Draining Lake Labish

In 1981, I took a job weeding onion fields out Hazelgreen Road on the outskirts of Salem, Oregon, as one of my first jobs. In the summer after high school got out, I began cycling out Cordon Road, on my Raleigh Reliant, from my house near Sunnyview Drive, at 7 in the morning. From my doorstep, I would arrive at the onion fields in about 45 minutes of hard riding through the cool morning fog. The onions, likely Wallawallas, were large and grew in long rows in near-black soils. The weeds too grew large as the soils were rich in nutrients. I would hoe the weeds from the rows for some six hours each day and then ride home earning $3.25 an hour. I hated that job. That summer, thankfully, I only lasted a short while because I began laboring with a respiratory illness after a week. It turned out that I caught pneumonia from the early morning moisture. I spent the next month staying at home and getting my strength back. Little did I know but that the onion fields were situated on the former Lake Labish soils, a place my tribal ancestors, the Santiam Kalapuyans, who had visited this swampy lake for thousands of years gathering foods like wapato, cattails, and trout for their traditional native lifeways.

Growing up in Salem, we heard about Lake Labish, and knew where it was, that it had been drained at some point. We could see how the land of the former lake was a large depression of black soils. Chemawa Road outlined a portion of the lake, and I traveled it a lot on the way to grandma’s house. In these trips, I could see on the north side of the road rows and rows of onions, and on the south side, Chemawa Indian School. But in this period my family had lost the knowledge of the meaning of the lake to our tribe and people, of how we lost the land to settlers before our people had gotten a treaty ratified by the United States. We knew nothing of the story of the Chemeketa peoples, of their historic villages and later becoming displaced by Methodist missionaries. Nothing of the Chemawa Indian village that existed north of the lake before settlement, or of the native man named Quinaby who was the last known descendant of the Chemeketa peoples, who was well known around Salem by all of the “older” settlers, and that he died the day after Christmas one year. This history was lost to our family and tribe after more than a century of repression by the United States and American settlers who sought our complete dissociation from our land, culture, history, and identities. Federal assimilation of our people had been largely successful by the 1980s.

Lake Labish was a significant large lake in the center of the Willamette Valley to the north of Salem, Oregon. The lake was very long extending across the valley from east to west in the drainage of the Pudding River. There were numerous branches of the lake that extended along creeks as wetlands and marshes. Lake Labish was named by French-Canadian (Metis) fur traders, after seeing and hunting numerous deer there in the early part of the 19th century. La Biche means a female deer or doe in the French language.

In 1852 surveying got underway and the whole of the settled parts of Oregon was surveyed for the General Land Office who created maps and journals. The map journals add details to the character of the land shown on the maps.

GLO maps 6s 2w, 6s 1w, depicting Lake Labish and associated wetlands in relation to Miller DLC, 1852

The GLO maps show an extensive narrow lake with sections of open water and sections of marshy wetland. There must have been great biodiversity at the lake.

The Journal entries for the surveys in 1851 give us a sense of the character of the land. The abundance of the best soils and plenty of moisture is very clear. As well farmers are pushing into the lake soils during the dry season to begin farming on these great soils. Reports in later years are of seasonal flooding of the crops of these farmers which chanced agriculture in an area that was very likely to flood most any year.


Township 6, Range 2, Journal entries 1851

0263-0275- this swamp & prairie is covered with water in the wet season & is called Lake La-Bish (9)

Land… nearly level soil first rate clay-loam. Timber fir and hazle fern willow etc {white oak}. The north 31 chs (chains) is wet prairie overflowed in wet season & called Lake La-Bish. (10)

This boundary is nearly level varying about from 10 to 30 feet in a few places. Pt is about a mile west of the French Prairie & crosses three fourths of a mile of the west point of it. The soil is all first rate clay loam. The part north of point of prairie on the north 2 1/2 miles is timbered with scattering white oaks & a few firs. The south three miles Lake La-Bish is a lake of few feet deep in the wetest season & swamp & wet prairie in the dry season. September 26th 1851. (11)

Land slightly rolling soil first rate clay loam timber at west scattered w. Oak und. gr. (Under growth) Oak Hazle & fern, east half prairie with a short growth of grass & fern. (17)

This boundary is nearly level varying about from 10 to 30 feet . the east half is slightly rolling and the east 2 1/2 miles is prairie (called Howels Prairie) soil all first rate clay loam timber on west three miles mostly fir part of which is openings. size of timber from about 1 to 5 feet diameter under growth fern hazle [sic]& willow. The fern is very thick & 5 & 6 feet high. The prairie has short grass & a little short fern. There is some scattering w. oaks with under growth of the same on the west side of the prairie. September 27th (21)

