Notes from the Mt. Tabor Reservoir History Project

By Stephanie Stewart

Four volunteers, along with a handful of Water Bureau employees and historians from Historical Research Associates, are creating a series of educational signs for Mt. Tabor park.

The signs offer visitors a chance to learn more about our unparalleled, Bull Run River drinking water and the role Mt. Tabor’s historic reservoirs have played in our system.

The volunteers rediscovered materials and stories worth repeating; imagine feats of strength (reinforced concrete) and marvels of engineering (gravity-fed for 25 miles?).

I am one of the volunteers on the team, and here is a peek at what we’ve found.

Our First Publicly Funded Reservoir

When you are about three-quarters of the way up to the summit of Mt. Tabor, on the south side, that reservoir you see there empty and looking neglected (it’s currently having cracks filled), is Reservoir Number 1.

It is, in fact, the first storage facility built for that exceptionally clean water channeled into town from the Bull Run watershed as part of the new municipal water system conceived by Portland in the late 1880s.

Work on Reservoir 1 in 1894

Access to clean water has always been one of the natural resources that have drawn people to this region, but as white settlers established a city, and as that city grew, the primary water sources of the Willamette River and neighborhood creeks, became badly polluted.

In the late 1800s contaminated drinking water, laced with sewage, domesticated animal waste, and industrial runoff, led to outbreaks of typhus and cholera. Demand for a publicly managed, clean water system mounted.

For its new water source, Portland chose the Bull Run River, located in a pristine forested watershed roughly twenty-five miles east of here. The watershed was wild and remote territory, and so dense with undergrowth, that in places, horses couldn’t pass.

Yet, engineers designed and built a system of conduits that would use the force of gravity to move water downhill all the way to Portland, without requiring pumps.

Engineer Isaac Smith sited the first two reservoirs on Mount Tabor, an extinct volcano in what was then a rural area outside the city limits, because its elevation (636 feet at peak) would create enough gravity pressure to continue pushing water on from here, through pipes under the Willamette, and then up hill again to Washington Park.

This gravity-fed system was no accident. The design was prized for its cost-effectiveness, its low consumption of electricity, and its sustainability – all features worth fighting for still today.

Did you know that’s a dam?

Standing on the south side of Reservoir 1, that expanse of lawn you find yourself on, between the reservoir and the stairs down to Lincoln St., is the top of a hundred-foot thick concrete and earthen dam.

This dam forms the south face of the reservoir, which is otherwise nestled into the landscape of a natural ravine.

Here’s something: this is not the only dam you likely don’t know is a dam up here (but more on that another time).

White males only?

The construction of Reservoir 1 began during an economic depression. It provided much-needed employment for fifteen hundred workers, but exclusionary policies in force during that era allowed only white males to apply for those jobs.

Reservoir 1 looking south in 1894

What are those castle-looking buildings, anyway?

The oval, turret-like buildings are called gatehouses, because they sit atop the gate valves that control the flow of water into and out of each reservoir. They are done in a Romanesque architectural style because it was considered beautiful.

The reservoirs on Mt. Tabor could have been just the facts; nothing pretty. Instead, a lovely promenade encircles each, as does the ornamental wrought iron fence work.

On one end of Reservoir 1, a little fountain used to offer free and much needed refreshment for those that made the long trek all the way from town. Though no longer functional, it is a sweet reminder of those early days of the park and the reservoirs.


These reservoirs were always intended to provide a pleasant excursion for visitors, including you.

Notes from the Mt. Tabor Reservoir History Project

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