We want Bull Run water!

By PATRICIA SANDERS

These days we tend to take plentiful, clean water for granted. We turn on a faucet and, “presto!”, there it is. Yet that wasn’t always the true.

Montavilla in the early 20th Century was experiencing frequent shortages, especially in the summer months when water was needed most.

Until around 1900 Montavilla’s water service was adequate for its small population. Like other unincorporated communities near Portland, private companies did the job. The Mount Tabor Villa Water Company and the Mount Tabor Water Company, both incorporated in 1891, were the local suppliers. (The Mount Tabor Water Company piped water to Montavilla from Paradise Springs on the west slope of Mount Tabor.)

At that time, real estate sales grew slowly due to the the depression of 1893 to 1897, but they picked up in the early years of the 20th Century. With the real estate boom, the Montavilla population rose and soon the water supply could not keep up. 

Portland newspapers began to run horror stories about Montavilla’s water shortages. The Oregon Daily Journal of August 15, 1902, for example, reported that the Mount Tabor Water Company was dealing with the summer undersupply by turning off the water lines after 6 pm. The Oregonian on October 4, 1902 proclaimed “Water is Badly Needed” and residents would no longer be allowed to water their gardens in the summer.

Worries about water to put out fires were also a concern for many. (For more on Montavilla fire protection in the early 20th Century visit How Montavilla Got Its Own Fire Station).

The obvious solution was to gain access to Bull Run water, which started flowing into Portland in 1895. But there was a hitch: Bull Run water was only available to customers within Portland city limits. 

So why not just annex Montavilla to Portland?

Photo credit: George Arthur Peake, Mount Tabor Reservoir, Portland, Oregon, about 1940. Collection of Patricia Sanders

A note on the photo: I didn’t think it would be very interesting to show a picture of a water pipe, so I decided to use a photograph of Mount Tabor Reservoir Number 5 (built in 1911) filled with Bull Run water. This photo was taken by my grandfather, who liked to give his photographs an artistic feel—hence the slightly blurred effect. By the way that’s my grandmother, May Peake, in the foreground. They lived just a few blocks from Mount Tabor Park.

Annexation had been discussed in previous years and had been roundly rejected by Montavillans. Now, with the water shortages, the issue came up again. Contentious public meetings were held, but, despite the water issues, Montavillans still could not agree about joining the City. There were pro and con factions, some favoring incorporation others annexation.

And then, in 1904, there was another obstacle: the City thought there was insufficient Bull Run water to supply added populations.

Finally, in 1906, the way was cleared to put annexation to a vote, and Montavillans approved it with an 80% majority. The Oregonian of July 14 rightly proclaimed this a victory for annexation AND for Bull Run water. About a year later installation of the new system began with a 12-inch wooden pipe running from the upper Mount Tabor reservoir down to Montavilla. The small pipes of the old system would later be replaced to handle the increased pressure. 

So next time you turn on your tap, maybe take a moment to think of those Montavillans of old who were able to reconcile their differences and lay the foundation for the water abundance we enjoyed until 2015, when the Mt. Tabor reservoirs were decommissioned.

Historical story ideas? Questions about Montavilla’s past? Also share a love for neighborhood history? Reach out to Pat Sanders at pat.montavilla.history@gmail.com.

Read all of the “Montavilla Memories” articles by Pat Sanders here


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