0072-0073- Land level soil 1st rate clay loam, timber fir w. oak & cherry und. gr. hazle vine maple cherry willow & dogwood with abundance of fern Sept. 24 1851 (9)

0197-0199- The swamp is very mirey & wet timber alder willow etc und gr. hardhack rushes grass etc. The swamp appears to extend 5 to 10 cns north of line. (39)

0451-0451- Land slightly undulating & part overflowed in the highest water of the Willamette River. soil first rate clay loam Timber mostly a dense thicket of young fir with a little w oaks, some large timber. (15)

0066- This lake is said to extend west from 6 to 8 miles & is from 20 chains to 60 wide. A large proportion of lake is shallow, & so far as could be seen the lake is covered with Willow & alder thickets & is impassible for canoe. (2)


Note that the surveys did not chance going out into the lake, so we only get the character of the land around it. The prevalence of bushy trees and a few firs and white oaks. The brush is quite thick with hazel (native hazel) new white oak growth, vine maple, and willow, as well as tall ferns. This describes well many river basins and wetland areas in the valley today.

The 1851 Gibbs-Starling Map barely shows an unnamed lake, north of Wallace Prairie and Salem.

The 1855 Belden Map, which depicts the ceding of tribal territories through ratified treaties, shows a named Lake Labish by the town named Parkersville.

The lake began to be drained in the early 20th century, and the majority of the water was completely drained by 1914, to make more farmlands in the valley. The lowland lake soils are extremely rich dark, even black, loam, perhaps the richest soils in the Willamette Valley. The law which allowed Lake Labish to be drained is a series of laws and rules collectively made legal under the Swamp Land Act of 1860. These acts allowed private businesses to drain swamps when they got in the way of their legitimate operations. Through this act, many wetlands were drained throughout the state as developers raised the legal questions of whether many low swampy lakes that have seasonal changes were actually lakes and protected from being drained, or swamps, which were considered disease-ridden and undesirable areas that would be better used as agricultural lands. Lake Labish in numerous writings was declared a swamp and thus was subject to be drained by landowners. Once the method of this was figured out, manipulation of the Swamp Act (1860) laws was a common practice by developers who stood to make millions on lands when their values were raised after draining was successful. Lake Labish land by the 1950s was worth between $1000 and $3000 an acre, some of the most valuable in the world.

Left: channel dig to drain Lake Labish, Right: Ditch Witch which dredged the channel to drain Lake Labish.
Left: channel dug to drain Lake Labish, Right: Ditch Witch which dredged the channel to drain Lake Labish. (The Mineral Resources of Oregon, Volume 1, Issue 4, 1914)

Discussion of the need and benefits of draining Lake Labish began by at least 1882 in the newspapers the Western Shore (Sept. 1, 1882) and Willamette Valley Farmer (May 23, 1884). Predictions at that time were that it would be a large project and cost at least $1 an acre. Efforts began to raise money to begin digging ditches by L. C. Fisher, but the effort did not succeed due to a lack of investment from the other farmers. Efforts to drain the lake began again after noting how well onions grew in the seasonal lake soils.

The draining of Lake Labish began with the purchase of 1000 acres of the lakebed by Jay O. Hayes in 1913 (Hayes name is related the Hayesville neighborhood of Salem that is named after President Rutherford B. Hayes, who is a cousin to the San Jose Family- a question arises, did the Hayes of Gervais -where they lived near L.Labish- buy up and build the Hayesville land development of NE Salem and name it after their cousin?). Hayes was attracted to buy land in this area after a meeting in Portland, presumably one of the farmers at Labish sold out and the rest of the farmers may have strategized to attract a wealthy investor to this area who could finance the draining project- using the Swamp Act law to support the project. This San Jose, California investor (a wealthy family who owned the San Jose Mercury newspaper) sought to increase the value of his lands and build model farms for agriculture by draining his lands. The effort was joined by other farmers who owned sections of the lake, who considered the lakebed useless as it was a great morass of decayed vegetation and weed growth with plentiful beavers. Many newspaper descriptions of the lake suggest it was a tangled mess of willow. Hayes invested $150,000 of his own money to build the six-mile canal with a ditch witch to drain the lake (Lake Labish will soon be ready for Farmers, Daily Capital Journal Dec. 20, 1913, p1). By all accounts, the efforts to drain the lake were highly successful.

