For me, one of the more interesting hidden hydrology stories of Portland is Guild’s Lake. Located northwest of downtown, this history of this 250 acre lake is a poignant story of water and the transformation of a waterbody from international destination, with eventual filling for development. A tale of erasure – literally and figuratively – from the minds of Portlander residents, who still hear fragments of names and history, but now placeless. In this first of three pieces, we talk about the humble origins of the lake.

From the original General Land Office survey map from 1852, the lake (approximately center of the map below) occupies the zone well north of the nascent city, with creeks running off the West Hills and outlets into the adjacent Willamette River.

1852 Map of the General Land Office Survey – BLM

There’s a footpath, along with a couple of cabins, one of which is affixed with the label ‘Gwiles’, which perhaps is a misinterpretation of the original settles Peter & Elizabeth Guild, which is also important to note, was pronounced like “guile”. From the Oregon Encyclopedia entry:

“Today, the curve of St. Helens Road in northwest Portland skirts the edge of a shoreline that no longer exists, leaving a visual echo of a riparian marsh once located there. The crescent-shaped marsh, known as Guild’s Lake, was likely an oxbow cutoff of the Willamette River formed by changes in sediment deposits and river flow. It was fed by hillside runoff and linked to the equally marshy Kittredge and Doane lakes. ”

The 1897 USGS map shows the lake with the similar two lobes, along with some of the natural context remaining in the vicinity, including the aforementioned Kittredge Lake, and across the river Swan Island and the lowlands areas. A photo from approximately this era gives a hint at the scattered cabins adjacent to the still picturesque lake.

View of the future exposition site taken from Willamette Heights looking north. – via Oregon Encyclopedia

You see the amount of development and encroachment and Portland expanded northward and eastward, with what becomes a thin strip of flat land where the lake exists, pinned between a roadway connection along the foot of the Tualatin Mountains (West Hills) and the Northern Pacific Railroad along the east bank of the Willamette River. At this point the inflow from adjacent Balch Creek and a few other local streams from the hills are still intact, and much of the natural margins along the river have not yet developed.

1897 USGS Topo Map – from Historical Topographic Map Collection

Although the origin of the name Guild is established, the usage is a bit of a moving target, with variations such as the Gwiles that shows up on the 1852 survey above, and then on subsequent maps with variations like Guild, Guilds, and the apostrophized Guild’s that seems to have stuck. An interesting tidbit on this is the documentation of this naming through ‘Decision Cards’ which allow you to trace this across time. Part of the process of USGS mapping process, these are available via the US Board on Geographic Names and their database Geographic Names Information System (GNIS).

From the entry for Guild Lake (historical), you see the naming associated with other maps, and how it was approved usage on other maps, but even at this time in 1897, there two distinct names, but the agreed upon use was Guild.

By 1914, the next decision, this had persisted, with maps interchanging between the two versions of Guild and Guilds, with the preference for Guild. By the 1939 map, the Lake has been gone for some time, but the reference by Lewis A. McArthur indicates the continuing resonance of the place name.

“In Portland, the expression ‘Guild Lake district’ is universally known even though the lake has been gone for many years. I think the origin of these names should be preserved, although it could be indicated that the geographic feature has undergone a change.”

From Wikipedia – citing multiple sources including the “Guild’s Lake Industrial Sanctuary Plan” from 2001, includes some more context. “In 1847, he [Peter Guild] acquired nearly 600 acres of the wetlands through a donation land claim. After Guild’s death in 1870, various landowners modified the area to accommodate sawmills, railroads, shipping docks, and Portland’s city garbage incinerator. The Guild’s Lake Rail Yard, built by the Northern Pacific Railway in the 1880s, became an important switching yard for trains. Beginning in the 1890s, channel-deepening in the Willamette River improved the city’s status as a deep-water seaport.”

While minimal development was happening at the margins, it didn’t radically change the function of the lake. Per the Oregon Encyclopedia: “At approximately 250-acres, Guild’s Lake remained connected to the Willamette River by an underground water table, and it rose and fell with seasonal fluctuations. Balch Creek meandered out of a canyon into Guild’s Lake until city workers diverted it into an underground sewer pipe in the early twentieth century.” There’s minimal information I’ve discovered on the indigenous use of the lake, beyond this note from this brief history as part of the Guild’s Lake Industrial Sanctuary report:

“The area that would become the City of Portland was populated by Chinook-speaking tribal groups prior to settlement by European Americans. Like much of Portland’s low-lying west side, the area now called the Guild’s Lake Industrial Sanctuary was swampy and not especially favored by the indigenous Multnomah people.”

Another entry from the Oregon History Project mentions that, similar to Tanner Creek, “In the 1880s, the area’s residents included Chinese immigrants who farmed small plots on the lake’s edge. “

This c.1904 photograph was taken near Balch Canyon, today in Macleay Park, looking northward toward Guild’s Lake and the Willamette River – via Oregon History Project

An image from 1904 above showed that the lake was still sparsely developed. This came at a turning point, which also coincided with the next iteration of the history of the Lake comes soon after, as Guild’s Lake takes on a new level of importance in civic boosterism, part of many sites evaluated around the City to become the key event — vital to placing Portland ‘on the map’ in terms of US cities.

HEADER: Cabins around Guild’s Lake, circa 1900 – via OHS

Dublin is another city with a rich history of lost waterways, so as a quick follow-up to the previous post about Belfast, let’s keep the focus on Ireland for a bit longer. The best source for this is a great article by Arron Henderson, “The Poddle and Dublin’s Hidden Rivers“, which mentions that there were over 60 watercourses flowing at one time. While a few remain such as the Liffey, Dodder, Santry, and Tolka – most are either completely gone or mostly underground. Henderson focuses on the Poddle, “…which runs underground for the majority of its course.”

The Poddle flows under Bridge and over a Weir at Mount Argus (via Dublin)

He points of the importance of these hidden streams, and how learning about them can connect with the history of places, sometimes in the margins, and often long erased from memory.

“It’s clear the Poddle played a crucial role in shaping Dublin’s history over so many hundreds of years. Providing our drinking water, powering mills, providing water for brewing, tanning, distilling and market gardens. This explains why, once they learn about it, people tend to treat this modest little river with interest and affection. An affection which is, after all, no more than it deserves.”

The River Tymon/Poddle near its source, as it flows out from Tymon Park – (via Dublin)

As mentioned in the article, there are many other hidden rivers, including the Swan, and place names emerge, with stories about the shopping center named after Rathmines, one of the tributaries of the Swan. Also some etymology, like the suffix “-iken” which means small, and one of Dublin’s rivers named in homage of another larger river named the Nanny, becoming it’s smaller namesake, the Naniken River.

For some exploration, there’s a map that I found, but can’t figure out the author, showing “dublin river past present and culverted“. A snapshot of the map is here, but it’s explorable via the Google map. Many of the waterways are untitled (and perhaps unnamed), but some are identified. Let me know if anyone knows the creator of this one.

These buried streams emerge during construction such as this view of the Swan River on Mount Pleasant Avenue and the old brickwork vaulting.

image via South Dublin Libraries

Similarly, this leads to opportunities for students to explore and learn about these hidden local waterways, as shown in this story from Dublin People, “Students explore hidden Northside waterways” and The National Neighborhood efforts to connect school kids to this hidden hydrological history. ” Led by artist Claire Halpin, the students are investigating the hidden rivers of Finglas and the Tolka river valley, and with the help of the National Museum of Ireland Collins’ Barracks Education team, are getting a chance to see first hand how their ancestors got around on the waters of north-west Dublin. “

“Already they have been learning about the secret underground river, Finglas Wood Stream, which flows right beneath their school. “

For further exploration and information, this video from Urban Tales RTÉ One has a good story about Dublin’s Hidden Rivers, covering the history of the rivers, mapping, and even a little subterranean exploration. Worth a watch.


There’s great resources via the Ordnance Survey Ireland and a great collection of 19th Century Historical Maps – check out the link to find more like these for areas all over Ireland.

1848 Map of Dublin
1897 Map of Dublin

HEADER: Detail of 1848 Map of Dublin – via OSi

A recent article on Belfast’s River Farset jogged my memory that I’ve got a ton of great info the hidden rivers in many cities around the world, so figured I’d start writing about them. For this post, I’ll focus on Belfast, and return shortly to discuss Dublin to round out Ireland, then move on to other locales. As mentioned in the most recent article, “For 170 years, the river that gave Belfast its name has been buried underground in a hidden tunnel.” It goes on to discuss how, similar to many stories of cities worldwide, the river was slowly changed from vital aquatic resource that fueled manufacturing such as linen mills, to it’s transformation as dumping ground, leading to the eventual encasement: “One million bricks and 40 years later, the last section of the Farset that flowed through the city centre was buried underground in 1848, and it has remained hidden from sight ever since.

In the 1800s, the Farset helped to power Belfast’s textile mills, factories and distilleries PHOTO: De Luan/Alamy (via Daily Trust)

From the article:

“Belfast, or Béal Feirste (‘the sandy ford at the mouth of the Farset’, in Irish) not only owes its existence to this river, but also its growth and early prosperity. Yet, for the last 170 years, this ancient waterway has been sealed off from the outside world by a series of tunnels, and is largely forgotten by those walking just above it.”

The desire to open up the Farset is a common theme, with plans “…to redevelop land around an exposed part of the river and also produce a full heritage package – including an exhibition, Farset app, public information signs, and tours with trained guides – that will highlight the heritage to local people and also attract tourism.”

Another article echoing this sentiment in the Belfast Telegraph traces “The lost river that gave Belfast its name” and offers an exploration as well: “Old drawings show a bustling river which powered Belfast’s industrial development and ferried traders into what is now High Street. But most locals would be hard-pressed to pinpoint exactly where the Farset flows before it reaches the city centre – because almost the entire route is now hidden beneath our feet in the form of culverts. The Greater Shankill Partnership recently revealed it wants to transform one of the few open stretches of the Farset into a public amenity as part of its long-term Shankill Greenway plan.”

Tracing the source of the Farset river in Belfast from the hills over looking Belfast to its end at the Lagan Weir Shankill cemetery where the river behind – image via Belfast Telegraph
Tracing the source of the River Farset in Belfast: river ends at the Big Fish at Customs House Square

This similar theme is expressed in stories from 2015 from the BBC, “Hidden History of Belfast’s lesser-know rivers brought to the surface”, which includes the Farset, as well as the Blackstaff rivers, both of which “determined the shape of the city that grew up around the narrowest bridging point of the Farset, where High Street is today.”

A computer image showing the original course of the rivers Farset and Lagan in Belfast – via BBC

Additionally, the Connswater, which was featured in Van Morrison’s song “Brown-Eyed Girl“, but also has a larger history as a locus of whiskey production, ” In Victorian times, two-thirds of whiskey exported from Ireland came from Belfast, and around half of that came from two distilleries – the Connswater distillery and the Avoneil distillery. “ Today, remnants run under the 400-year old bridge in east Belfast. Portions of the river runs through Orangefield park and supports wildlife, “The river used to run along fences at the back of the houses, which were susceptible to flooding. Instead of building floodwalls, here the river has been ‘moved’ to become a central feature of the park.”

The 400-year-old Connswater Bridge in east Belfast – via BBC

HEADER: Partially hidden view of River Farset in Belfast – via Belfast Telegraph

I’ve been wanting to write this one for a bit, as I often stumble upon interesting articles that veer widely away from the core subject matter but still have a resonance with the hidden hydrology project (or at least my expansive view of it). While cosmic in nature, are there clues to be gleaned from other worlds and applied to our planet that can inform our relationship with water? Even if not, if you’re interested in water, it’s pretty fun to explore the most distant and hidden hydrological processes, even in brief, from the Moon, Mars, and some of the interstellar stories around our solar system.


Our Moon is unique is having been studied extensively, and due to proximity, having had humans visit and walk on the surface. There has been speculation on water on the Moon, and when viewed from afar, a long history of people seeing ‘rivers’ on the moon. These may be features like this depression, seen here via the Earth Science Picture of the Day, showing Rima Hadley, “…an ancient rille… [which] may be the remnant of a collapsed lava tube. Lava from an erupting fissure may assume drainage patterns similar to overland water flow.”

