- Associated Press - Sunday, November 23, 2014

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) - You may not know who Simon Benson was, but if you spend any time in downtown Portland, you can’t help but know something of his legacy.

Born in Norway, he came to Portland in 1879 and became a pioneering businessman. He found particular success in timber, Oregon’s main industry at the time, and eventually became one of the city’s first millionaires.

He also became one of the state’s best-recognized philanthropists and today, you can find his name attached to a high school in Northeast Portland (Benson Polytechnic), a state park in the Columbia Gorge, the historic bridge that spans Multnomah Falls and one of Portland’s best-known hotels, The Benson.

But perhaps the most iconic reminder of this lumberman is something many Portlanders walk by - and occasionally drink from - nearly every day: the Benson Bubblers.

On the chance you just moved here from lower Manhattan or Upper Volta, the Benson Bubblers are those brass, four-bowled water fountains that you can see scattered through the downtown core. (Note: Only the four-bowl fountains are true Benson Bubblers; the one-bowl fountains are just bubblers.)

According to the Portland Water Bureau’s website, the Benson Bubblers go back to 1912, when Benson donated $10,000 to the city (roughly $240,000 in today’s money) to purchase and install 20 of the fountains. There are two oft-told stories about why he did this:

1. A tee-totaler, he installed the fountains so that loggers (Benson was in the lumber business) would have something non-alcoholic to drink on their lunch hours.

2. He once saw a small girl crying for lack of a drink of water on the Fourth of July.

Whatever the reason, the fountains came to symbolize Portland way before beer, bikes and coffee. And they are way less controversial than bikes.

But people new to Portland often have questions about the bubblers, Benson and otherwise. Especially people from California, where water can be as precious as, well, water.

“What the hell are you people thinking? You can’t let the water run all the time like that!” a newly transplanted Los Angeleno might gasp.

Actually, the city doesn’t let them run all the time. According to the city’s website, the Portland Water Bureau narrowed the feed lines to the bubblers in 1995, cutting water use almost in half. Also, in 2000, the Water Bureau installed timers to shut off the fountains late at night and during the early morning.

And in 2005, the bureau installed devices that reduce the amount of water each bubbler uses. The website says that reduced the flow by 40 percent. These days, according to Jaymee Cuti, spokeswoman for the Water Bureau, the fountains cost the city about $68,000 a year for operations and maintenance.

The city also shuts off the fountains on the rare occasion that Portland gets extremely cold weather.

Among the Portlanders to take an extreme interest in the Benson Bubblers is Dan Haneckow, a local historian who came to the Rose City in 1990 and has been transfixed ever since.

Haneckow, 52, says local history to him is “more than a hobby and less than (being) a professor.” He is currently working on a book about Portland’s “Great White Way” and maintains a local history website, www.cafeunknown.com. His entry on the Bubblers is thorough and informative.

He said there are two reasons the fountains caught his attention. One is his memory of the day a couple of years ago when he was standing next to one of the Benson Bubblers and two young women came up. One drank from the fountain and turned to the other and said “I just love these things!”

Another point of interest to Haneckow, a used-book buyer for Powell’s Books, is that the city has moved some Benson Bubblers around from time to time in a way that seems to say “this is downtown Portland and deserving of a true Bubbler” or that “This really isn’t part of the city center any more and we need to move this Bubbler.”

He said he’s found some evidence that a true Bubbler used to sit near what is now the Widmer Brewery in the Albina District in North Portland, but was later moved. He wonders if that was a statement of sorts.

“I was trying to look at some sort of cool relationship between where they placed originally and where they are placed now.” He said. “It’s like someone is wondering, ‘Is the area Benson worthy?’”

Indeed, according to the city of Portland, Benson’s descendants asked in the 1970s that the true four-bowl fountains “be limited to certain downtown boundaries so as not to diminish the uniqueness of them.”

What about the two stories about why Benson paid for the bubblers?

Haneckow leans toward believing the one about the little girl.

“If I was a betting man, would go with the little girl,” he said. “The whole thing about the little girl, it’s more of a civic act” and he thinks it better fits with what he has read about Benson.

Haneckow said that also fits with Benson being a big thinker. He was a supporter of the Columbia River Gorge highway, which was a major issue in his day, and developed ocean-going log rafts as a way to more economically ship Oregon logs to southern California.

And when he took over an old hotel in downtown and remodeled it into The Benson, his idea was to give the city a showcase hotel for visitors to see.

Haneckow also says that most of the lumberjacks that Benson would theoretically be targeting would have been concentrated around Portland’s old Skid Row area, and so if Benson’s goal was simply to keep them sober, he would have concentrated the fountains in that limited area.

Instead, they were placed all over downtown, which Haneckow believes he was trying to serve all of Portland’s residents, not just a few who tended to drink too much on their lunch hour.

___

The original story can be found on The Oregonian’s website: https://bit.ly/1BJo0Nb

___

Information from: The Oregonian, https://www.oregonlive.com


Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide