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Schemers’ plans to exploit Multnomah Falls came to naught

Original owners of the falls tried for years to log it, but the steamship and railroad moguls were making a lot of money on excursion trips, so they blocked the scheme, preserving the falls for today's park.

A vintage 1950s postcard view of Multnomah Falls Lodge with the falls just behind. (Image: Postcard)

William C. Griswold surely thought he had a fortune in timber on his hands.

It was the late 1800s, and Griswold had homesteaded a heavily timbered 142-acre plot of land high on a bluff overlooking the Columbia river. And, even better, there was a large creek running through the property, for powering flumes to take the logs to the river below — where they could be easily and cheaply floated downstream for sale to one of the many sawmills there.

There was a problem with his plan, though. He quickly found out that the most powerful people in Portland were dead set against his plan, and were pulling every string they could reach to stop him.

The reason? Scenic beauty. Specifically, the creek that ran through Griswold’s property was the creek that runs over Multnomah Falls — at 620 feet, the tallest waterfall in Oregon, and already widely known as the “jewel of the Gorge.”

 

In Oregon at the turn of the 20th century, scenic beauty was not usually a highly prized commodity. But Multnomah Falls was an exception. This was partly because of its unusual character; but the main reason was because it was making some very powerful people a whole lot of money.

As the city of Portland had grown larger and more squalid over the years, the residents there had started looking for nearby places to get away and drink in the scenic beauty of nature. One of their favorite Sunday afternoon pastimes was to board a steamboat or excursion train and travel east on the Columbia River Gorge, soaking up the scenery and maybe stopping for a picnic lunch or a short nature walk along the way. And the highlight of that short excursion was Multnomah Falls.

Multnomah Falls as it appeared a few years after the Simon Benson Bridge was constructed. (Image: Postcard)

This had been going on since the late 1870s. By the early 1880s there was a steamboat dock in the river, and a stopping spot for outbound excursion trains. A well-developed trail led from those points up to the falls, crossing a rickety wooden bridge between the upper and lower falls along the way.

Would those upper-middle-class Portlanders don their Sunday best and board an excursion train for a trip to picnic in a stump-strewn field by an almost-empty streambed, noshing on their lunches to the rumbling sound of logs passing over their heads on leaky, rickety flumes?

The Oregon-Washington Railway and Navigation Company and the Union Pacific rather thought that they would not. And so these most powerful of Portland industrialists were dead set against Griswold’s plan.

Finally, Griswold and his investors ran out of money and had to give up on the scheme. Griswold moved back east and gave the land to his daughter, Jennie Griswold, an artist from Washington, D.C. She, quite sensibly, gave up on the timber-harvest fantasy and started charging the visitors 10 cents each (a lot of money in those days) to visit and picnic there.

 

Then, in 1904, a Colorado mining lawyer named Lafayette “Lafe” Pence moved to Portland and, before anyone knew what he was about, claimed the water rights to every creek in the hills around Portland — including, famously and very briefly, Bull Run, the city’s water supply.

Pence’s plan was to use the water to wash and blast the northwest hills down to fill in Guild’s Lake, a scheme that ended in dismal failure just a few years later; but it gave Portland land developers a real education in water-rights law. It turned out you didn’t have to own a piece of property to claim water rights on it, or even get permission from the person who did; you just had to file.

So, the very next year, a Portland developer named George Wetherby did just that: claimed the water rights in Griswold’s land. Then, having thus gotten his foot in the door, he negotiated a lease from Griswold in early 1906. He claimed he was planning to install a water-powered sawmill at the foot of the waterfall.

It isn’t clear just what Wetherby was trying to do here. Oregonian writer Joseph Rose takes his assertion at face value, calling him a “ruthless industrialist”; but this claim is hard to buy. Although most times of year Multnomah Creek provides enough water power for a modest sawmill, its location is extremely inconvenient for any timber not harvested directly up the hill from it. It is remotely possible that Wetherby planned to use the falls to generate electricity, which would then power a sawmill located several hundred yards away on the banks of the Columbia; but that seems a tremendous expense to undertake to do what a moderate-sized boiler and steam engine could easily and cheaply do, partly powered by the sawmill’s own trimmings and waste; moreover, a steam engine could be made as large as necessary, whereas there was only so much power available from the creek. Indeed, with a few massive exceptions like the mills at Willamette Falls in Oregon City, water-powered mills were rare by this time.

Possibly this was the story Wetherby had to tell Griswold to get the lease approved — that with the sawmill in place it would finally be possible to harvest her father’s timber. Possibly the sawmill was his cover story for having claimed the water rights (under the law, the proposed use had to be “beneficial”).

Or perhaps he was trying to use the sawmill as leverage to get the railroad to buy the place for an inflated price, to keep the tourist attraction intact. If that’s the case, it didn’t work out quite like he planned. Instead of buying him out, the railroad pulled some strings and the state Legislature promptly passed a law forbidding the diversion of Multnomah Creek for any reason. That was the end of the sawmill idea — and, most likely, Wetherby’s water right as well, since he no longer had a “beneficial” use for it.

But Wetherby was still leasing the property in 1913, when the Columbia Gorge Highway was platted. At that time, with the encouragement and sponsorship of Simon Benson, the City of Portland opened negotiations to buy the property.

Wetherby, of course, promptly exercised his option to buy the place, anticipating marking it up sharply before selling it to the city for a tidy windfall profit. But this hope, too, was dashed, and by an unexpected person. It was Jennie Griswold, who, no doubt excited by all the interest and hoping to make a much larger profit than she could have made by delivering on her deal with Wetherby, refused to comply with the option agreement. A brief court battle ensued, which Wetherby lost. And just like that, he was out.

Jennie Griswold now claimed the place was worth $50,000. Benson thought $2,500 was more like it. And there things stood until suddenly someone figured out that the City of Portland could actually condemn the property under Eminent Domain.

With that threat in the air, Griswold settled for $5,250 and the city officially acquired the falls. (A persistent version of the story claims Benson bought it from Griswold and then donated it to the city, but he did not; he just acted as a broker in the deal.)

I haven’t been able to learn what Wetherby’s lease-option price was. It would be deliciously ironic if it were more than $5,250.

 

After that, Multnomah Falls as a public park was all but in the bag. The railroad donated the land at the foot of the falls, with the stipulation that a lodge be built there costing no less than $12,500. This was done (the enthusiastic city actually spent $40,000 on it). The wooden footbridge having long since decayed and fallen away, it was replaced with the bridge that’s there now — one of the first continuous-pour bridges ever built, and named after Simon Benson. And in early 1915, inspired by a speech from legendary highway engineer Samuel Lancaster, the Progressive Business Men’s Club of Portland took on as a fund-raising project the construction of what would become Larch Mountain Trail, the first 1.1 miles of which are the trail to the top of the falls.

The City of Portland owned the park until 1939, when it was transferred to the U.S. Forest Service (Benson Park was transferred to the state of Oregon). And so it has been ever since.

(Sources: National Register of Historic Places nomination form for Multnomah Falls Lodge and footpath, U.S. Department of the Interior (National Parks Service), 1981; Rose, Joseph. “How Multnomah Falls was Saved from a Ruthless Industrialist,” Portland Oregonian, 10 Sep 2015)