Rima Hadley – image via EPOD

More recent work is augmenting these hydrological stories with data about the actual presence of water. Some of this, via Express: “NASA’S scientists have found proof to suggest surface waters on the Moon have been hidden in plain sight for decades, according to a shocking lunar meteor impact study.” The water vapor released by the impacts explains a bit of the mystery of water on the Moon, which accumulates at the polar caps, which had been posited to have come from other sources like solar winds. The water vapor lasted a short time, which is indicative of the relatively small amounts of lunar water, around 200-500 parts per million. Or, by another measure, per the article: “It is so dry that one would need to process more than a metric ton of regolith in order to collect 16 ounces of water.


Similarly, the presence of subsurface water is also changing our perceptions of Mars. Most recently, a parade of articles discussed evidence of, water on the red planet, with some speculating on this a proof of alien life, others speculating about gushing rivers that were wider than the Mississippi. The consistent theme as mentioned in the Independent, is the presence of “…a vast and active system of water running underneath the surface of Mars.” While it is broadly a reference to our further our understanding of Mars as a planet, scientists say it could also yield some clues for Earth hydrology, as it is speculated that the water was coming from “a deep pressurized source from where water is pushed up.” This is a similar to desert systems here on our planet.

From the image above: “The bright top line represents the icy surface of Mars in this region. The south polar layered deposits – layers of ice and dust – are seen to a depth of about 1.5 km. Below is a base layer that in some areas is brighter than the surface reflections, highlighted in blue, while in other places is rather diffuse. The details of the reflected signals from the base layer yield properties that correspond to liquid water. “

Analysis of the specifics show the water ‘carving’ the landscape, and creating valleys, with additional topographic analysis revealing complex watershed on the surfaces.

” This colour-coded topographic view shows the relative heights of the terrain in and around the network of dried-up valleys on Mars. Lower parts of the surface are shown in blues and purples, while higher altitudes show up in whites, yellows, and reds, as indicated on the scale to the top right. ” via Independent

A similar story from explains the theories that “Mars Had Big Rivers for Billions of Years“, which discusses the persistence of flows after loss of atmosphere, up until a billion years ago. Scientists conducted: “a global survey of Mars’ ancient waterways, characterizing more than 200 such systems using imagery and other data captured from orbit. They derived age estimates for these rivers by counting craters in the surrounding terrain. The team’s work suggests that Martian rivers flowed intermittently but intensely over much of the planet’s 4.5-billion-year history, driven by precipitation-fed runoff. The rivers’ impressive width — in many cases, more than twice that of comparable Earth catchments — is a testament to that intensity.  It’s unclear how much water Martian rivers carried, because their depth is hard to estimate. Determining depth generally requires up-close analysis of riverbed rocks and pebbles, Kite said, and such work has only been done in a few locations on Mars, such as Gale Crater, which NASA’s Curiosity rover has been exploring since 2012.”

There are also lakes, which are indicated by reflectivity, adjacent to larger areas of frozen ice near the poles of Mars. The Guardian, from a 2018 article “Mars: huge underground lake raises prospects of life on planet, astronomers say.” which makes the connection not to Martians in the sci-fi sense, but rather to the conditions for simple life forms:

“It is the first time that researchers have identified a stable body of liquid water on the red planet. The finding raises the likelihood that any microbial life that arose on Mars may continue to eke out a rather bleak existence deep beneath the surface. “

A deeper dive worth reading is also this article from published in the Planetary Society in 2017, “Unraveling a Martian enigma: The hidden rivers of Arabia Terra” which provide more investigation of remnant traces of what may be “Mars’ largest flood plain”.

Topographic map of mars – via

Speculation on the climate of Mars as potentially hotter and wetter, which may . The author posits that frozen ice sheets in the northern segments regularly thawed from heating events, and this liquid water would flow and create river systems. Strangely enough, these former rivers express themselves in inverted channels, which are described below:

“A river preserved as a ridge seems like a bit of a paradox, but inverted channels are fairly common on Mars. They occur when the river sediment within the channel becomes resistant to erosion (this can happen chemically, due to interaction with water, or by the deposition of large pebbles and boulders within the channel). Once the channel ceases to flow, the material adjacent to the channel—perhaps flood plain deposits—gets eroded at a faster rate than the channel, leaving the channel upstanding in the landscape. Inverted channels are also found in desert environments on the Earth, such as in Oman or Utah, where low rates of erosion can aid with their preservation. “

Inverted channel on Mars (Aram Dorsum) – via
Inverted channel on Earth (Green River, Utah) – via


The beauty of these flows are represented similarly on Europa, a moon of Jupiter that has had an icy surface that shows a varying mosaic on its surface. From CNET: “New analysis of measurements taken by NASA’s Galileo spacecraft over 20 years ago provides more evidence that water from an ocean beneath Europa’s icy shell is shooting out into space via at least one large geyser.” The story goes on to add:

“Europa’s hidden waters have become a prime target in the search for extraterrestrial life…”

The layering of imagery from Galileo from 1997, combined with more detailed analysis. Below, the striations and flows are highlighted, and in the second shown with “The blue-white terrains indicate relatively pure water ice, whereas the reddish areas contain water ice mixed with hydrated salts, potentially magnesium sulfate or sulfuric acid.”

image via CNET

The space geysers are also reinforced with more recent views from the Hubble Telescope, which has necessitated a future mission to gather more info. A recent fly-by by Cassini of Saturn, which has moons of similar type with a large under-ice ocean, has also led to even alien life. This combination of heated water under ice, in a interstellar ocean of Europa, and a similar Saturn moon, Enceladus, could, as posited here, also be the building blocks for life on other planets.


