Thursday, November 28, 2013

Vancouver Lake expedition

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Here's a slideshow from Vancouver's Vancouver Lake Park, mostly of the far side of the lake near where the road peters out. I always forget there's a lake this big in the Portland area. Partly because it's up in Vancouver, and partly because it's your basic Pacific Northwest wetland nature area, the same as everywhere else but larger, and with the ongoing water quality issues of a suburban lake. It's not exactly Crater Lake, is what I'm saying. These photos were taken back in 2007, the same "mini-roadtrip" week that I went to Crater Lake, which may be why posting these didn't seem like a high priority. I had actually forgotten I'd ever been to Vancouver Lake until I ran across these photos in an old iPhoto library recently.

Since my visit there wasn't particularly eventful, I think we'll just go ahead and dive into the Oregonian historical database instead. (If there was a database of the Vancouver Columbian newspaper, that would be even better, or at least more comprehensive, but as far as I know it's not available online.) Most of the news items in the database are fairly routine: Hunting and fishing reports, real estate ads, farming news, occasional drownings, that sort of thing. I tried to only include items that stood out from the crowd or seemed relevant to why today's lake is the way it is, so hopefully it's an interesting list, as far as these things go. The pattern that emerges over the last century or so is one of Vancouver looking west, seeing this big lake, and thinking it ought to be useful for something or other. One grand scheme after another was proposed and argued about endlessly, and yet in 2013 much of the lake and the surrounding area still looks like the back of beyond, even though it's right next to the city proper.

For clarity I've broken the news items out into pre-1965, 1965-1983, and post-1983 sections, for reasons that will be come clear after the jump.

