Offbeat Oregon History

Dam dispute was finally resolved with dynamite


January 4, 2024 | View PDF

In the small hours of the morning of Aug. 16, 1906, a powerful explosion jolted residents awake near the little town of Willamette, which today is a neighborhood of West Linn. It came from the direction of the nearby Tualatin River.

The cause was soon discovered. When the first rays of the morning sun fell on the Oregon Iron and Steel Co.’s diversion dam, located a little over three miles from the river’s mouth, a 20-foot-wide hole had been blasted in its center. The river water was still gushing through it.

Executives of the Oregon Iron and Steel Co. were outraged. In newspaper interviews the next day, they pledged that the dam would be speedily rebuilt, and for weeks afterward, newspapers like the Hillsboro Argus and the Oregon City Enterprise ran advertisements from the company offering a $500 reward for information leading to the arrest of whoever blew it up.

They also fanned out around the neighborhood of farmers and residents along the Tualatin River upstream from the dam, making the same offer. But nobody seemed to know anything. Most of the residents wouldn’t even admit to having heard the blast.

They all knew, of course. Some of them had been in the party that had crept up to the dam in the pre-dawn darkness, set the charge, and touched it off.

It was a fitting and, to the neighbors, satisfying ending to a dispute that had been dragging on for 18 years, pitting a handful of aggrieved farmers against a powerful, well-connected manufacturing company that was the pride and joy of the Portland metropolitan power elites.

And it was the end of the dispute, too. Although they did send work parties to the scene a few times, the company’s vows to rebuild the dam turned out to be mostly just talk. The dam remained damaged; apparently, it still held back enough water to keep the river levels high enough for the company’s needs. The $500 reward was never claimed. And the Oregon Supreme Court was spared the need to go on record correcting the rather embarrassing typographical error that had been the last straw for the Tualatin Valley farmers.

The dam drama had its roots in the early 1870s, when the Tualatin River Navigation and Manufacturing Company installed the base portion of the dam across the river, to raise the water levels high enough for riverboats to use it.

This was intended to make it easier for Tualatin Valley farmers to get their crops to market. But also, there was quite a bit of demand for waterborne access to what was then called Sucker Lake (it was renamed Oswego Lake in 1913). A decade or so before, a dam at the mouth of Sucker Creek had created the lake, but it was not of much commercial use without a connection to the outside world. So the company hired a crew of Chinese workers to dig and blast a canal through the bedrock connecting the Tualatin River with the upstream end of the lake.

The canal worked OK, but they soon found that it would work far better with a higher dam.

By this time lake access was especially important because of a company named Oregon Iron Company, the first iron foundry west of the Rockies. It was located right there in the community of Oswego (it wouldn’t be renamed Lake Oswego until 1960), and used the lake, canal, and river to ship products out to Portland and beyond. Boosters hoped it would turn Oswego into “the Pittsburgh of the West.”

Tualatin Valley farmers used the river for commerce too, of course; so at first, they were very happy about the dam. In 1882, when the iron foundry sought their buy-in for a plan to replace the existing dam with a bigger one, raising its height to 4.5 feet, they signed on. In exchange, the company agreed to keep the river clear of snags and navigation hazards and maintain a steamboat service on the river to get their crops to market.

But the company broke the deal almost immediately. They never bothered to clear the river and they never started steamer service. By the time they were ready and able to start on the project, they no longer needed it; a railroad connection came through that same year, which handled their freight needs far more economically than the waterway could.

So for five years, the company didn’t do anything at all. The dam remained as it had been.

That changed in 1888, but not in a good way. When the dam went in, it was a four-foot-high base which the company topped with a four-foot riser, for a total of eight feet of impoundment.

The problem with this was, although it kept fresh river water flowing through Lake Oswego and increased the power output at the Sucker Creek dam that supplied the foundry, it flooded hundreds of acres of previously productive farmland upstream.

From the neighbors’ perspective, the company had offered them a deal that it had ignored utterly, reneging on every clause at the first opportunity. As a result, they had, they felt, literally had land taken away from them without compensation.

The Oregon Iron and Steel Co. felt similarly hard-pressed because the canal it had built between Sucker Lake and the river was only navigable at higher water levels. Although they no longer needed to navigate on it, if they allowed the canal to become unnavigable, the law would force them to abandon their water rights there.

So the company didn’t budge, and off everyone went to court.

At first, the farmers met with little success in court. This probably wasn’t a huge surprise; Portland plutocrats William M. Ladd, Simeon G. Reed, and Henry Villard were among the owners and executives of the Oregon Iron and Steel Co., so taking the company on was like declaring war on all the political and business elites of the whole Portland Metro area. Three farmers filed lawsuits demanding a total of $22,500 in damages. All three suits were dismissed.

Finally, in 1897, farmer August Krause filed another lawsuit. In it, rather than asking for compensatory damages, he sued for specific performance — asking the court to order the dam removed.

(Sources: When the River Ran Backwards, a book by Jamie Ditzel published in 2021 by Tualatin Historical Society; “Why Farmers Once Blew Up a Tualatin River Dam,” an article by Barbara Sherman published in the July 2021 issue of Tualatin Life; archives of Hillsboro Argus, Hillsboro Independent, and Portland Morning Oregonian newspapers)

Finn J.D. John teaches at Oregon State University and writes about odd tidbits of Oregon history. To contact him or suggest a topic: [email protected] or 541-357-2222.

Continued Next Week


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