Beyond Mars and the Moon, more distant planets also have also liquid stories. A 2017 article in Universe Today, pointed out that Titan, the largest moon of Saturn “…is the only other world in our Solar System that has stable liquid on its surface.” This liquid surface is not water, but made up of methane and ethane, along with nitrogen, and the Cassini mission provided interesting info on the constantly fluctuating surface, including a disappearing and reappearing island, along with speculation of wave action. It’s also pretty interesting to note that there is precipitation as well:

On Titan, it rains. But the rain is composed of extremely cold methane. As that methane falls to the surface, it absorbs significant amounts of nitrogen from the atmosphere. The rain hits Titan’s surface and collects in the lakes on the moon’s polar regions.

This is most evident in polar lakes, referred to as ‘mare‘, from the latin for sea, which, like the moon, reference their being seen as water bodies similar to earth.

Ligeia Mare, a large polar water body on Titan – image via Universe Today

To take this idea to the logical extreme, a map of the Ligeia Mare with the adjacent drainage shows that hydrology (In this case not hidden, just very distance), whether it be Earth-based on a distant moon of Saturn, and consisting of water or a brew of methane, still follows those similar characteristics of gravity, topography, and flow.

A Map of Ligeia Mare by an amateur cartographer (Peter Minton) – via Wikipedia

HEADER: Image of Mars taken by the European Space Agency’s Mars Express satellite show the marks that an ancient network of rivers have left on the planet’s surface – via Independent

The story of Vanport is a critical narrative woven into Portland’s water history, and gives a hint at the dynamic nature of river/city interactions, along with formative context for race and class relations that shaped the community, both in positive and negative ways.  This 2016 documentary from the Oregon Experience provides a compelling and well illustrated history of the Vanport community that’s worth a watch.

From the cover of the video: “During the early 1940s, Vanport, Oregon was the second largest city in the state and the single-largest federal housing project in the country.  Built quickly to house men and women coming to work in the Portland/Vancouver shipyards during World War II, Vanport boasted some 42,000 residents at its peak and offered progressive services for its diverse population. But one afternoon in 1948, a catastrophic flood destroyed the entire city, leaving about 18,500 people still living there suddenly homeless. Vanport tells the story of a forgotten city: how it was created and once thrived; and how it changed the region forever. It features first hand, personal accounts of former residents and dramatic, rarely-seen archival film and images.”

The origin story here is around World War II, and the wartime shipbuilding, and Henry J. Kaiser, who operated 3 major shipyards that built over – two in Portland, in St. Johns and Swan Island, and another across the river in Vancouver, which built over 750 ships and employed around 100,000 people at their peak in the early 1940s.

Kaiser Shipyards – Oregon Encyclopedia

In order to house the growing and diverse population of shipbuilders, who were coming for a mix of opportunity and patriotism, Kaiser proposed in 1942 to build what would become the largest wartime housing project in the United States, a new community of over 40,000 people in a 650 acre tract wedged between the Columbia River and Columbia Slough in North Portland. The plan of the community, completed in 1943, shows the general layout, including over 9,900 individual apartments, built cheaply and quickly. The size and diversity of the community, which included a diversity of White, Black, Asian, and Native American workers, as well as a large percentage of the workforce made up of women, who were recruited from all around the country to come to Portland to support the war effort.

Map of Vanport – Oregon Encyclopedia

From the documentary, the community also had a hospital, police station, library, fire station, transit, shopping, grocery, schools, recreation centers and even a move theater. While there was an effort to make the community livable, and improve ‘quality of life’, the goal was also production, with buses ferrying workers to and from shipyards, which operated 24 hours a day.

Aerial view of Vanport – from the Oregon Encyclopedia

The relationship of the plan is woven around water, and the history of flooding of the wetlands and sloughs within which Vanport was built could be said to be both amenity and omen. Some images from the documentary show life around these waterways, including beaches on one of the two lakes, and some exploration around the Slough and it’s tributaries that wove throughout the community.

Vanport Location – via Vanport (Oregon Experience)
Vanport Location – via Vanport (Oregon Experience)

As mentioned in the documentary, the cafeteria was located adjacent to the beach on one of the lakes, with water-loving cottonwoods woven throughout. And beyond what was referred to as a “slightly ill-kempt public park”, kids found waters of the Slough the real playground, using make-shift rafts to find turtles, bullfrogs, and tadpoles.

Vanport Location – via Vanport (Oregon Experience)

Post World-War II the idea was for the temporary city to be demolished, and as people starting moving out, some structures were removed. A housing crisis kept Vanport a necessity, as a combination of post-internment Japanese, blacks who could not find housing due to red-lining in the greater Portland area, and lack of housing for post-war returning soldiers, all combining to provide affordable, if somewhat ramshackle, housing for a variety of residents. There was also a Vanport College, founded in some of the vacant buildings, which eventually became Portland State University. For the growing Portland area, “mud on the shoes” meant you were from Vanport, which was seen by the greater Portland community through the lenses of racism as a slum.

In the winter of 1947-48, conditions started to shift towards catastrophe. Heavy snowfall coupled with more intense spring rains swelled the Columbia Rise, which flowed in mid-May at a rate of 900,000 cubic feet per second (cfs), which was almost double the normal flow. This led to the need for reinforcing dikes and sandbagging, along with regular patrols by the Army Corps of Engineers to ensure the perimeter was solid. At this point, there was a question of whether to evacuate, and an emergency meeting was held, but the thinking was that the dikes would hold, and if not people would get plenty of warming. A few days later things changed dramatically.

River Stage levels in late spring 1948 – via Vanport (Oregon Experience)

The entire Vanport area, as former lowlands, was surrounding on all four sides with dikes in order to keep the adjacent waters at bay. The massive vulnerability of the perimeter meant a lot of potential failure points. The dike along the railroad lines to the northwest of Vanport separated Smith Lake from the lower-lying Vanport area was just that failure point, seen in the map below.

Vanport Location – via Vanport (Oregon Experience)
Vanport Location – via Vanport (Oregon Experience)

The 30′ berm was ostensibly about protection of the railroad, so the integrity to hold that massive amount of water back during a huge flood event was less a priority, so water levels from Smith Lake started spilling over the dike, the railroad berm started degrading with water boils appearing and seeping thorugh, and on 4:17pm on the May 30th, the breach happened, as mentioned, a “600 foot section melted away.”

Railroad embankment failure – via Vanport (Oregon Experience)

Sirens blared, and people grabbed anything they could get their hands on to evacuated to nearby Kenton. As people recounted stories of “a wall of water” and climbed to their roofs to be rescued, it was exacerbated by the housing, which was built cheaply and without solid foundations, which began to float around, knocking into each other, as seen in the images below.

Houses in the aftermath – via Vanport (Oregon Experience)

The sloughs filled up with the initial flows, so people had 30 minutes to escape. With only one route available, Denver Avenue, the road was quickly jammed, and people started fearing that this area would also fail, so continued to sandbag and reinforce this zone, and people started walking through water as vehicles and buses were stuck. By Monday morning, Denver Avenue was also breached, along with other perimeter dikes, inundating the entire community. The extent of flooding wasn’t localized to Vanport, as it impacted the entire city and it was estimated to have caused over $100 million in damages throughout the basin. The displacement of 1000s of people meant that the flooding of Vanport was some of the biggest impacts, and they were long-lasting well after the water subsided.

via Vanport (Oregon Experience)

There have been a number of stories that have covered the events around Vanport life and flooding, including loss of life, as well as its aftermath, such as investigating the absence of accountability for inaction on evacuation and the lack of dike maintenance that could have prevented the disaster. I’ve not seen critical analysis in general of the general wisdom of occupying the spaces and places like Vanport and its flood susceptibility, which were chosen hastily to fill a need, such as emergency housing in war-time, but are perhaps much less suitable for people to live long-term. Should the city have been demolished after ship-building slowed? It shows the impacts of larger social forces on disasters, and the brunt of that impact being felt by frontline communities.

Some of that aftermath is capture in this snippet from the Oregon Encyclopedia: “Refugees crowded into Portland, a city still recovering from the war. Part of the problem was race, for more than a thousand of the flooded families were African Americans who could find housing only in the growing ghetto in North Portland. The flood also sparked unfounded but persistent rumors in the African American community that the Housing Authority had deliberately withheld warnings about the flood and the city had concealed a much higher death toll.”

Iconic image of man holding boy – via Vanport (Oregon Experience)

The erasure of that history is part of this larger story, with little remnant or physical marking of the place and event as what was left of Vanport was demolished, burned, or auctioned., which is now occupied in parts with West Delta Park, Portland International Raceway, and Heron Lakes Golf Course. As summed up in the Oregon Experience, there is to this day:

“Little to remind anyone of a ‘once thriving city.'”

It an important piece of history around both race, building, and hydrology to investigate in Portland, so expect to hear more about this. The Vanport Mosaic site provides a great opportunity to learn more, and there are some other films on the topic, including a documentary ‘Vanport and the Columbia River Floods of 1948‘, produced by the National Weather Service, and ‘The Wake of Vanport‘, produced by local independent paper The Skanner in 2016.

HEADER: Image of flooding with newspaper Headline – via Oregon Experience

I’ve written pretty extensively here about London’s Lost Rivers, however this recent article in the Telegraph “The forgotten Fleet – London’s lost river as it used to look” offers some really awesome historical imagery worth sharing. (all images via the article, which also have extensive captions).

Artistic depiction of the Thames in 30BC – the Fleet is the bottom right
Londinium, the walled Roman City, with a Roman ship docking at the entry to the Fleet
Painting of Hampstead Heath – the headwaters of the Fleet
Fleet flowing through Kentish Town

The legacy of hidden rivers lives on in names, as mentioned in the image caption:

“The river may have disappeared from view but evidence for its existence remains in the modern place names. Kentish Town is probably derived from Ken-ditch, meaning “bed of a waterway”, and for centuries it was a pleasant riverside village known for its clean air. Spring Walk, Anglers Lane, Brookfield Park and, further downriver, Turnmill Lane, sit on the path of the Fleet.”

The location near Bagnigge Wells – which was also a great Spa destination
Battle Bridge (now Kings Cross) in 1810, per the caption: “referred to an ancient bridge over the Fleet where Boudica’s army is said to have fought the Romans.”
Confluence of the Thames at the Fleet in the 17th Century

The caption to the above image alludes to the eventual demise of these rivers through constant fouling due to rapid development, “As London grew, the river became increasingly a sewer, filled with ‘the sweepings from butchers’ stalls, dung, guts and blood,” according to Jonathan Swift.” Adding to this, a passage from Alexander Pope:

“To where Fleet-ditch with disemboguing streams / Rolls the large tribute of dead dogs to Thames / The king of dykes! than whom no sluice of mud / with deeper sable blots of silver flood.”

The development beginning to cover the “Fleet Ditch” in 1812, covered by the mid 19th Century.

Great to see the evolution of one stream – and London, perhaps more than any city, seems to have extensive documentation that tells these visual stories with a richness that adds to the maps and words. Plenty more images on the original article, and load more history of the Fleet and it’s adjacent developments in the captions, as well as this previous article by Tom Bolton from last year.

HEADER: Fleet Market, between Holborn and Ludgate Circus, 1736 – image via Telegraph

An interesting case study in hidden hydrology from a region I’ve yet to discuss, Greece. Via the Telegraph, an article “Athens hatches ambitious plan to uncover fabled river, once the haunt of Socrates, and turn it into a park.” The river in question is the Ilissos, which, due to lack of maintenance on the subsurface tunnel in which the river flows has led to structural issues that has caused issues with the tram line running on the surface, and opened up opportunities for restoration of this ancient waterway. As mentioned:

“An 1821 water colour of the Ilissos River and the Temple of Olympian Zeus” – via Telegraph (image credit Alamy)

“Urban planners have suggested that rather than spending millions of euros on reinforcing the tunnel and repairing the track, the tram line should be diverted along a different route and the river opened up. They are proposing the creation of a park along a one mile stretch of the formerly forgotten river.”

