The story of street water fountains in Southeast
Writing an historical column is not an easy job. Besides selecting a topic that will be of interest to readers, a lot of time and research goes into gathering the information needed for an article. Sometimes we historians feel like detectives, trying to dig up clues on people and locations long gone.
There are libraries and museums to visit, conversations to have with local merchants and homeowners, and oral interviews with people who lived in the area for decades. The effort even requires calling and texting experts in their fields to find out more about the subject under study. Problems to solve include where to start, or who to contact that could answer questions – and the answers often lead to even more questions that need to be solved.
Not that historians complain about all this – it's fun! And the answers, when we find them, often surprise us.
As a would-be historical detective in Inner Southeast Portland, I feel it's time to include my readers in my latest quest, so come along and help me solve the next mystery, involving "The Inner Southeast Drinking Fountains".
Recently I was reading an interesting article about the "Benson Bubblers of Portland" by respected historian Dan Haneckow, who runs a webpage entitled "Café Unknown" – which features numerous articles on Portland history. He's an expert in his field, and goes to great lengths to research the articles he writes.
One of his essays centered on the drinking fountains of Portland. It explained how Simon Benson, the early local businessman and philanthropist, decided that the City of Portland needed drinking fountains on street corners to help thirsty Portlanders avoid the many taverns and saloons located around town. In 1912, he donated $10,000 to the city for the purchase and installation of twenty bronze drinking fountains to be positioned around the downtown area. These decorative four-bowled drinking fountains were designed by architect A. E. Doyle. Some of Doyle's larger and more obvious architectural accomplishments have been the Multnomah County Library, and the majestic Multnomah Falls Lodge.
These public fountains were referred to as Benson Bubblers, in honor of Simons' donation to the city (and dedication to sobriety). After the installation of his twenty bronze fountains, additional Benson Water Fountains were installed in the following years across the city by the Portland Water Bureau. These new additions were cast in bronze or copper, and were of the single-bowl variety.
This last point piqued my interest, as there are such water fountains in Inner Southeast – Sellwood, Westmoreland, Woodstock, Brooklyn, and Foster-Powell have bronze street water fountains, too. Were they ever a part Benson's grand plan in the early 1900's?
The public eventually took for granted these wonderful bronze fountains. In the ensuing decades, street fountains became neglected. Some were removed, as roadways were realigned during construction or widened, and not replaced. Others were vandalized or actually stolen.
Angered and appalled that some of these bronze beauties on city corners were missing parts or not working, in 1950 a tradesman and longshoreman – Francis J. Murnane – started a campaign to revitalize this part of Portland's history. For the next six years, Murnane led a personal crusade, demanding as a taxpayer that the City of Portland repair damaged fountains and find new locations for fountains that had been removed for street repairs but not reinstalled.The Portland City Council eventually conceded Murnane's point and authorized repairs on the original twenty downtown Benson Bubblers. Additional single fountains, bronze replicas of the originals, were added along other downtown city blocks. Documents from the City of Portland Archives revesal that, "Mayor Rushlight pledged to furnish free water and maintenance," to existing water fountains.
Historian Haneckow added interesting information on his webpage on how readers can determine a replica from an original Benson Bubbler. He referred to a detailed map on the City of Portland's website, showing where 80 Benson Bubblers are now located in the city. But, in identifying fountains installed on the east side of the Willamette River, that map appears incomplete. It seems to list only three bronze bubblers, and none are listed in the vicinity of Sellwood or Westmoreland.
This, my friends, was a crime – one that called for further investigation. My first train of thought was to get hold of a list of the drinking fountains from by the Portland Water Bureau, which after all is charged with maintaining all of them. On their website they boast that they maintain 52 of four-bowl Benson Bubblers, along with 74 single-bowl varieties, on a bi-weekly schedule – but their detailed map also seemed to be missing a few of the single-bronze fountains on the east side of the river. Have they forgotten some of them in Inner Southeast? Or have they stopped maintaining them?
Time to get out the Meerchaum Pipe and Deerstalker Hat, and do some detecting.
Currently there are three drinking fountains in Sellwood and Westmoreland which look much like the originals around City Hall and along the commercial districts downtown. One can be found at the corner of Milwaukie Avenue and Bybee, in front of Starbuck's; another is on 13th Avenue at Spokane Street, near the Leipzig Tavern.
A third one is front of the Oaks Pioneer Church, the very historic white church at Grand and Spokane Street, and is now rented out for events by SMILE. The Oaks Pioneer Church is one of three buildings in the neighborhood that is on the National Register of Historic Places. The fountain at the church was installed just a few years after the it was barged down the Willamette River from where it was built in Milwaukie in the mid-1800's, and hauled up Spokane Street to place where it sits today – on PP&R property. That fountain is still cleaned and maintained by the Portland Water Bureau.
There's no mystery behind that water fountain – it's definitely not a part of the original street fountains we are looking for, but certainly it is a replica. As for the other two I mentioned – they both appear to be bronze type that were installed years ago, but many questions remained. What year were they installed, and how might they be related to the Benson Bubblers that first appeared on Portland streets in the early 1900's?
My first stop was again at the City of Portland Water Bureau, and this time in person. It's situated in a large brick building in North Portland. There is a replica of a four-bowl Benson Bubbler there.
I spoke with Jaymee Cuti, Public Information Officer for the Water Bureau. She confirmed that indeed the Water Bureau does service the three drinking fountains I was asking about, but said that the Water Bureau doesn't have any definite installation dates for those. Most of the records they do have only go back as far as 1972. She added that, in the decades that followed, more fountains were locally produced – some by the students of Benson High School, where there is a four-bowl fountain. This is one of the three that Haneckow's website locates on the east side of the river. In addition to Benson High, the other two are on the Vera Katz East Bank Esplanade, and at 41st and S.E. Sandy Boulevard.
