
(all page references are to: Duncan, David James. My Story as Told by Water. Sierra Club Books, 2002.)