Some context on the significance of this river, via the HYDRIA Project, “Ilissos river was considered in antiquity as the second main river of Athens, forming an horizontal landmark in its southern and eastern sides. Ancient writers mention various activities by its banks, varying from civic processes, cults -including a sanctuary dedicated to the river himself, by Ardittos hill- or social walks and philosophical endeavours in idyllic landscapes, as for Socrates and his disciples (Plato, Phaedrus 229-230, link). “

View of Athens from the River Ilissos – painting by Johann Michael Wittmer – via Greek City Times

Due to the dry climate, the Ilissos and the other river in Athens, the Kifissos, are often dry, as mentioned in the article. “Given Greece’s dry, hot climate, neither is huge – they are nothing like the Thames in London or the Tiber in Rome.” They do, however, act as places for floodwaters to run after winter rains, and the depths can reach up to six feet.

Map of Ancient Athens (Ilissos River highlighted by author) – via Ancient History Encyclopedia

From the BBC “Athens to open up ancient river“, the plan by Nikos Belavilas from the Urban Environment Lab shows the route of the proposed daylighting, restoring it after it was paved over in post-WWII development. You can see the location of the current configuration in the context of the historical routing above, including the Stadium and the Temple of Olympian Zeus, built by Hadrian.

Map of the Ilisos – via BBC (image via Urban Environment Lab)

Beyond daylighting, the restoration also has bigger implications, as a strategy to avoid future issues. As mentioned in the BBC article:

“But it is not just a simple matter of reclaiming the city’s past, but also of saving its present.”If the Ilisos tunnel collapses, it will block the natural course of the river, and could flood the entire city centre,” Mr Belavilas warns – “That doesn’t bear thinking about.”

Currently, only a small section is now visible on its path from the mountains, as mentioned in the Telegraph: “It originates in the mountains on the edge of the city and eventually flows into the Saronic Gulf, after passing almost unseen beneath the streets of the capital. It does emerge briefly, in reed beds behind the Temple of Olympian Zeus, which was built over several centuries starting in the second century BC. “

The only uncanalised part of the bed of Ilissos river that once ran outside the old city of Athens. – via Wikipedia

HEADER: River Ilisos and Stadion Bridge, ca. 1900 – via Wikipedia

It was great to attend a talk by historian James V. Hillegas-Elting at Powells earlier in the week, where he gave the highlights of his recently released book “Speaking for the River: Confronting Pollution on the Willamette, 1920s-1970s“. You can read more about his work here at his blog, and I will definitely have some follow up as I dive into the book as it paints a history closely in alignment with hidden hydrology in Portland. The arc of degradation and restoration of the key waterway through Portland and the Willamette Valley is woven together with urbanization, industrialization, and our relationship to the river, as well as the evolution of an environmental ethos that shapes the way we continue to confront existing pollution today (and yes, there’s still lots of it).

In the interim, one highlight worth sharing is this silent film from the 1940s, which is available via streaming from OSU Special Collections and Archives Research Center. A brief synopsis to go with the film:

” The Willamette River Pollution Film depicts various point sources of pollution in the Willamette River and its tributaries. The film begins near Springfield and progresses downstream to Portland and includes footage of various forms of industrial, agricultural, and municipal effluent being dumped into the Willamette River and its tributaries, including the Pudding and South Santiam Rivers. The footage includes tests of the length of time that small fish can survive in water from the Willamette River and chemical tests of the river water. The film includes footage of the river or its tributaries at Springfield, Eugene, Corvallis, Crabtree, Lebanon, Salem, Woodburn, and Portland.”

The production quality is rough at times but you get the gist, with visible pollution from multiple sources, floating dead fish, rats, and all the visual evidence to make the case of an unhealthy river, devoid of dissolved O2 and lifeless. From the OSU Special Collections listing, “The film was probably made by William Joy Smith, of Portland Oregon. Smith was State Manager of the National Life Insurance Company and President of the Oregon Wildlife Federation. It was made before establishment of the state Sanitary Authority and fostered much of the original interest in water quality in Oregon. The film may also have been known at the time of its creation by the title “The Polluted Willamette”. “


HEADER: Still image from video showing men fishing adjacent to an active outfall. (32:11)

I was really excited to see the post from Chicago’s Newberry Library yesterday on their Twitter feed, showing them rolling up a long map of the Mississippi River.  This 1866 ‘Ribbon Map of the Father of Waters‘ created by Coloney, Fairchild & Co. and published by Gast, Moeller & Co. Lith., and was meant to provide steamship travelers with a way to ‘follow along’ on their journey by highlighting key elements and places along the route.

Ribbon Map of the Father of Waters, by Coloney & Fairchild (St. Louis, 1866). Mounted on original wooden scroll and lined on linen. Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts. – via Common Place

A quick search finds this writeup on Atlas Obscura, where they mention the unique quality of these maps and how they differ from larger atlases in their linearity of travel. “As Jim Akerman, the Curator of Maps at Chicago’s Newberry Library, points out, the Ribbon Map of the Father of Waters belongs to a class of map with a deep history: the “itinerary” or “strip” map. Unlike network maps, which are designed to show all journeying possibilities—think of a road atlas, or a big fold-out trail guide—strip maps “are organized around a specific route of travel,” he explains. “It’s meant to give you very close guidance.”   

via Atlas Obscura

I really like the breakdown from the site Common Place, in an article by Nenette Luarca-Shoaf, “One Mississippi: Coloney & Fairchild’s Ribbon Map of the Father of Waters (1866)” which elaborates on the map, it’s relevance to the concept of panorama, the place in Manifest Destiny, and .

” It begins as a barely perceptible stream in the upper left of the image, eventually taking shape as a hand-colored blue line winding its way through ten different states (the boundaries of which are indicated by block letters that parallel the river on either side). Seeing the river in this way conveys the fluctuating nature of the river’s course, from the bulbous expansion of Lake Pepin between Minnesota and Wisconsin to the looping cutoffs below Natchez, Mississippi, and offers a visual contrast between the sparsely populated upper river and the more densely settled lower portion.”