The early years
  • The lake was reported to be "frozen solid" on December 14th, 1914, and 500 people showed up to go ice skating.
  • In June 1916, part of the lake was considered as a target practice range for nearby Fort Vancouver. Congress allocated funds to buy the land, but the government declined to go through with the deal after realizing the land flooded in the winter.
  • August 1919 saw a widely-opposed proposal to drain the lake and "reclaim" it as farmland, similar to what happened with the former Guilds Lake in Northwest Portland. An alternate proposal suggested digging a canal to the Columbia and dredging the lake so it could serve as a moorage basin, similar (the proposer said) to Lake Union in Seattle. The proposal was still kicking around in 1924 and I don't see a record of it ever being officially rejected; they seem to have just stopped holding hearings about it at some point.
  • On August 22nd, 1928, during the height of Prohibition, the paper reported the arrest and conviction of Charles H. Vanderbaum for running an illicit beer-brewing operation hidden at Vancouver Lake, four miles from downtown Vancouver. Seized were 134 quarts of beer, ten gallons of mash, and many empty containers.
  • The lake froze again in February 1929, and again 500 ice skaters were reported.
  • The proposal to build a canal and deepen the lake came up again in 1931, the goal this time being to establish a shipping terminal and naval base, potentially creating the finest freshwater port on the Pacific coast.
  • In November 1932, Jesse E. Cousins was arrested at his Vancouver Lake hideout, to face trial for murdering two Prohibition agents.
  • An archeological mystery was reported in February 1935. Supposedly, some 15 years earlier someone had discovered the keel of a very old ship buried 20 feet underground along Burnt Bridge Creek, which flows into Vancouver Lake. The article speculates it must have been at least 100 years old, and probably of "oriental" origin due to its (alleged) teak construction. The article speculates water levels must have been higher in past years, to enable such a large seagoing vessel to sail this far inland. A November 1957 letter to the editor revived the legend, adding that it had been discovered by an Irishman, who later told an old prospector about his discovery. The writer states that he and the prospector recently searched for the now-lost buried ship with the aid of a local treasure hunter. They found no trace of it, but the writer remained optimistic, and his letter asked if anyone out there knew the long-departed Irishman's name so he could narrow his search a bit. This is the last we hear of the story. Although it could get revived again if the "Ancient Aliens" TV show hears about it and decides the lost ship was buried by aliens.
  • On a slow news day in August 1937, the paper reported that a local woman had found unusual ears of corn growing near Vancouver Lake. She described them as "quintuplets". I'm not sure what that means in relation to corn.
  • The proposal to deepen the lake came up yet again in March 1945. This time they wanted to use the lake to store surplus Navy ships after the World War II ended. The proposal was taken seriously enough that the Navy sent a delegation to inspect the lake. The Oregonian editorialized in favor of the idea in July 1946 as a much-needed postwar jobs program, dismissing claims that the dredging project would be much too expensive. These so-called "ghost fleets" ended up in a few other locations around the country instead, such as Suisun Bay in the north end of San Francisco Bay.
  • Also in July 1946, the paper reported that the Washington State Health Department planned to use the lake as a testing site for the modern miracle insecticide known as DDT.
  • In April 1951, a P-51 Mustang fighter crashed into the lake, killing the pilot. The plane, based at what's now Portland International Airport, was reportedly doing a barrel roll at the time of the crash. The paper devoted a lot of its coverage to complaining about the lack of media access to the crash site. The incident was mentioned in an AP story a few weeks later, regarding the increasingly tight-lipped federal government: "Editors Urged to Fight Suppression of News"
  • In March 1956, the lake saw an unusual visitor, a Piaggio P.136 Royal Gull amphibious plane. Surprisingly, given the lake's history, the article neglects to envision a bright future with dozens, perhaps hundreds of giant floatplanes based here, serving the West Coast and the far corners of the Orient and beyond. Which is a shame; it's an appealingly romantic notion, even though the Jet Age was just a few years in the future.
  • An October 1961 article notes that the lake was a standard place for Oregon Air National Guard jets to discard wing tanks. Probably not great for the environment, but a small gift to future archeologists, I guess.
  • In March 1964, the state approved a plan by the Hazel Dell Sewer District to build a treatment plant at Vancouver Lake, discharging into the lake. This idea proved unpopular with local residents, so the district proposed dumping sewage into the Columbia instead. The lake plan was deemed unnecessary and abandoned in December 1965.
The lake goes into rehab
  • In October 1965, Clark County began talking about "rehabilitating" the lake, which meant raising the lake level to make it useful for recreational boating again, as it was now too shallow and polluted for anything except duck hunting and catfishing. The article recaps the long history of Vancouver trying to figure out what to do with its eponymous lake, and the eternal struggle between the "wets" who wanted to dredge the lake, and the "drys" who wished to drain it for agricultural use.
  • The plan to raise the lake level turned out to involve a 20 mile long canal system through Vancouver to feed Columbia River water into the lake. The canal would also enable commercial barge traffic into the lake, to serve an envisioned new industrial area. Getting approval for this was probably helped by the fact that Washington State had a Canal Commission at the time, and being in favor of canals was more or less part of their job description.
  • More detail on the plan emerged in April 1966, when civic leaders unveiled details at a public hearing. In addition to dredging a canal to, and through, the lake, the dredged soil would be reused to help build a four lane highway around the west shore of the lake, between it and the Columbia. The highway, obviously, was never built; instead there's a lightly used two lane road that doesn't quite make it the whole way around the lake. The far end of the road seems to be where county road crews practice striping roads, as you can see in a few of the photos here. Or maybe they just do it for fun way out here where the boss probably won't notice. In which case, sorry for ratting you out, guys.