The theory practiced when draining the lakes and wetlands of the Willamette Valley was a purported need to increase the production of agriculture in the valley. A 1914 source reports that “Dr. James Withycombe is an authority for the statement that there are 4,000,000 acres of farmland in western Oregon whose production could be doubled by tile drainage, at a cost that could be met by increased crops in four or five years.” The article also states that “in the Willamette Valley proper the principal areas badly in need of drainage are found from Oregon City southward, notably centered about Salem and Albany… west of the river there are thousands of acres from Eugene northward in the Long Tom section and in the Little Muddy and Marys watersheds south of Corvallis, the successful farming of which awaits installation of drainage systems.” And “at present, a large project is underway by which Lake Wapato, near Gaston, will be drained by diking and pumping plant. ” And, ” a drainage district is organized to drain lake Louisignout, a tract covering about 1000 acres of rich farmland beginning three and one-half miles northwest of Forest Grove.” (The Mineral Resources of Oregon, Volume 1, Issue 4, 1914, Google Books pp 9-11) (Note the essay does not discuss the negative effect of draining wetlands on animals and fishes or the environment. It only discussed the assumed positive effect on agriculture.)

[James Withycombe was a British emigre to Oregon. He farmed near Hillsboro and gained status until he was hired to lead Oregon Agricultural College’s (now OSU) experimental farming station. He won the 1914 gubernatorial race and in his tenure supported agriculture development in the state. He won the 1918 re-election but served only 2 months, dying in 1919. He appears to have supported the draining of the original wetlands and lakes of the valley.]

Agriculture began in the seasonal section of the lake in the 1840s when settlers took land in the area. The lake area would have been highly attractive offering the best soils and plenty of water for crops. They would have been upset when the area flooded each year and destroyed some of their crops. As settlement increased desires to farm further into the lake would become increasing. The lake was habitat to thousands of water animals and newspaper accounts suggest otters, mink, raccoons, and bears were present. One name of the Lake was “Lake of Elk” suggesting the lake attracted elk and deer as well. Then descriptions of the lake stated that there were many beavers in the lake actively pursuing beaver dams which perhaps added to the swampy morass character. Beavers were troublesome for farmers who wanted to get rid of the excess water in the valley for more efficient farming. But beavers also are key species that create whole ecosystems for many thousands of other species, fishes, and plants. All of this biodiversity was destroyed by farmers seeking greater wealth.

I have an additional question, about whether Lake Labish hosted a significant population of mosquitoes. The native mosquitoes were bothersome but the Anopheles mosquito, who maybe was introduced to Oregon in the late 1820s, and who carried the malaria virus, may also have taken up habitation in the lake – or malaria instead affected the native Anopheles population, making it a breeding location that helped spread malaria to the Kalapuyans. Malaria is credited with destroying some 95% of the Kalapuyan people in the 1830s (Robert Boyd, The Coming of the Spirit of Pestilence, UW press 1999, New edition forthcoming 2022). (the question is, did the alien Anopheles mosquitos come to Oregon and breed, or did malaria stricken people or animals come to Oregon and the virus was contracted by the native Anopheles mosquitoes who spread it?) State of Oregon reports suggests that malaria was endemic into the 1950s in Oregon when spraying efforts in ponds and lakes successfully destroyed the mosquito in the state. Draining of other lakes, like Lake Labish may also have helped.

The lake was a resource base for all tribes in the area. The lake hosted plentiful wetland and marsh ecosystem plants and animals. Stories from both the Kalapuyan and Molallan tribes suggest the lake was a resource for camas, wapato, pond lilies, cattails, and tule. The lake was likely a waterfowl resting place for migrating and domestic birds. The lake hosted a large number of animals, fishes, freshwater shellfishes and this would attract native peoples to hunt, fish, and gather along the shores of the lake and in its marshes. River canoes may have been used to traverse the lake during the wettest seasons while native peoples fished, and gathered plants for food and weaving.

Tribal ownership of the lake was not practiced by the Kalapuyans according to the records available. An associated lake, Wapato Lake near Gaston, Oregon did appear to be owned and access controlled by the Tualatin tribe. In fact, Chief Kiacuts went to the U.S. District Court in Hillsboro to defend his rights to his land at the lake, against settler Donald McLeod and won the case. The situation with Lake Labish may have been the same before the fur trade. During the fur trade, the decreased Kalapuyans offered no resistance to other settlement. By 1844 when Americans began coming into the valley and taking land allotments, the tribes in the area of Lake Labish had not yet recovered from malaria and so little information about their cultural use of and claims to the lake were collected.

