Last fall we shared amazing 100-year-old photos of the Willamette River. What a treat to be able to see and learn about river recreation in the early 1920s, including the rise of Windemuth, a popular swimming, diving and dancing resort that was afloat but anchored just downstream from the north tip of Ross Island.
From The Oregonian, July 10, 1921
We left this story on July 31, 1924, with the owner of Windemuth deciding to close the resort due to water quality concerns. Anyone reading the news stories in the hot-dry, low-water summer of 1924 could see the handwriting on the wall. Not a big surprise: much of Portland’s raw sewage was piped straight into the river. In mid-July, water tests had noted the presence of Bacillus coli in the water and City Council hinted at a swimming closure.
From The Oregonian, July 16, 1924
Ten days later, during City Council’s hearing on the operating license for Windemuth, the focus was on the looming swimming ban and the presence of sewers. Windemuth operator John A. Jennings signaled he was ready to move the floating resort anywhere the water was clear, but with Portland’s sewage system relying almost entirely on the Willamette River, there was no central alternative. Maybe build intercepting sewers that would shunt sewage to the Columbia River, wondered City Health Officer George Parrish, who had suddenly been called on to deliver a solution to swimming in the Willamette (see the last paragraph below).
From The Oregonian, July 25, 1924
The primary culprit was the Lents Trunk Sewer, a 5.2 mile tunnel, 56 inches by 71 inches in size, that emptied into the river at Harney Street, a stone’s throw from the diving boards at Windemuth. When it opened in August 1923, the line received sewage from about 30,000 homes as far east as Foster Road. In addition to the Lents Trunk Sewer, two additional lines—the Insley Avenue Sewer and the Carolina Street Sewer—also discharged into the river directly across from Ross Island and upstream from Windemuth. We’ll remember the boom in home construction and population in the early 1920s. It all had to go somewhere.
In early August after Windemuth was closed and swimming banned from the river, an editorial writer from the Oregon Journal spent Sunday afternoon rowing from downtown out and around Ross Island. The heartbreaking column on August 5, 1924 was an elegy for the river:
From the Oregon Journal, August 5, 1924
We actually catch a glimpse of the floating Windemuth in the center toward the bottom of this 1925 aerial photo, one year after its closure. There’s lots to look at here, so we’ve pointed out a few things including the houseboats that once lined the river in this location—a Bohemian community of artists, architects, writers and others; floating log rafts awaiting the saw at nearby mills; the location of the future Ross Island Bridge which would come along in 1926, and the floating rectangle that was Windemuth.
Detail of 1925 aerial photo with labels added. Click to enlarge.
Meanwhile, John A. Jennings was busily trying to find a way to salvage some aspect of the Willamette River swimming tradition and the market niche he had created with Windemuth, announcing bold plans to build a giant swimming tank on the north end of the island.
From The Oregonian, May 24, 1925
But Jennings’ vision was never fully realized: he died of a heart attack in April 1927. Some small related buildings existed on the island then, and the new bridge loomed overhead just downstream. The fate of the actual structure of floating Windemuth was never reported on.
The view from the new bridge down to the former much-loved site of lost Windemuth was a painful a reminder of what had been. This letter writer to the Oregon Journal was tired of looking at it and ready to move on to the next chapter:
From the Oregon Journal, July 10, 1928