Salem owes its life to the Willamette River and the timber industry.

The river was the main source of transportation for early settlers. It provided fish to eat. It supplied water to drink and to irrigate crops.

The river was a life-giver long before white settlers arrived. Members of the Kalapuya tribe of Native Americans used the Willamette for trade with neighboring tribes and fished its waters for salmon, trout and eel.

White settlers, by their greater numbers, put more stress on the river. The river provided a low-cost method of moving logs to mills and lumber to markets.

But the river also offered a too-convenient sewer system for human, animal and industrial wastes. Raw sewage, toxic wastes from industrial plants, even dead horses and cows were routinely dumped into the river.

Those wastes killed off fish, contaminated drinking water and turned the Salem waterfront into what one early environmentalist called a “biological desert in which few aquatic plants and animals could exist.”

That description of the Willamette was made in the 1950s, and most of the pollution came from the sawmills, pulp and paper mills and log storage yards that lined the east bank of the river.
As the 20th century wound down, government regulations and shifting economic realities forced most of those industries to shut down.

And when Boise Cascade sells its 13-acre mill site along Commercial Street SE, the wood products industry will disappear entirely from the Salem waterfront.

That will end a nearly 150-year relationship between the river and an industry that brought jobs and wealth to the area.
Hazardous substances from mill operations, both solids and liquids, were dumped into the river. Oregon’s heavy rains leached wood saps and sugars from the piles of wood chips that littered the banks of the river near the mill. The leached material either seeped into the ground, contaminating local groundwater, or flowed into the Willamette River.

By the 1920s, Salem had a reputation as one of the sootiest towns in the world.

The fall of partially burned material had been so intense that The Oregon Statesman described “soot-begrimed citizens” walking downtown with their eyes “kept half-closed” for protection.

John McMillan, writing for the Salem Public Library’s Online History project, said the situation improved somewhat in 1929 after E.B. Boals, a professional engineer from Oregon State Agricultural College in Corvallis, submitted a report for the Salem City Council’s Smoke Committee.

Boals focused his investigation on four riverfront factories: Spaulding Lumber Co., Oregon Pulp & Paper Co., the Hanson Planing Mill and Portland Electric Power Co. All four had spark arresters as required by city ordinance, but two of the mills — Spaulding and Oregon Pulp & Paper — had failed to install cinder removal devices for their smokestacks.

The report got results. Less than a month later Spaulding announced it would convert its steam-driven saws to electricity and abandon its boilers. Oregon Pulp & Paper agreed to buy new cinder arresters.

By 1949, Oregon Pulp & Paper was the largest private employer in Salem with 600 employees. The plant’s papers were distributed as far east as Chicago, and to Mexico, South America, Asia, Africa and the Pacific islands.
The company closed its sawmill in 1955, eliminating 135 jobs but leaving 465 at the paper mill.

By 1956, when Glen D. Carter became the first aquatic biologist to work for the Oregon State Sanitary Authority (predecessor to the state’s Department of Environmental Quality), the Willamette River between Salem and Oregon City was a mess.

Pulp and paper mills, other wood products industries and municipal sewage had so degraded that stretch of the Willamette that “fish kills were common in the river, massive rafts of decaying algae floated downstream, and a thick layer of bacterial slime covered much of the river bottom and shoreline,” Carter wrote in a memoir.

Pulp and paper mills like Oregon Pulp & Paper’s in Salem were the worst offenders, Carter said.

Sulfite mills, used in the papermaking process, “discharged 20 to 30 million gallons of liquid waste into rivers and estuaries every day,” the biologist wrote. Those hazardous substances were called cooking liquors.

Carter recalled how they assaulted the senses:
“They looked like dark brown syrup and emitted a pungent sulfur smell.

“Great black plumes of waste liquors would extend for miles downstream from discharge pipes … creating a ‘biological desert’ in which few aquatic plants and animals could exist.”
In 1962, Boise Cascade bought Oregon Pulp & Paper’s Salem operations. The new owners arrived as federal and state agencies, armed with stronger environmental laws, were cracking down on industrial polluters.

Boise Cascade installed equipment to reduce harmful air and water emissions and to recycle the caustic chemicals used in the paper making process.

Cooking liquors and other industrial waste liquids were placed in settling lagoons that Boise built on 310 acres of land it acquired on the northern end of Minto-Brown Island across the Willamette Slough. The unlined ponds were used from 1960 to 1985 and were designed to let harmful materials settle to the bottom of the lagoons, while allowing less-polluted water to be flushed into the river. The company also buried hazardous materials on its island site.

Environmental groups feared that dioxin, a cancer-causing chemical byproduct of the chlorine bleaching process used at the pulp mill, might be present in the sludge at the bottom of the ponds or in the burial pits.

A groundwater site study conducted in 1988 showed the presence of arsenic, barium, chromium and lead above drinking water standards. Later testing by Boise in 2000 indicated “no elevated levels of metals … or dioxins are present at the time. Pond sludge appears to have completely degraded.”

The state Department of Environmental Quality ruled later that year that no further cleanup action was required. The DEQ report concluded: “Groundwater and soil sampling do not indicate any impact or threat to human health or the environment given current site conditions and use.”

Now Boise’s decision to sell the mill and the island property has brought new attention to the environmental legacy of the land.
Developers want assurances that the land is clean enough to allow for residential and commercial activities, and the city hopes the island property can be turned into a link in its waterfront park system.

A study by the Urban Land Institute suggested that Boise donate its island property to the city of Salem. City officials envision a pedestrian and bicycle bridge crossing the Willamette Slough and linking the current Riverfront Park with Minto-Brown Park.
Boise, however, hasn’t decided what it will do with the land. City officials believe the company wants to see if it can sell the land before deciding to give it away.

Meanwhile, the DEQ and Boise have agreed that a new environmental review of the island property is needed before it could be used for recreational or other purposes.
Boise completed a similar review of its mill property earlier this year, and late last month the DEQ concluded that no further action was needed to clean up the site. A meeting was held in May to give the public a chance to ask questions and comment on the decision.

With environmental concerns put to rest, Boise hopes the city will rezone the property for residential and commercial uses that would make the land far more marketable and give the paper company a better return on its investment.

City officials say seven prospective buyers expressed interest in Boise’s riverfront property.

The only interested party whose identity has been revealed is the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde, and tribal leaders subsequently decided not to make a bid for the property.
Ironically, the Confederated Tribes include descendents of the Kalapuya Tribe, whose members wintered on or near the Boise site until the middle of the 19th century.

And even if they no longer want to buy the property, the tribes could influence the mill site’s future if it turns out Kalapuyans were buried there.

The Urban Land Institute study stated that a “mass burial area is reported to be located near the corners of Ferry and Front streets where the old Capitol Lumbering Company was once located; an area that appears to overlap the location of a portion of the Boise complex.”

The source of the Institute’s information was Henry Brown, a late-19th century writer who recalled that the mass burial followed a measles outbreak in the winter of 1847 that killed “at least half” of the 400 or so Indians wintering in Salem.

In 1951, a work crew discovered human bones on land that is now part of the Boise site. That added credence to Brown’s report, but no archaeological follow-up was made.
If future redevelopment work unearths more evidence of human remains, the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde will definitely take notice.

“Any time ancestral remains are discovered, it’s extremely important to the tribe to have those remains treated with dignity and respect,” said Siobhan Taylor, public affairs director for the Confederated Tribes.

Tribal leaders will not speculate on what they might do if remains are found, but similar discoveries at other sites in the Pacific Northwest have resulted in delays and even cancellations of projects.