The Montavilla sewer kerfuffle

By PATRICIA SANDERS

Lately, I’ve been noticing the sewer work in our neighborhood and occasionally reading the Bureau of Environmental Services notices about repairing aging 100-year-old pipes.

Wait, 100-year-old pipes? That got my attention. Did that mean another of those neighborhood improvement battles? As it turns out, it did. In fact, there were many tussles and controversies spread over several years.

You had your pro-sewer faction, you had your anti-sewer faction, you had questionable bids as well as a big controversy over possible defects. Much to research.

From the late 1800s and early 1900s, cities all over the US were putting in sewer systems, mostly combined systems with sewage and stormwater in the same conduits, which is what we have in Portland

Of course, cities needed sewer systems for the sake of public health— the connection between contaminated water and epidemics was understood. But also, sewer systems were more convenient and less smelly than the old cesspools in backyards. 

Portland built its first sewer system using buried wooden troughs in 1864, then in 1883 it put in 15 miles of terracotta pipe. As Portland grew, especially east of the Willamette, sewer systems would expand and by 1915 they included Montavilla.

Montavilla Sewer Ground-breaking.
The Oregonian, April 25, 1915 (Source: Oregon Historical Newspapers)

The photo above shows the official ground-breaking ceremony on April 24, 1915, taking place on still-unpaved NE Glisan Street at what is now NE 86th Avenue. Participating are some of the key players in the Montavilla sewer drama. The most important of these are the three figures in the right half of the photo: on the far left, contractor William Lind and next to him members of the Montavilla Board of Trade William DeVeny— Montavilla’s own Buffalo Bill look-alike— and WH Hamilton, president.

DeVeny, one of Montavilla’s most ardent community advocates, was promoting a sewer system as early as 1901. At that time, he and others realized they probably wouldn’t get one unless Montavilla became part Portland, which had started building sewer systems on the East Side in 1893. After years of debate, in 1906 Montavilla voters finally agreed to annexation.

After a few years, a Montavilla sewer system started to look like a reality. A new system that included Montavilla was surveyed in 1909 and a plan was created by 1912. This system would be the largest one in Portland to date.

But there was a hitch. It was about money. A group of Montavilla property owners protested being assessed for a system that wouldn’t serve them for several years. But others, including a majority on the Montavilla Board of Trade, wanted it to proceed as quickly as possible, so they could begin paving East Glisan. After protests and arguments, the Board presented a pro-sewer petition signed by 400 property owners who favored construction and the City Council approved the project.

Progress, however, was slow and in 1914 the Montavilla Board of Trade pressed the City move faster. Finally in October, the project went out to bid.

New problems emerged. The first set of bids was rejected by Robert Dieck, Commissioner of Public Works, who suspected contracting firm Giebisch & Joplin had lowered its bid after bids were opened. Dieck recommended the bid go to William Lind. Montavilla property owners wanted Giebisch & Joplin. The contract again went to bid— twice— and Dieck rejected both, again for “irregularities”. 

Finally, in January, 1915, Lind won with a bid of $148,639, a whopping $25,000 lower than the next lowest one. In fact, according to The Oregonian, this was the lowest bid ever received by the City for such construction.

Montavillans rejoiced at the savings. The Board of Trade hosted a banquet at the Montavilla School. 250 came. Food was served by the PTA women. There was music, including the popular Veteran Male Quartet. There were speeches, including Mayor Harry Russell Albee’s, in which he praised the Montavilla spirit.

To add to the good feelings the Board convinced Lind to hire as many unemployed Montavilla men as possible. This was a welcome boon during the depression that had hit the entire Northwest in 1914.

Work on the Montavilla sewer system begins The Oregonian, April 25, 1915
Source: Oregon Historical Newspapers

Work began in April. The photo above shows workers standing by reinforced concrete pipes ready to be lowered into sewer ditches. To the left, we see Contractor Lind (in a bowler hat) and DeVeny, looking like a wizard with his long coat and flowing locks. Lind began the project on Glisan Street, so street paving could begin as soon as possible.

Installing pipes in deep trenches The Oregon Daily Journal, November 21, 1915
Source: Historical Oregon Newspapers

Construction presented lots of challenges. One of them were the natural depressions of Montavilla topography. This required many trenches to be exceptionally deep— 30 feet below the surface in places. 

Lowering a pipe section. The Oregonian, November 21, 1915
Source: Historical Oregonian Newspapers

Another challenge was installing pipe sections weighing more than a ton. After casting the sections on site in steel forms, the pipes had to be transported to the trenches, where heavy block and tackle were used to lower them into place (as seen in the photo above).

On December 28, 1915, the Montavilla sewer system was completed and ready for inspection by City Engineer Philip H. Dater, who led a party of Montavilla residents— required to bring their own boots— through a mile-long section.

At that time, the new Montavilla system would serve 20,000 people. The final price tag was $160,000, approximately $12,000 more than the original bid.

You’d think this was the end of the story— but no. There’s a surprising postscript. In spring, 1916, a few sewer workers claimed the construction was faulty. Testifying at a Portland Civil Service Board hearing, they claimed they saw cracked pipes, which supervisors and City inspectors allowed to be installed rather than discarded. The erupting controversy made headlines for weeks.

Disturbed by such allegations of contractor and oversight irresponsibility, the City Council instituted an investigation. They appointed a committee of three outside engineers recommended by the Oregon Chapter of the American Society of Engineers to conduct an independent study and then issue a report. 

Alarmed that their new system might be flawed, members of the Montavilla Board of Trade showed up for the City Hall hearings. DeVeny and Montavilla attorney, HB Dickinson, were allowed to question the witnesses. Montavilla also wanted its own engineer, GA Kyle, to inspect the sewer system. The reports submitted by the Council-appointed engineers and the Montavilla engineer declared the work to be sound.

In its May 2, 1916 edition The Oregonian stated that DeVeny was “entirely satisfied” with the sewer and that Montavilla’s confidence had been restored. And after such a long battle, DeVeny must have been satisfied to connect his house at 542 NE 80th Avenue to the sewer and to receive its final inspection on June 30, 1916 (per Portland Maps).

A final note: The engineers hired by the City recommended that the employees who “aided in spreading false and malicious reports” should be fired. This would set off yet another controversy… but that’s another story.

If you’d like to know what Portland has been doing to upgrade the city sewer system in recent years, you can watch an excellent video on the Environmental Services website.

***

Historical story ideas? Questions about Montavilla’s past? Also share a love for neighborhood history? 

Comment on the article at the link in the heading. Or you can 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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