Earth Day wasn’t celebrated back in the time of Blue Thread, when the Willamette River sorely needed attention. The first Earth Day took place on April 22, 1970. According to Earth Day Network: “The idea came to Earth Day founder Gaylord Nelson, then a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, after witnessing the ravages of the 1969 massive oil spill in Santa Barbara, California. Inspired by the student anti-war movement, he realized that if he could infuse that energy with an emerging public consciousness about air and water pollution, it would force environmental protection onto the national political agenda. Senator Nelson announced the idea for a “national teach-in on the environment” to the national media; persuaded Pete McCloskey, a conservation-minded Republican Congressman, to serve as his co-chair; and recruited Denis Hayes as national coordinator. Hayes built a national staff of 85 to promote events across the land.”

In 1970, the Willamette River was starting to recover from the mess it was back in 1912. According to a 1976 report for the Environmental Protection Agency, the river that flows through much of northwestern Oregon was described as stinking, ugly, filthy, and an “open sewer” during the first half of the 1900s. Workmen refused to take jobs close to the the Willamette near sewer outfalls. The riverfront Fourth of July festivities Miriam remembers in Blue Thread took place well away from the river’s edge. Although the first chemical analysis of Willamette River water was made in 1910, and the Oregon adopted the first pollution laws for the river in 1919, not much improved until after the state passed the “Water Purification and Prevention of Pollution Bill” in the 1938 election created the State Sanitary Authority in 1938.

Speaking for the River, a blog by historian James V. Hillegas-Elting, provides a wealth of material on the Willamette River. Stop by his blog for details. And Happy Earth Day!

  1. James V. Hillegas-Elting says:

    Hi Ruth,

    Thanks for referencing my site and for your interest in this complex and fascinating topic.

    You write above that “the first chemical analysis of Willamette River water was made in 1910.” I’m curious where you found this information cited because in my research I have not found such an early date for the first analyses of dissolved oxygen or biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) in the Willamette; I have, however, found references to bacteriological analyses of Willamette River water during the 1900s and 1910s (and beyond) that detected typhoid, fecal coliform, and other bacteria.

    The BOD analysis method was not developed until the early 1910s and from my understanding the first application of this method (or something similar) in the Willamette was in the early-mid 1920s. (Sources: Martin Melosi, _The Sanitary City_, Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2000, pp. 228-229; George Gleeson, _The Return of a River_, Oregon State Univ. Press, 1972, p. 11.)

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