Bath houses, swimming holes, summertime, and the Sellwood Pool
Country Music singer Kenney Chesney once sang a song, "Summertime is finally here and the temperature says 93, that swimming hole looks nice and cold…"
His lyrics make me smile, because I can just picture a pack of young boys sneaking down to a secluded section of Johnson Creek to a swimming hole. And while swim trunks still weren't available during the 1880's, to young boys in the water, it just didn't matter. They would just strip down to their skivvies or sometimes nothing at all, and enjoy a rollicking day in the cool currents, on a warm summer day.
Few people had bathrooms in their homes on the east side of the Willamette River in the early years, let alone a stand-up shower or indoor bathtub to cool off in, during the stifling summer days in Portland. Air conditioning was nonexistent, and electricity was still too expensive for the average wage earner. Only the well-to-do, who usually lived on the west side of the Willamette, could afford the luxury of electric fans, or having a private bath house available to them.
As a result, it took a public outcry by local citizens to convince the Mayor that Portland needed a public bath house, and city officials finally took note. A committee called the Portland Free Bath Association was formed, and plans for a public outdoor swimming structure were presented to the City Council and the Mayor for their approval.
Plans for the "city bath house" in the 1900's contemplated a framed wooden structure 50 feet wide and about 125 feet in length. The side and bottom of the proposed pool were to be composed of wooden slats, and the entire structure would be held afloat on the Willamette River by pontoons.
Businessmen lobbied for Portland's first municipal bath house to be located on the west side waterfront at Jefferson Street. The Jefferson Street Bath House became so successful that in the following years, privately owned bath houses were constructed along the river – at such popular destinations spots as Oaks Amusement Park, on Ross Island, and Bundys.
What east-side kid wasn't thrilled to the gills over a century ago, when he or she learned that a bath house was available for families and friends to enjoy at the Oaks, during the grand opening of the park in 1905. The Oaks Bathing house drew its water from the chilly confines of the Willamette River, and small slats were installed near the entrance to keep large fish from venturing into the pools were children played. A shrill scream from a youngster might be heard, among the throngs of children at play, when a crawdad, salamander, or a small water creature found unsuspecting feet. But water play continued unabated because mothers and children knew there wasn't any other relief from the hot sunny days than to stay in the pool, and they dealt with the inconvenience.
Adults and children were charged a fee for swimming-suit rental, and once they were through for the day, hired staff collected the wet suits which were tossed on the shingled roof of the floating bath house to dry -- until they were rented by other patrons. Swimming attire could not be bought in local shops, so the only available swimwear at Oaks Park was a one-piece bathing suit with a skirt that was worn by both sexes.
The Windemuth Bath House offered another swimming option, when it opened around 1915, constructed along the northern tip of Ross Island. This two-story wooden structure had an open-air balcony where sunbathers could enjoy the rays of the sun or a cool breeze from the winds off the river.
The Windemuth Baths were unique, in that they could only be reached by launch or small boat. Most swimming enthusiasts paid a fee at Kellogg's boat house at Salmon Street and boarded a small craft that leisurely trolled over to the baths. Portlanders living on the east side of the Willamette rode the Brooklyn Streetcar to where a launch was anchored near the docks on Woodward Street. From there, swimmers were shuttled over to the bath house. Members of the Portland and Multnomah Athletic Club held many swimming lessons, diving instructions, and swimming exhibitions and summer events at the Windemuth Baths.
Swimming exhibitions, baseball tournaments, and airplanes that actually flew underneath city bridges were popular attractions during this era. Many big cities around the U.S. hired promoters to invite celebrities and famous sports figures to visit their part of the country and help boost the local economy.
Louis Woodward, manager of the Windemuth Baths, attracted many paying patrons to his little section on Ross Island by presenting acts with outrageous stunts, daredevils, or famous newsworthy stars like surfer Duke Kahanamoku – who in 1918 was invited to a swimming contest against backstroke expert Harold "Stubby" Krueger, and fellow Hawaiian Clarence Lane – or biplane aerialist Silas Christofferson, who actually landed his aircraft near the Windemuth Baths.
Instructors from the MAC Club entertained the crowd with various aquatic contests, and a special ladies group called the wing M Quartet performed fancy dives and stunts from the balcony of the bath house. Some of the attendees were shocked by the tight-fitting swimsuits worn by the ladies team, and the "unladylike" physical feats of endurance they performed, but most were happy to pay the exorbitant price of 55 cents, including WWI war tax, to see the aquatic exhibition.