The idea of this linear sequence seems fitting for water journey, but did require making linear a journey that was not uniquely north-south, as mentioned in Common Place:  “In the uppermost 470 miles of the Ribbon Map of the Father of Waters—from St. Anthony Falls to the river’s headwaters—the Mississippi flows mostly west to east, though that is not made evident by the consistent linearity of the map (fig. 9). Despite the fact that others had shown this to be quite a watery area, only a few patches and lines of blue disrupt the relatively vacant space of the map. “

In the end, it was interest to hear that it was perhaps mostly as a, portable way to deal with annoying passengers, as mentioned in Atlas Obscura, quoting Luarca-Shoaf  ““The river was a source of great awe,” she says. “That kind of length, that kind of spaciousness was incomprehensible to a lot of folks who were coming from the East Coast.” An advertisement for the ribbon map suggests that people needed an outlet for that awe: having your own chart to unroll, it promised, would stop you from “constant[ly] questioning… the officers of the boat,” and causing “an immensity of annoyance” to them.”

via Atlas Obscura

It’s interesting to think of similar scenarios today in which this would work, which riff off of a linear travel route (mass transit, trains, boats), both in terms of making new versions of analog maps, but also infusing things like GPS enabled digital technologies. We all like to follow-along on a route, and there’s probably a bevy of operators of transportation looking for ways to entertain travelers and stop them asking ‘where are we’?.  However, it also gives opportunities to enrich the experience by highlighting key points, historical layers, moments in time.  This is why it’s compelling.

The snapshot of the map below, showing the reel and cassette, gives a sense for the quirky portability of this.  I was tempted to post the entirety of the map as it would be a long post. Perhaps scrolling on a phone is the new reeling? If you’re curious for that, download your own hi-res version here at the Library of Congress.

Detail of title and scroll, Ribbon Map of the Father of Waters by Coloney & Fairchild (1866). Courtesy of the David Rumsey Historic Map Collection. – via Common Place


HEADER: Ribbon Map of the Father of Waters – via Atlas Obscura (linking from David Rumsey)

A fascinating part of the history of Portland is focused around the river, and the shifting dominance of early Willamette River settlements as the center.  While the dominance of Portland as the major urban center of the metropolitan region is now long-since galvanized, there was an interesting span of time where the battles between competing towns over which one was going to become the .  This saga is hinted at in other books, but is the focus on Eugene E. Snyder’s ‘Early Portland: Stump-Town Triumphant, 1831-1854‘ published originally in 1970 with a 1984 reprint as seen to the right.  The tagline of “Rival Townsites On the Willamette” gives a hint to the particular saga, and Synder shows how the power struggle evolved in the early days of the region, mostly hanging in the balance by the specific determination:

Which of these towns was the Head of Navigation for the Willamette River?

For a bit of reference, it’s important to understand what the head of navigation is, and why this is important to the story of the evolution of Portland.  By definition, the:

“Head of navigation is the farthest point above the mouth of a river that can be navigated by ships. Determining the head of navigation can be subjective on many streams, as this point may vary greatly with the size of the ship being contemplated for navigation and the seasonal water level. On others, it is quite objective, being caused by a waterfall or a dam without navigation locks. Several rivers in a region may have their heads of navigation along a line called the Fall line.”

Synder outlines many of these potential towns vying for becoming the major urban center, as seen on the map below.  This includes communities up and down the span of the Willamette from St. Helens to the north down to Oregon City to the South. Between 1831, when a settlement was envisioned by in a pamphlet by Hall J. Kelley through 1847 when James Johns established St. Jonhs (now part of modern Portland), a total of eleven townsites were considered to be potentially the regional center, fed by overland migration to Oregon Country where hundreds of new settlers came from the east.

Map of Early Townsites – from Synder (p. iv)

As Snyder mentions, in the context of Manifest Destiny and the settlement of the west, it was “…the logic of geography that a great port would grow up near the confluence of the Willamette and Columbia rivers.  These rivers were deep enough for sea-going vessels to come a hundred miles inland, to take on board the produce of the fertile Willamette and Tualatin valleys, whose increasing population would also provide the necessary market for inbound cargoes of merchandise.” (3)  The evolution from Lewis and Clark’s quick stop at the confluence, and the early settlement of the area by Hudson’s Bay Company in a spot that eventually became Fort Vancouver, and the eventual agreement between the British and Americans on territory meant that there was ambiguity about the future, and many tried to establish settlements into the 1830s.

While the book focuses on much of the story, I want to focus on the water history of this facet of Portland history.  Sauvie Island (originally called Wappatoo Island) was one of those early settlement areas due to it’s location and the confluence of the two rivers, evidenced by its importance to local native people as well.  Fort William was an early established trading post in 1834, which connected to the Willamette as well as areas over into the Tualatin Valley to the west.  It floundered due to the tight grip the Hudson’s Bay Company had on trade, who took over the island in 1836 for cattle, and it was taken care of by  French Canadian Laurent Sauvé (thus it’s currently name).  But was the start of the importance of this location for commerce.

Fort Vancouver (along the north bank of the Columbia River) was never considered as a potential key city because, even with good port facilities, it lacked access to much of the agricultural bounty of Oregon, so a site along the Willamette because key. When the British lost control of the area and left, Oregon City emerged as the front runner to be taking advantage of both water and access to the agricultural bounty as seen in their seal from the 1840s.  Many of the settlers arrived and started in Oregon City, through the 1840s, and the town grew with building of things like sawmills and stores.  While there was water access, there was significant issues with upstream navigation at this point due to The Falls, which provided a barrier to boats heading further up the Willamette River.

via – Willamette Falls Heritage |


Another big barrier that made it less likely, was again, the product of that key term, barriers to becoming the head of naviation.  While upstream movement was impossible, access to Oregon City from downstream was a challenge, as Snyder mentions, it “…faced an insurmountable obstacle in the contest to become the Oregon metropolis. It was practically inaccessible to ocean-going vessels. The major barrier was the “Clackamas Rapids,” a gravel bar and shoals about two miles downstream from Oregon City, created by the Clackamas River as it enters the Willamette.”  (26)

A few other towns emerged on the other side of the banks, but never really prospered.  The only other major player upstream to emerge was Milwaukie, which were positioned downstream of the Clackamas Rapids and thus avoided the larger issues with Oregon City.  A man named Lot Whitcomb was the major booster for Milwaukie, and he was instrumental in building the town up to a major player, and built sawmills, founded the first newspaper, and established ferry services, built wharves and shipyards, making it the largest and fastest growing town in the region. The competition continued, with water at the center, specifically who would attract shipping from areas like China and San Francisco, so Whitcomb looked at technologies like steam for sawmills, but most importantly, for ships, with steam powered vessels being more powerful and maneuverable.  While both Portland and Milwaukie developed steam ships, The Lot Whitcomb, seen in this image from Vintage Portland was perhaps the most glorious for a time, using as a “model for his steamboat… the design of ‘the first-class fast North Rive boats’ on New York’s Hudson River.” (98)  The ship also used coal instead of wood, and for a time tipped the scales back to Milwaukie.  In the long run, the ship ended up being too expensive to operate, and amongst other factors, was eventually sold.

The debate again, hinged on the access to Milwaukie, and whether it could support passage of larger, ocean going ships – to become the head of navigation.  Lots of debate there, and there were other issues to bear like lack of access to Tualatin Valley farmers and the steep terrain in Milwaukie along the shoreline, but in the end a key barrier emerged, exacerbated by seasonal water level fluctuations in the Willamette River, causing places to be too shallow for many vessels.  The biggest sticking point here was a wide spot and central barrier known as Ross Island.  Downstream, a clearing was also being developed that would become Portland, which avoided having to navigated further up the river, would win the battle for who was the head of navigation.

One side tidbit was learning why so many things are named ‘Linn’ in and around Portland and Oregon.  Turns out it was a Senator from Missouri named Lewis F. Linn who pushed for a bill to allow for settlers to get 640 acres of free land when Oregon became part of the United States.  Grateful settlers kept naming things after Linn, including Linn City (which lives on as West Linn), Linnton, and Linn County.  The passage of this bill, along with Oregon Territory becoming part of the United States, created the framework for many of the land claims that shaped Portland.  Many of these names of Couch, Pettygrove, Lovejoy, Stephens, Caruthers and Terwilliger remain in places, streets, parks, and institutions around Portland today.

Being considered the head of navigation and having access to shipping was a big factor in success, this was also coupled with a number of factors that influence success, such as access to the hinterlands (in this case the agricultural bounty of the Willamette Valley), appropriate amounts of developable lands (specifically flat areas adjacent to rivers versus steep slopes), and various other.  Beyond just being an exercise in the best characteristics, there was circumstances such as the California Gold Rush, personalities, the human components that tend not towards the most rational acts, also in a similar vein a LOT of politics involved in this.  The constant one-upsmanship and propaganda between towns in terms of flexing their importance such as having a newspaper, building factories and warehouses, and building and operating ferries and ships for transport of goods and people.

Thus the clearing along the west bank of the Willamette became the center of the growing area of the Portland townsite, which, aided by issues with Ross Island and Clackamas Rapids upstream, meant it had a great position to become that elusive and important head of navigation.  Portland itself was growing, and while it still had stumps (painted white for visibility) poking out all over downtown, it was establishing itself as the metropolitan center.  Names like Stark, Lownsdale, Chapman, Coffin, and Pettygrove all invested time and money in growing the city, with a focus on making it the key destination for settlement and water-based commerce.

More in depth on Portland at a later date, but Synder’s book does a good job of tying the specific development and boosterism that focused on establishing Portland as a center for river trade, including building docks, and warehouses, attracting settlement and business, including the Tannery, established by one of those founders, Daniel Lownsdale, which gave Tanner Creek its name, and Captain Couch, who as a sailor of good reputation aided much in creating a convincing argument for Portland as the head of navigation by discussing the perils of Ross Island.  While Portland may have been ridiculed at times for its stumps in the streets, it was growing and became the city of many of these boosters dreams: “Looking at the Portland of 1880, with its population of nearly 20,000, compared with the few hundred in 1848 when he sold out, Pettygrove said, “It fills my heart with joy to see the great city where I once saw dense woods.” (46)

There were some other challenges, in particular those touting better access to the hinterlands, across the Tualatin Mountains, including Linnton, Milton, and St. Johns closer towards the mouth of the Columbia.  The biggest threat was from St. Helens, which had good water access and good access to the Tualatin farmers.  And while Portland also had access to both there was some question about a potential issue of a bar downstream near Swan Island that could impede water traffic, and the roads to Portland from the west were terrible, a muddy, steep slog for farmers to get there.  So the solution was to build the Great Plank Road, which followed close to the route of Tanner Creek. From the Oregon Encyclopedia, it was “Constructed in 1856, connected productive agricultural communities in the Tualatin Valley to Portland. Paved with sixteen-foot, three-inch-thick wooden planks, the road offered an improved route from agricultural communities to Portland and its large market. Before the road’s construction, Tualatin farmers used Canyon Road, surfaced with rock and dirt and often nearly impassable in adverse weather conditions. Perhaps more important, planked roads allowed farmers to haul larger loads and at greater speed.”  Again, a story of inventiveness and boosterism pushing solutions to overcome perceived competition.  But, like many other solutions, it worked.

Canyon Road – before the plank road was installed – via PBOT |

Historical Marker located in Downtown Portland –

Lots more in the book so I’d recommend reading for more. The fact that ‘Stump-town’ prevailed had to do with a number of factors, but in the end it was probably the difficulties with navigability up river that solidified Portland as the head of navigation that sealed the deal, and the competitors either disappeared or shrunk as important but secondary cities within the region.  It’s a pretty fascinating read, and illuminates a part of the origin story not often covered in depth with other histories. It also adds a dimension (literally and figuratively) to the Willamette River and how it’s role in the development and continual prosperity of Portland included understanding not just a linear path in proximity to other resources, but how the configuration, depth, channelization, and profile, and how this creates barriers (as well as needs for modification including manipulation of shorelines and dredging) is an integral part of the story.  And, while veering at times towards the minutiae that bogs down many historical writings, Synder manages to stay on task and keep focus to the main story, the differentiation of these towns and the machinations that led to the current scenario. For anyone wanting a fuller understanding of the connections of cities and rivers, it’s a good case study.

HEADER:  Image comparing 1858 Portland to 1983 Portland – from Synder (inner leaf)