With a high-capacity pipeline laid in by hand in 1915 between the Mt. Tabor reservoirs and the new 1-million-gallon tank at NE 19th and Prescott replacing the old standpipe in 1920-1921, neighbors could water their lawns to their hearts’ content.
The old hand-me-down Vernon Standpipe was shuffled off to Willamette Bluff and the only conversation about the tank site for the next generation had to do with Water Board allowing students at the Vernon Practice House and Vernon School to plant gardens on the site. In 1922, a load of bricks from the old Palatine Hill pumping station, which was being demolished, was sent over to help beautify the site.
In July 1945—in the years before air traffic control and computer-aided navigation—a pilot for United Airlines suggested the city install a red beacon light atop the tank to serve as a guide for passenger airplanes trying to find Portland Airport.
But mostly, water needs were met. Until the long, hot summer of 1959.
Lots of lawn sprinkling and a lot more users completely drained the Vernon Tank. And public attention once again turned to the need for water and what the city was going to do about it. Fortunately, plans were already afoot to upgrade Vernon’s storage capacity by creating the largest storage tank of its kind in the nation: 5.5 million gallons.
From The Oregonian, August 1, 1959
Due to a steel strike, and local opposition from neighbors who were initially opposed to the size of the tank, it took a few years, but in February 1961 the Water Bureau selected Chicago Bridge and Tank to build the new tank for $469,000. And thankfully, once again, a city photographer chronicled progress in this great series of photos, all courtesy of Portland City Archives, series A2012-005. Be sure to check out the view from the top. All of these are worth a double click to see the detail. These guys were proud of their work.
The tank construction crew posed for a photo, June 11, 1962.
Using one of the on-site cranes, the photographer captured this aerial view looking northwest from the tank, NE Prescott crossing in the foreground, March 12, 1962.
Looking southeast from the corner of NE 18th and Prescott, March 12, 1962.
Looking up inside the tank, March 12, 1962.
Workers inside the tank, March 12, 1962.
Looking southeast from NE 18th and Prescott, May 4, 1962.
Looking west on Prescott at NE 20th, June 11, 1962.
Workers atop the tank during final stages of construction, June 11, 1962
Water Bureau Engineer Palmer North (left) and Commissioner Mark A. “Buck” Grayson (right) turn the valve filling the new tank, October 5, 1962.
Portland was proud of its crowning distinction of having the largest water tank in the country. On its Golden Anniversary celebration in December 1963, the American Society of Civil Engineers added the Vernon Tank—along with Bonneville Dam, the St. Johns Bridge and Timberline Lodge—to its engineering hall of fame.
In an interesting post script to history (and with thanks to attentive reader Grant), we’ve confirmed with the Portland Water Bureau that the 1 million gallon tank–the one built in 1920 atop the tower–has not held water for more than 40 years due to being made obsolete in the late 1970s or early 1980s due the construction of other storage facilities.
Thanks again, Doug. Three memories from me…..
I was 8 years old when they built that (and I was right here in the neighborhood). I remember it being touted as the biggest in Oregon, but now, almost 60 years later, I learn, biggest in the nation!
Another memory…the water rates listed in the article (a couple bucks a month). When I bought my house in 1981, my water / sewer bills were about $36 per quarter ($12 a month). Then they did the big 20 year, billion dollar+ sewer pipe disconnect throughout the city… and our bills went up to…..well….a heck of a lot more.
I recall three bursts in that 30″ main. The recent one on about 24th and Skidmore burbled out millions of gallons before it was shut off. And in about the mid 80’s, in front of Rigler School in the middle of Prescott – it was shooting up to the sky like a geyser for quite a while one morning. Also, another burst in that area.