Remembering Bull Run
Many have claimed the Bull Run Watershed provides the best drinking water in the world, something the residents of Gresham have attested to for more than 100 years.
Historical records show the city first tapped into the water source one year before the Gresham Area Chamber of Commerce was established and three years before the Carnegie Library, now Gresham History Museum, was constructed.
Gresham wasn't alone in its love for the Bull Run — almost one in four Oregonians get their drinking water from the watershed, which is about 100 square miles tucked away and protected in the Mount Hood National Forest.
Gresham Councilor David Widmark spent some time in the Bull Run watershed area when he worked as an operation engineer in the Mt. Hood National Forest. He would help fund projects in Bull Run, including maintaining all the access roads to the reservoir.
"I have spent quite a bit of time at the Bull Run, and I was always fascinated at how pristine it is," Widmark said.
The reservoir was first claimed by the city of Portland. The city of Gresham started buying water in 1912. But soon that will end, and Gresham residents will have to get used to something else coming out of their taps.
Gresham City Council took the first step in breaking from the Bull Run Reservoir earlier this month after voting to form a partnership with the Rockwood People's Utility District to develop a groundwater system, similar to what is used in Troutdale, Wood Village and Fairview.
The decision was a financial one. Portland is constructing a new billion dollar filtration plant that will be completed in 2027, leading to significant cost increases for customers, including wholesale buyers like the city of Gresham. Those increases would be passed along to consumers. Gresham also would have been on the hook for about $100 million in capital funds to complete the project.
"Given the alternatives it was an easy decision to make," Widmark said. "We have a large aquafer to draw on and a great partnership with Rockwood Water."
Gresham's long partnership to enjoy Bull Run water will cease. Now it is just another chapter in the long history of a former town, shuttered powerplant and reservoir with dwindling customers that all shared the same name.
Company ghost town
A story that ran in The Outlook in the 1920s appears to shed light on the origins of the name Bull Run.
In the 1860s, a man named Frank Mognet was living in the Cedar Creek area near Sandy. He was attempting to catch a bull that had gone wild when it ran into the then-unnamed stream. Because this was just after the Battle of Bull Run, and the bull had "given him a strong run," Mognet christened the stream Bull Run.
Mognet's name stuck, and eventually would be given to the small community that cropped up on the western foothills of Mount Hood along the banks of the river. The town was formed as the city of Portland began using the water to generate power.
The Bull Run Powerhouse began construction in 1909. In addition to the structure, a man-made reservoir called Roslyn Lake was created to store water for power generation. That was done via a concrete canal at the Marmot Dam on the Sandy River.
The company town of Bull Run began to grow as well. There were about 40 homes, a hotel, gas station, post office, grocery store, blacksmith, and all the other amenities of a small town in the 1900s. The reservoir was about 45 minutes from town, protected from most visitors to keep the water safe and clean.
One of the main buildings in town was a three-story headquarters constructed by the Mt. Hood Railway and Power Company in 1912. After the company was bought out by Portland Railway Light & Power, the headquarters building became the Bull Run Clubhouse for employees.
"It became a place for motormen and conductors to play pool and take a break at the end of the line," said Mark Moore, the Gresham Historical Society museum director.
Eventually technology and innovation spelled the end for Bull Run. Fewer employees were needed to operate the power and water generation facilities, so the town was dismantled. The post office was moved to Camp Namanu — a camping resort founded in 1924 that continues under the direction of Camp Fire USA.
"The houses in Bull Run are now few and far between," Moore said. "It was a company town — the whole area was owned by the city of Portland. Technology took over and they had less need for people to live and work up there."
Connected to Bull Run
There were many ways in which Gresham has been physically connected to Bull Run — both the town and reservoir.
Gresham played a key role in constructing the elaborate water purification and delivery system that was built to transport the waters across the region in 1893. The construction also led to the first telephone line in Gresham, installed in 1894, which ran from Bull Run down to the Gresham Rexall Drug Store — now Jazzy Bagels — at the corner of Powell Boulevard and Main Avenue.
"The Bull Run was a boon for Gresham merchants for a long time," Widmark said.
Gresham wouldn't start enjoying the water it helped make available until the following century, when city officials decided to stop using wells for water and tapped into the Bull Run system. Soon not only were Gresham residents enjoying the taste of the water, they were also flocking in droves to visit the wilderness community.
The Mt. Hood Railway and Power Company opened a 22-mile steam line from Montavilla to Bull Run in 1911 with 30 stations. Two of the stops were at Rockwood and Powell Valley — at the time small towns that sprang up around the streetcar line.
"If someone wanted to ride up to Bull Run for a weekend excursion, it was usually 75 cents for a roundtrip," Moore said.
Steam trains eventually gave way to streetcars, which had been electrified by Portland Railway Light & Power.
One of the main draws for visitors was Bull Run Park (now Dodge Park) along the Sandy River. In the summer, it operated as an amusement resort famous for boating, swimming, picnicking, camping and fishing.
An annual report for the Portland Water Bureau in 1926 noted that "a conservative estimate of visitors during the last summer would be thirty thousand." To accommodate the crowds, there were 168 picnic tables and 72 brick campfire grills for visitors to use.
"People would ride the 'picnic trains' up to Bull Run on the weekends," Moore said.
Passenger service up the mountain discontinued in 1930, while freight service concluded two years later, spurred by the Great Depression. Eventually the tracks were removed and salvaged from East Gresham to Bull Run.
Portland General Electric stopped using the Bull Run Powerhouse, and it was closed in 2007. Marmot Dam was shut down and dismantled, as was the Little Sandy Dam. Roslyn Lake was drained, and the Bull Run school was closed about four years ago.
"Today the ghosts are all that remain as Bull Run became the town that time forgot," Moore wrote.
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