While promoters and owners of the floating bath houses reaped tremendous profits, city health officials became determined to shut them down. Garbage and debris dumped in the waterway by passing ships and sawmills made the water unfit by human health standards. The Windemuth Baths were forced to close down in 1924, and the owners looked to relocate to another part of the county. At Oaks Park, the Bathing House met the same fate as the Windemuth Baths when the city refused to issue a new permit for the following season.As bath houses across the county were closing, business leaders in Sellwood saw a new opportunity to improve their community. Swimming pools were coming into great demand, and Portland community leaders decided that a series of small pools centered in various neighborhoods would benefit everyone.
Sellwood was selected as the first site for such a public swimming pool, if a suitable piece of land could be found for it. The Sellwood Business Association, then referred to as the Sellwood Board of Trade, and with encouragement from THE BEE of that time, recommended that city officials purchase 15-1/2 acres of land just west of 7th Street, between Miller and Malden, for establishment of a city park. This section of land was owned by W.H. Morehouse who was the former operator of the City View Racetrack. The selling price was a mere $47,000 – a great investment by the city, and also a terrific spot to build a community swimming pool.
The deal was done, and in the summer of 1910 the Sellwood swimming pool was officially opened. There was no charge for swimming in the pool during the first summer, but only one swimming instructor was available for lessons until the staff could figure out how many children would participate. The Sellwood Pool was such a big hit with the public that local newspapers reported over 5,000 children attended a session in the pool, some of them walking as far as seven miles just to enjoy the water at Portland's first public pool.
A wooden boardwalk was installed around the perimeter of the pool, and maneuvering around the edge became a challenge to participants – the more water was splashed on it, the more slippery it became. A ten-foot board fence ensured privacy, although often pool attendants were called upon to usher young boys away from the fence on the days that girls swam. Rules were strictly enforced, and certain days were set aside for a boys-only swim time and another part of the week for the young ladies to enjoy the water without the interference of pesky boys.
Family nights occurred during the weekends when parents could put a stop to any horseplay started by any rambunctious children. Small dressing rooms surrounded by canvas curtains were lined inside the north side of the pool, and girls were issued a long dark-colored cotton bathing suit with a matching cloth bathing cap.
Maintenance of the pool by a city caretaker was still in the experimental stage, as revealed by Portland Park Bureau documents. Water from the Bull Run Reservoir provided the swimmers with a healthy environment, but the morning sun was the only heat source available for the Sellwood Pool.
Water levels were kept in check by the practiced eye of an observant city worker who was constantly refilling the pool each day. If the pool crew forgot to fill the pool to capacity, then the water would be icy cold for a morning swim. And if too much water was left standing in the evening, swimmers the next day would be faced with a pool of murky water similar to taking a bath in a tub of used water. Chlorinated water and regular health inspections on the swimming pool didn't begin until about 1932.
The Multnomah Anglers came early to casting their fishing lines into the depths of the pool, and on July 7th, 1919 a bait-casting tournament was held at the Sellwood Pool which drew hundreds of anglers from around the Northwest.
To replace the flimsy dressing rooms, and give more privacy to participants, a general assembly building was to be built in 1929, and the firm of Lawrence, Holford, Allyn, and Bean was hired to design a structure that would complement Sellwood's elliptical pool. Ellis F. Lawrence was one of the Northwest's premiere architects for his time, designing over 500 buildings during his illustrious career, some of which included the Albina Branch Library, the Caretaker's House at the Riverview Cemetery, and the Sellwood YMCA. That Sellwood YMCA building – now the Sellwood Community Center, at S.E. 15th and Spokane – is one of only three buildings in the Sellwood-Westmoreland neighborhood listed on the National Register of Historic Buildings.
Situated in the beauty of the Douglas firs and cedars trees of the new Sellwood Park, Lawrence used bricks and local timbers to design and erect a swimming facility that harmonized with its natural environment. Numerous dormer windows lined the poolside entrance complimented by a tiled roof and long open-beamed ceilings, giving visitors a sense that they were viewing a National Park Lodge in the forest.
The swimming pavilion had a central lobby, boys' and girls' dressing rooms, a clothes checkroom, and showers – and, for the past 100 years, probably every child who lived in the district has swum in the Sellwood Pool.
On July 27th, 1997, the Sellwood Pool was reopened after a much-needed extensive remodeling; and when the pool opened again for the summer this past June, the historic poolhouse next to it had just had its own major renovation and upgrade. These periodic improvements by the Portland Parks Department help make this facility stand out as one of Portland's most picturesque public swimming pools. People of all ages can enjoy swimming laps, watching their children learn to swim, or just sunbathing with friends.
While many of us today will never experience the fun the old bath pavilions provided, or experience gliding down a 30 foot water slide, we can still view the black-and-white photos that document their existence, and reminisce.
And the modern era and today's newly updated Sellwood Pool facility does not really rule out the opportunity, on a hot 93 degree summer evening, to sneak over to Johnson Creek and go for a swim in your skivvies.