Maybe I was wrong? Perhaps the public fountains in the Sellwood-Westmoreland neighborhood aren't as old as I thought. If only I could find historical photos of buildings where these fountains now stand! Well, the Sellwood-Westmoreland neighborhood association – SMILE – has a collection of historic photos painstakingly collected over the years. I made that my next stop.
The collection is kept in the basement of SMILE Station – a building that was once a firehouse, built in 1926 as Station 20, a fire company which is now located on Bybee Boulevard north of Westmoreland Park. SMILE Station was bought by the SMILE from the Fire Bureau, and is now maintained and rented for community events and meetings.
Lorraine Frye is Manager of the building, as well as the historic church on Spokane Street, and she directed me to binders full of historical information about the community which could provide a clue.
I did come across an old photo of the Griessen Building (where the Leipzig Tavern now stands), showing the Star Theater back in the 1920's. In the front of the stone block building stood a proprietor, a woman, and a little girl on a tricycle. And on the corner of the sidewalk there was…nothing! No drinking fountain there.
Undeterred, I continued through the files until I came across a photo of the Westmoreland Drugstore in the 1930's – today's Starbucks. In the picture: Yes, there was a drinking fountain on the corner. But – the fountain is white, and not bronze, like Benson Bubblers. It's a white porcelain fountain, such as were once common in elementary school hallways. How did THAT come to be there, and when was it installed?
My best bet might be to go over the thousands of pages of THE BEE, dating back to the newspaper's origin in 1906, which I have read on a micro-fiche machine at Sellwood Branch Library. While doing that, I have copied down and collected an assortment of historical information which I keep in a black notebook in my own library. It was there I hoped to find a clue.
Sellwood had brief period as an independent city from 1887 to 1893, and then was incorporated into Portland. Sellwood and Westmoreland have had very active Business Associations, and this white street fountain could have been one of their projects.
For years, local businesses lobbied for the building of the Sellwood Bridge – and they got their bridge in 1925. They and other business associations around the city petitioned for paved roads, clean Bull Run water, and sewers, and they got them all from the City of Portland. So why would local businesses not ask that Inner Southeast locations not be included on the Benson Bubbler list too?
THE BEE's archives provided an answer. The newspaper reported a list of goals of the Sellwood Trade Commission in 1913, and on that list was a request to the Portland City Council for the installation of a drinking fountain. I found more in the Portland City Archives: Prior the Portland Water Bureau, any matters dealing with drinking water and maintenance of city streets were overseen by a special committee appointed by the Mayor. The Mayor then decided what action, if any, needed to be taken.
I journeyed downtown and requested any available information on a public fountain having being installed along Milwaukie Avenue at 17th Avenue. A woman named Mary Hansen, who is the Reference Archivist for the City of Portland Archives and Records Center, briskly brought to my table four manila folders, and here is what they contained.
In 1946 the Water Bureau had no funds to install water features – but interested individuals, clubs, or merchants could send money to the City of Portland and have one installed at their own expense and in their desired location. Howard W. Raabe, a Physical Education teacher and leader of a local health club, paid $250.00 for a public drinking fountain on the southeast corner of Powell Boulevard and Milwaukie Avenue. You can still find the fountain there in the Brooklyn neighborhood.
In 1968 the city requested an inventory of all city property – and the Office of Property Control was created, to document existing water fountains and other city real estate. One of the manila files revealed that a single white vitreous china water feature, mounted on a circular raised concrete foundation, was placed on the northwest corner of Milwaukie and Bybee Boulevard. Well, that was the wrong corner!
I interviewed local businessman Mr. Crantford, who for many years owned Crantford Flowers on that corner, where a yogurt shop is now located. He thought there was a fountain in front of his store, donated by the Sellwood Moreland Lions Club sometime between 1948 and 1955. But, then, why did I find a photo of it in 1938 – and on the opposite corner to the south?
But back to those manila folders downtown. In another file I found out about another fountain. On March 27th, 1968, a bronze single-bowl drinking fountain was installed on the northeast corner of Umatilla and 13th in Sellwood. That would be where the Black Cat Tavern used to be located.
The files also included the mention of placing a fountain at that same location much earlier – when a petition by J. N. Roberts of Sellwood was presented to the City Council. The records stated that "the matter was referred to the Commissioner of Public Affairs, who recommended the petition be placed on file July 16th, 1913, and a fountain placed on the N.E. corner of Umatilla and 13th". Nowaways there is no fountain on that corner.
About a fountain at S.E. 13th and Spokane – an inventory was taken on May 2nd, 1968, revealed that a single brass bubbler drinking fountain with a step (a standard water replacement fountains) was already installed on the northeast corner of Spokane and 13th Avenue. So that's why I couldn't find that one in front of the historical Star Theater photo from the History Committee; it apparently was really on the other side of the street. So in two cases in Sellwood and Westmorleand, city records conflict with local recollections – but the photos I found seem to provide evidence of where fountains actually were actually placed, if not always exactly when and why.
So, I would say, that case is more or less closed. The mystery of the missing Benson Bubblers has been solved, to the best of my ability and knowledge.
Westmorelanders and Sellwoodites should be proud that they had Portland's first public Swimming pool; the first branch of the Multnomah County Library; the first local branch of the YMCA (today's Sellwood Community House); the first Airplane Landing field (in Westmoreland – in what is now Westmoreland Park); and – at one time, just maybe – an original Benson Bubbler, on the neighborhood's streets.
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