The area to the north of Lake Labish, French Prairie, was one of the first heavily settled areas in Oregon, and so the Kalapuyans in this area, noted as the Ahantchuyuk, were intermarried with the fur traders and settlers and were displaced from their former lands and resources by settlement and the establishment of agriculture, fenced fields, and livestock ranges. The tribes in the vicinity of the lake, the Chemawa, and Chemeketa peoples were also displaced from their lands and resources by settlers seeking to establish towns in the midst of Kalapuyan villages. The townsite of Salem was established by Jason Lee’s missionaries who occupied and displaced the village where a band of Santiam affiliated Chemeketa Kalapuyans lived.

Chief Henry Yelkas and Molalla Kate

From the Philip Drucker fieldnotes, of the 1920s, the anthropologist recorded the Molalla name for the land and its use as a resource gathering location for wapato. The information came from Kate Chantell/Molalla Kate.


wat/gudi- Indian potatoes- some sort of tubers on water lily- tramped out of mud by women. Don’t dry, just stored (in pit?). Got at tcint/galug (Lake near Chemawa) [Lake Labish]. In fall time. (Drucker 4516-78 v.1 (48-49) (Molalla))

Notebook image

The Molalla lived just to the east of the lake in the vicinity of Molalla, OR, at Dickie Prairie. Their access to this lake for wapato, and in other accounts for camas, suggests they shared the resource with the Kalapuyans in the valley. Other sources suggest that after the lake was drained the wapato went extinct in the area.

John B. (Mose) Hudson c. 1950

Henry Zenk first communicated with me (12/18/2021) that “Lake Labish may well have come under the meewa descriptor (= a place of low-lying frequently overflowed ground; applied to other places in the Willamette V also). With the ‘place of prefix’: čaméewa (Chemawa).” This suggests that Chemawa placename for the Kalapuya village and the Chemawa Indian school are named for the landscape surrounding them, the low marshy swamp and lake which was the prime resources for the Kalapuyans in this area.

In addition, Zenk indicated that the Kalapuyan name for Lake Labish is derived from a common name for low marshy areas where camas was present. From Henry Zenk’s communication regarding Melville Jacob’s notebooks, the word is méewi (low marsh land with camas) and in its more common form améewi (with the determiner article a- and translates as “the marsh,” or “a marsh”) and in its prepositional prefix form čaméewi (ča- is added as a prefix to a named location like most Kalapuyan placenames). “According to Hudson it was used for Lake Labish. It was used also for other marshy places around the Willamette Valley. It is another one of those descriptive names that can double as proper names” (Henry Zenk pers. comm. December 19, 2021). Henry Zenk is an anthropologist and linguistic scholar who has worked with the Grand Ronde tribe on Chinuk Wawa and Kalapuyan for some six decades, since the 1970s.


John B. Hudson on the word méewiʔ: excerpts from Melville Jacobs’s field notebooks:
notebook 33, p 53 (1928): αmɛ̂ˑwɛʼ low land where camas grows; bottom land, where water overflows it; also, lake, camas land

notebook image

notebook 46, p 74 (1928): mɛˑ́wιʼ , a camas-digging site; also a site on the n. side of Salem – the R. R. runs through it where it is now called Li ́kley Bish ?? [i.e., Lake Labish; note: one among many examples of Jacobs’s lack of local knowledge, a lack he
seemed unconcerned about and never tried to correct] – there is a marsh and a trestle

notebook image

John B. Hudson is the source of this information, a descendant of the Santiam chiefs and this author’s Great Grandfather who was a blacksmith at the Grand Ronde Reservation. He also spoke and understood several dialects of Kalapuyan, Chinook Wawa, and English. The train trestle through Lake Labish was built in the 1880s and is the subject of a series of articles about a railroad disaster that occurred there.

Then there are additional quotes from botanical sources.



Wapato… the draining of shallow lakes such as Lake Labish, Marion county, and Wapato Lake, Yamhill county, for farming purposes, has been equally destructive to the species (Muhlenbergia: a Journal of Botany Volumes 1-3, 1906. Google Books. p 360).

In addition, the essay includes this quote:

“Wapatos- The kloochmen and Siwashes [Indian women and men] in this vicinity are just now in their element, the season having arrived for digging wapatos which they barter to the Celestial citizens [Chinese]…” (p360).


When Chinese were brought to Oregon to labor in many of the large public works projects (canals, railroads) they adopted Wapato as food readily due to the similarity the starch had to other Sagittaria types (Arrowleaf) in China. Evidently, there was quite a trade between Native peoples and Chinese peoples even after the tribes were removed to reservations.

