Bundy’s: Portland’s Favorite Eastside Swimming Hole

This week, we’ve been thinking about Bundy’s: a placename attached long ago to a portion of the eastern bank of the Willamette River opposite Ross Island. We mentioned the name in our recent post about Windemuth, the floating dance floor and swimming platform anchored off the north end of Ross Island that was popular between 1914-1924.

From the Oregon Journal, July 29, 1911

Reporting in the local papers from the early 1900s referred to a swimming venue in this area called Bundy’s Baths and the name quickly became applied in a shorthand way to signify the general vicinity we think of today on the east side of the river just north of today’s Ross Island Bridge. Over the years, we’ve bumped into passing references to Bundy’s: for instance, George Asa Eastman, the lead architect for Oregon Home Builders, had a houseboat / secondary residence in this area in the early 1900s.

The vicinity of Bundy’s today, Google Earth photo. Click to enlarge.

So, while we’ve generally thought of this area as Bundy’s, we’ve never really known where the name came from.

Furthermore, because so much has changed there in the last 100 years (including construction of the bridge), we’ve figured Bundy’s was extinct both as a place and as a name. We were pleasantly surprised this week, following the Windemuth post, to hear from a reader with a question about “Bundys Landing,” referring to the area’s later industrial years as a log and lumber loading zone for the nearby Inman-Poulsen mill, and after that a processing site for Ross Island Sand and Gravel. Maybe others have heard someone talk about Bundy’s, though it has certainly disappeared from any living memory.

This made us curious for more: Who was Bundy? What was this place? Where was it exactly? What else was going on here? What does it look like today? We love questions like this.

From The Oregonian, January 20, 1908

When he opened the eponymous bathhouse here in the spring of 1898, Thomas Bundy was in his late 70s, a British-born sailor, boat builder, real estate speculator and lover of everything related to swimming. He was known as “Captain Bundy,” though his days in a ship on water were mostly on the Great Lakes and well behind him. Reporting suggests Bundy was a quiet person, reluctant to talk about both his past (which included three marriages and various businesses), and his present, which included living on a nearby houseboat with Joe Valentine, who was like an adopted son. Bundy was a transplant to the Pacific Northwest, arriving in the early 1890s from San Francisco and living in Vancouver, Washington and then Oregon City before arriving in Portland.

His obituary from January 20, 1908 describes Bundy’s interesting life, and credits him as being a leading advocate for swimming in the Willamette River:

From The Oregonian, January 20, 1908

When it opened in late May 1898, Bundy’s vision for a swimming resort away from the downtown area drew immediate interest.

From The Oregonian, May 29, 1898

Members of the Multnomah Athletic Club began frequenting Bundy’s resort—which was also known as the Neptune Baths—and soon it became the place to go, particularly for girls and women. Swimming and diving competitions took place here and eventually the Portland Yacht Club relocated just downstream to be nearby. It was the center of gravity for river swimming in Portland. We know it was busy: The Oregonian reported Bundy’s rented out 1,300 swimming suits per day in August 1915 and that more than 40,000 people used the foot of Ellsworth Street each year in the 19-teens for landing and embarking on the river. News coverage was abundant.

Click to enlarge: From The Oregonian, August 5, 1906. Note the buildings and shoreline at Bundy’s in the diving photo above. Below, from The Oregonian on August 9, 1903 (note the sketch of Captain Bundy presiding).

Bundy’s Bath’s appears to have been a collection of simple buildings for dressing, an enclosed area for swimming, a snack bar, and a set of diving platforms on the east bank of the river at what was the foot of Ellsworth Street. Here’s a map that puts this in context, and remember this is before the Ross Island Bridge, which came along in 1926. In 1910, Ellsworth Street was renamed Woodward Street.

Detail from the 1894 paving map of Portland. Bundy’s was located where Ellsworth Street met the river. The pink roadway indicates gravel.

The vicinity of Bundy’s at the foot of Ellsworth Street was a kind of jumping off place into this watery world: if you were out on the river in this area to have fun (or to live in one of the houseboats) you passed through here. A careful look at aerial photos from the 1920s and 1930s shows a solid line of houseboats from Bundy’s south along the east bank of the river well into the bend across from Ross Island, and even lining the eastern shore of Ross Island.

1925 aerial photo. Click to enlarge.

From 1900 until the early 1920s, Bundy’s was the epicenter of swimming in this stretch of the Willamette. But by 1925, Portlanders abandoned the river because it had become the main receptacle for the city’s raw sewage, and due to heavy industrialization on this side of the river.

In fact, some credited the growing problem of raw sewage outfall as the motivation behind the swimming platform that became Windemuth, which opened in 1914 with the slogan “The only place to swim in the middle of the Willamette River, where the water is clear and clean.” The river banks were becoming clogged and foul-smelling with an awful mix of sewage and debris which could only be avoided by getting out in the current, in the middle of the river.

By 1919 the Bundy buildings on the eastern shore were sold and dismantled. In later years—long after those swimmers who loved this place had left—heavy piers and docks were constructed at the site where Bundy’s once stood to load lumber onto ships from the nearby Inman-Poulsen mill. Here’s a view from 1940:

Today, the area is a desolate, post-industrial mass of graffitied concrete behind a tall, barbed wire security fence.

We’ve paddled and pedaled through this area hundreds of times and never knew these echoes from the past. Maybe you have too. Now we know. It’s time to get back out there in the kayak and remember what was a special place.

Sunset near Bundy’s

4 responses

  1. In the first picture of your article showing the Ross Island bridge in juxtaposition to Bundy’s, the turreted house to the south of Powell was purchased and renovated by my brother-in-law William Hatch Jr. My father as a young man and his family lived at SE 8th and Rhone. When visiting our grandparents, as kids, my brother and I would cross the Hiway, go down the cliff, cross the railroad tracks and play in the river east of Ross Island. Ross Island Sand and Gravel was active then, scooping out the lagoon. Small world.

  2. Wow! Thanks, Doug. I sometimes put things in perspective of where my mother lived — on 1st and Woods (746 1st Street– I have her birth announcement from The Oregonian.
    Later to be known as 3010 SW 1st Ave.) …… Then in 1936 they moved to Broadway and Jackson – 724 SW Jackson. (and we think WE’RE ‘inner-city!’) On 1st Street, she probably could look across the river and see this area. But… she was born in 1919, so this pre-dates her. Oh Well…..

  3. Fantastic article! Thanks so much for doing all this great research.
    We have a hard time seeing the Willamette as a recreational area. We’ve only known it as a polluted body of water still prone to sewage “overflows” from time to time. Earlier generations – with much more reason to stay clear of the water – saw it as hot weather relief and a place to socialize. Even my dad remembered swimming across the river from Fulton (John’s Landing) to “The Oaks” (Oaks Park) in the 1930s. Don’t know if the parents realized what the kids were up to?!
    But the whole family would jump into the river by Powers Marine Park (above Sellwood Bridge) to cool off. A fire on the shore and a picnic were ways to have a little recreation for almost no money during the tough times of the Depression. They went out to Lake Oswego and the Tualatin, or the Sandy River as well. My grandpa’s journals for the summers during the thirties mention an outing like this almost every weekend – sometimes even finding a secluded spot to skinny dip, ha!

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