  • In a follow-up article a few days later, various parties chimed in with opinions about the plan. Hunters and fishermen weren't thrilled about the idea, and neither was the US Fish & Wildlife Service, which was in the middle of creating the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge just downstream from the lake.
  • By January 1968, the plan had grown into a $106 million master scheme, which now included a large industrial airport as well as the previously envisioned industrial and nautical uses. Oh, and there would be an 18 hole golf course, too. The lake was described, somewhat improbably, as "strategically located as an interchange for regional, national, and world trade and travel".
  • An editorial the next day compares the project with the Port of Portland's Rivergate project in North Portland. It notes the Port of Vancouver didn't have anywhere near the same amount of money to spend as its southerly counterpart, which makes me wonder whether the lake would have survived had it ended up on the Oregon side of the border.
  • Meanwhile, in October 1969, Washington State University researchers received a federal grant to study the lake and its water quality problems. It appears everyone knew the lake was increasingly polluted but the fact seems to have elicited nothing more than shrugs until this point.
  • By February 1971, the WSU researchers had created a hydrological model of the lake. Today that would mean a supercomputing cluster, and a group photo full of neckbearded CompSci students. But in 1971 you created a model by building an actual physical model, sending water through it, and observing what happened. I should point out that there's still a role for physical models. Oregon State University has a large facility for modeling tsunami waves, for example. The study was funded in part by the Port of Vancouver, so they were studying the possible impact of various parts of the port's big lake scheme, but not ruling any of them out as ecologically absurd just yet.
  • In April of 1971, the Clark County commission endorsed a plan to build another Columbia River bridge downstream of the Interstate Bridge, with the Washington end located somewhere near Vancouver Lake. The bridge would be part of an envisioned westside highway, continuing Highway 217 north from US 26, then crossing the West Hills, North Portland, and the west end of Hayden Island. They felt construction ought to happen prior to 1990, if possible.
  • In June, the WSU researchers came back to the city and the Port with an exceedingly diplomatic report extolling all the great things Vancouver Lake could be used for: Fishing, duck hunting, limited boating, observing nature, and possibly even international sailing competitions. Notably absent from the list (but not mentioned in the article): Deepwater barge traffic, industrial plants, airports, and golf courses.
  • In April 1972, Alcoa Aluminum (which had a large plant in the area) offered to sell 265 acres of lakeshore land to the county as a new park, for a mere $65,000. It seems that the state had built Highway 501 (the soon-to-be-busy, soon-to-be-four-lanes highway around the lake) a bit too close to the lake, rendering Alcoa's lakeshore land unbuildable.
  • In July of that year, two competing canal plans were under study. State ecologists had classified the lake as "dying", and it was concluded the lake needed more water flowing into it. So to save the lake, the options were a 30 foot wide canal to the Columbia to let water in, or a 200 foot wide canal that would also let barges in and enable industrial firms to locate on the lake, thus saving the environment.
  • In any event, the county moved forward with the industrial development side of the grand plan, in March 1973 proposing to build 21 miles of new flood control dikes, and then rezone the now-protected lands for heavy industry. Environmentalists opposed the idea.
  • At this point the Oregonian had had enough, and decided it was time to push back against the eco-freaks. In a series of articles on July 29th 1973, the paper explained that the lake in its current form was both useless and dying. It explained, further, that a canal to the lake was the only way to save it, and the only way to pay for the canal was to build the 200 foot version, with barge traffic and industrial plants on the lakeshore. And this industrial development was only possible if the flood control dikes were built, which the Corps of Engineers had been proposing for 30 years now. And it's possible the lake would have been saved by now, but for those meddling hippie eco-kids standing in the way of Progress. The very same hippies who've been shrieking the loudest to save the lake. They're being so unreasonable, and unrealistic, etc., etc.
  • In January 1975, the city's Vancouver Lake Task Force (which was established in the wake of the dike controversy) came up with a controversial land use plan under which Alcoa would have owned all the industrial-zoned land along the river. The head of the task force happened to be a retired Alcoa executive, who insisted the two facts were unrelated and there was no conflict of interest. Port officials were said to have viewed the study with "amazement".
  • A year later, after endless public hearings, the county put together a compromise plan, rezoning land away from heavy industry (but making it easily rezoneable), and leaving the dike system open as a future possibility.
  • By July, the Port claimed to be ready to begin restoration within 30 days. They had essentially caved at this point, and the plan involved the 30-foot, bargeless version of the canal.
  • The go-ahead didn't come until May 1980, though, after money and federal approval had been obtained. The project was then put up for bidding, and groundbreaking for the canal finally happened in July 1981. At which point everyone was saying the plan was exactly what they'd wanted all along, and no mention of barge canals or whatnot.
  • By September 1982, newspaper stories were explaining that the lake had been thanks to the Port courageously riding to the rescue. The canal opened a month later, so it was a good time to try to look like the hero, I guess.
  • The lake dredging operation had the unexpected side effect of turning up a variety of Indian artifacts, including remnants of a large fishing weir. Also found were bits of aircraft wreckage. They'd been on the lookout for wreckage from the 1951 P-51 crash, but a local FAA inspector insisted the debris was from a P-39 Airacobra, and no record could be found of such an aircraft crashing in the lake. The debris was later traced to a 1943 midair collision near the lake, which hadn't been widely reported due to wartime security.
  • The city threw a big celebration marking the cleanup in June 1983.

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