In an essay by J.C. Nelson, “Notes on the Flora of Lake Labish, Oregon,” he does not mention Sagittaria Latifolia (wapato) as a plant recorded for the lake. At the time of his essay, the majority of the lake had been drained and only a small portion of the northern section of the lake remained with a body of standing water. The diversity of the flora clearly suffered and wapato was extinct at the lake by 1918 (Nelson, J. C. “Notes on the flora of Lake Labish, Oregon.” Torreya 18.9 (1918): 191-195.).

In the 1880s, the most significant story about Lake Labish was the huge train wreck on the new trestle, constructed a few years earlier above the lake’s seasonal floodwaters, which killed numerous people. The wreck spawned a decade worth of lawsuits and reports of people recovering from injuries in local newspapers.

In 1904 Lake Labish was known as a significant area for growing berries. There were also large prune orchards on the lake soils. This period of Salem history includes the development of prunes as a large crop in the valley and the experimentation with breeding new varieties of berries for new products. The Marionberry was developed in Marion county. The berry experimentation occurred just prior to prohibition on alcohol in the United States and with the development of these new strains of berries came the repurposing of bottling plants to process fruit and berry juices for national sale. From this effort came brands like Loju, Loganberry juice, and Appju, Apple juice grown in the Salem area and bottled at the Salem Brewery Association plant and sold nationally.

In the 1940s the lake became famous for having hosted the farmlands of a number of Japanese-Americans. These people lost their lands when sent to internment camps during WWII. Japanese internment was clearly an illegal act and human rights violations based on racism inspired fears of white peoples. It is unclear if the white community at Lake Labish aided these people in recovering their farmlands when they were released from internment as had occurred in other areas in the country.

As the history of Lake Labish comes into more focus, we can see that the draining of the lake destroyed a highly diverse ecosystem of plants and animals. The natural and cultural history of the lake was not important as Americans seeking greater opportunities for wealth ignored the prominence and contributions of Kalapuyans before settlers arrived and illegally took lands. Tribal stories, knowledge, and history were summarily ignored in favor of romanticized visions of Native peoples. It is only in the past 50 years (since the 1970s) that members of the Grand Ronde tribe have begun to recover their histories and understand their former landscapes. Our renewed knowledge of the importance of our culture to the character and diversity of the landscape of the valley is just now becoming significant as we rebuild cultural associations with places we were forcefully removed from.

For some years now I have worked to rebuild my knowledge of the Kalapuyan lifeways and traditional cultural landscapes. It took some time to challenge erroneously constructed assumptions about our tribal history. I have worked mainly on subjects and areas less well known about our people. I have assumed for years that wapato was a significant resource at Lake Labish, and it served a similar purpose to that of Wapato Lake habituated by the Tualatin Kalapuyans, even though there is not much evidence of this. I assumed this because of the prominence of wapato at Wapato lake and the prominence of wapato as a seasonal resource in the Portland basin, and the matching character of Lake Labish. Since the Chemeketans were one of the earliest tribes to be severely compromised, displaced from their traditional lands and resources, we have little cultural information about the tribal seasonal lifeways in the Lake Labish area. With less information collected, it is difficult to have informed opinions about the traditional resources and culture of the area. But recent research has now confirmed that the lake was a significant wapato and camas resource area for two different tribes, the Kalapuyans, and Molallans, that they shared the resource. Additionally, efforts at restoring lakes in Oregon are now underway, like that at Wapato Lake by the Army Corps of Engineers, and I hope to be able to help with restoring Lake Labish in the future.

the outline of where Lake Labish was can be seen in the way that certain properties are irregularly situated today in the former lake bed. I have outlined the lakebed.

The lake is currently still drained by a series of ditches, Jones ditch, and Labish Ditch dug by Hayes in 1913-1914, which today forms the border of numerous properties, crosses under I-5 Freeway and winds its way through Keizer city, gaining the surname “creek” and joining with Claggett Creek by McNary Golf Course, and then it empties into the Willamette River.

Labish “creek” joins Claggett creek in Keizer
Jones ditch (E-W) and Labish Ditch (down) in the Lake Labish basin

See also: John A. Christy, HISTORY, CURRENT CONDITION, AND WETLAND RESTORATION AT KILLIN WETLANDS NATURAL AREA, WASHINGTON COUNTY, OREGON. The Wetlands Conservancy and Oregon Biodiversity Information Center, Institute for Natural Resources, Portland State University 2015.

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