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Lafe Pence's crazy plan: Move mountains down, fill up lake

He might have accomplished it, too, but he lost friends when he tried to claim water rights to Bull Run, and when his primary investors went bankrupt in a bank panic, he was forced to give up the scheme and leave town.

Aviation pioneer Thomas Scott Baldwin’s airship returns from a trip over the Exposition grounds during the 1905 Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition. The hillsides that Lafe Pence dreamed of moving into the lake are visible to the left. (Image: Library of Congress)

In 1904, a sharp-eyed 61-year-old hustler named Lafe Pence stepped off the train in downtown Portland for a meeting of the National Mining Congress.

The conference he was attending has been long forgotten. But had the group chosen Seattle or Bakersfield to hold it, the very shape of the hills in Portland would be different today.

Pence had the kind of colorful Western background that you’d expect in a man who sets out to literally move mountains. He was born in Indiana just before the Civil War, and moved to Colorado to practice law when he was 24 years old. He became a specialist in mining law, and — likely representing the desires of his clients in the matter, as well as his own investments in silver mines — a strong advocate of the “Free Silver” movement.

For a while he looked like he’d have a political career, and he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1892 on the Populist Party ticket; but he lost his bid for re-election two years later, and not long afterward, Populist party membership and Free Silver sentiments became insurmountable barriers to political advancement. So he retired back to private practice and the management of his mines.

His 1904 visit to Portland found him at loose ends, ready for a new project. And in P-town, he found one — one that could really make him rich.

An old hand-tinted postcard image shows the full layout of the 1905 Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition, with the steep adjacent mountains that inspired Lafe Pence’s scheme. (Image: Postcard)

Portland, at the time, was in a frenzy of preparation for the 1905 Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition. The whole thing was scheduled to be held in a sort of park-like patch of wetlands just north of the city on the west side of the river, called Guild’s Lake (“Guild” was pronounced to rhyme with “Wild”). Mindful of the expense, the city had merely leased the land for a year, ignoring calls for the city to buy it and make it a permanent park.

One of the most persistent voices calling for Guild’s Lake to be made a city park was Colonel L.L. Hawkins, chair of the Portland Parks Board. Hawkins, who lived just up the hill from Guild's Lake next to the newly formed Macleay Park (now part of Forest Park), even helped bring the Olmstead Brothers into town from New York to help the Parks Board make its case. Although the city had opted for the cheap lease, he still hoped the lake might eventually end up as parkland.

The Expo grounds were right next to the busiest commercial part of the city, full of railroads and factories. Had it not been for the lake and surrounding marshy wetlands, it would have been not only in the path of progress, but on its very doorstep.

Pence noticed a few very interesting things about Guild’s Lake. First, it was not very deep; it was basically a low spot on an alluvial plain by the river. Secondly, it was surrounded by some remarkably extreme geography. The surrounding hills towered over it, steep and close at hand; yet they were made mostly of soil and clay, not rock.

Lafe Pence’s land-moving operation as it appeared in spring of 1907. The long sinuous forms crisscrossing the landscape are water flumes. (Image: Portland Morning Oregonian)

The other thing he noticed was that despite Oregon’s thriving hard-rock mining industry out east and down south, nobody in this, its biggest city, seemed to understand how water rights worked. Every river and stream in the city flowed free and unclaimed. The city hadn’t even bothered to claim water rights on the Bull Run River, on which its domestic water supply depended.

To Pence, this all added up to a spectacular opportunity. The Exposition was about to catapult the town to nationwide prominence. To make the expo work, they would need water by the acre-foot, piped in from somewhere, to keep the lake deep enough to navigate on during the entire summer and to power the expo’s many fountains and water features. He could supply that demand, cementing connections with Portland’s commerce-happy business elite; then, after the expo, with their support, he could turn his massive water rights to work sluicing down cubic acres of those nearby hills, filling the lake in so that the city’s business district could expand.

With this plan in mind, Pence returned back east and got to work hustling the venture to investors. When he returned, later that year, he was ready for action.

The first thing Pence did was file water-rights claims on nearly every river, creek and spring in Multnomah County.

This came as rather a shock to most Portlanders, who hadn’t realized that one could simply do that. They likely wouldn’t have minded, but for one terrible public-relations blunder: Pence tried to claim water rights on Bull Run.

Pence backed off this claim when he realized how poorly it was playing with the public — which still remembered drinking from the Willamette and had a strong sense of ownership in the Bull Run water system. But the damage was done — and it was severe. Most of Portland now thought of him as a fresh-off-the-boat shark who’d tried to use a legal technicality to snake the city’s water supply out from under it and ransom it back.

Meanwhile, Pence’s plans to be of service to the Expo were proceeding nicely. Using his water rights on Balch Creek and other water sources uphill from the grounds, he supplied all the water the fairgrounds could possibly need, and by the time the expo came to a triumphant conclusion late in 1905, he’d almost made up for the Bull Run blunder.

Then, at the head of his consortium of local and national investors, Pence bought the fairgrounds and started putting his plans into effect.

His crews got busy tearing down the fairgrounds structures and using the scavenged wood to create a massive system of flumes — fourteen miles of them — leading back up into the West Hills to the sources of water he controlled. With these, he fed a colossal high-pressure hose. He would use dynamite to loosen the soil, then wash it down into the lake in a muddy, swirling torrent. Blast, rinse, repeat. Day after day, all through the rainy season.

Naturally, this played poorly with the neighbors. It played especially poorly with Colonel L.L. Hawkins — remember him? Hawkins was already displeased that his park dream had been definitively scotched by Pence’s scheme, and the constant drumbeat of dynamite charges wasn’t helping his mood. It wasn’t making the other neighbors happy either.

Pence also had some trouble with the government. Denied permits for his system of flumes, he built them anyway, knowing if he missed the rainy season, he’d be done for. This resulted in some hard feelings at City Hall. Luckily for Pence, Mayor Harry Lane overplayed his hand when he personally helped destroy a section of Pence’s flume system that he thought was inside Macleay Park; Pence graciously met him at the site with a team of surveyors who demonstrated that his flume was not encroaching, and the embarrassed Lane helped him fix it and removed further bureaucratic hurdles.

There was also a horrifying episode when a section of flume collapsed, precipitating several workmen to their deaths on the ground several dozen feet below.

Nonetheless, by the end of the rainy season (1906-1907), Pence was very bullish on the venture. His operation had all but removed a hill called Scotch Nubbin, and dumped over 200,000 cubic yards of dirt into the lake. At that rate, he expected to have the job fully finished well before the six years he’d promised his investors.

But it was not to be. In summer of 1907, a bank panic broke out, and the bank that was his primary backer closed its doors. Suddenly gasping for cash, Pence found himself unable to make payroll, and with the bankruptcy trustees trying to claw back the money the bank had previously advanced to him. Seeing the writing on the wall, Pence closed up shop and headed back east, where he finished out his life as a railroad lawyer.

As for the lake, when the property reverted to the sellers they sold it to a duo of Seattle hydraulic contractors, who finished part of the job and called it good. Then in the early 1920s, the Port of Portland filled in the rest of the lake when it dredged the river channel and used the lake as the repository for 20 million cubic yards of silt from the river bottom. Today, Guild’s Lake is an industrial neighborhood, and Northwest Yeon Avenue (Highway 30) runs right through what used to be the middle of it.

(Sources: Portland Morning Oregonian, March 11, 1907; Liston, Gabriel. “The Reclamation of Lafe Pence,” lastwater.net; ohs.org; oregonencyclopedia.org)