Draining Wapato Lake

In Oregon, we have the well-known Wapato Lake, near Gaston. The lake originally was the center of seasonal activities of the Tualatin Kalapuyans (Atfalati) who lived near and harvested the nutritious wapato bulbs from the shallow waters of the lake and its surrounding marshy wetlands. Each Fall the Atfalati women would take their small dugout canoes into the water of the lake and lever wapato bulbs from the bottom of the lake by the thousands. The bulbs would be dried and stored for winter eating by the tribes.

As Henry Zenk writes:

“A wapato harvest place on the north end of Wapato Lake is indicated to have been used by all of the Tualatin, “the whole tribe,” a short text being added at this point which translates: “all of the Tualatin came together (assembled) 1-there_/ in the fall of the year to gather wapato” (Albert Gatschet 1877a:93; Zenk, Henry. Ethnobotany of the Tualatin 1976, p. 17).

wapato in great abundance (right), wapato bulbs (left), the original proposed Tualatin Reservation (1851) at Wapato Lake section of Gibbs-Starling map(top).

The whole of the Tualatin peoples had the right to gather wapato from the lake in the fall. The wapato harvest was part of their annual movements to principal resources areas to gather foods that are ripe. In the summers the tribe would move to Camas prairies to harvest and prepare the camas. Then in the late summer, early fall, acorns became ready to harvest and the Tualatin would go to acorn groves like Chatakuin (place of a mano and pastel; also known today as Five Oaks). In mid-fall, about October the wapato is ready and people would move to encampments at the lake to gather there. Wapato gathering may commence for a full month because of the vastness of the resource. By December it may be too wet for people to live at the lake as the water runoff in the valley was extreme, causing the lake to grow and wetlands to expand. (This is a new thought for me related to the character of the lands as essentially wetlands for much of the year, as described well into the 20th century by white Americans who took over the territory.) The Kalapuyans would move back to upland and hillside villages to get away from the wet prairies (hillside villages or upland permanent villages are suggested in many sources and the “wetland” character of the land suggests a reason for this). The Atfalati Calendar, collected by Albert Gatschet in 1877 from the  Grand Ronde Indian Reservation lays out the annual movements of the tribes to resource gathering areas. The Calendar is mainly concerned about the wapato and camas harvesting suggesting these two staples were primary for the tribe.

Kalapuya Calendar Albert Gatschet 1877

The original character of the Willamette prairies is not well known to people today as today they do not at all match the way it was a century ago, as so much more flood and water control efforts have radically changed everything. Significant public and private efforts have gone into helping drain the water faster from the land and it has been largely successful. The initial desire was to open up more land for agriculture, so farmers can depend on fields being available for the whole of the growing season rather than chancing flooding during the season which would destroy their crops. Farmers also wanted to make sure rivers did not “flux” and change their channels across their farmlands and so supported the state dredging of rivers to channelize them to keep them stable, and supported water control dam projects to manage water runoff in the rainy season and preserve water for growing seasons. To this end “experimental” efforts were allowed to take precedence in agriculture policy and land management policy, to dredge canals and widen rivers and streams dike so that water runs off the land faster and more efficiently. These experiments continued for several decades and were led sometimes by the Oregon State University experimental agriculture programs, and other times by farmers and investors who sought to increase land values in the valley and who have the wealth to pay for projects on their own. The efforts were heavily aided by the state legislature who passed Swamp Land acts (1860 and later)  that allowed swamps and marshes to be drained as nuisances and to better use the land for agriculture.

The experimental agriculture projects changed the character of the land so significantly that much of the diversity of species on the land was forever radically changed. Many species died out in Oregon due to the radical anthropogenic changes done to the land, lakes, and rivers. Animals, plants, birds and fishes, whole ecosystems were destroyed to make way for monocropping in the valley. So much change and development occurred that many species went extinct in the valley, some forever. There never seemed to be a thought to the health and welfare of any of these species in the face of agricultural development, and few areas were ever set aside for traditional landscapes or refuges from further development.

Wapato went extinct at Wapato Lake due to the invasive species that were introduced to the lake and the actions taken by settlers and visitors for more than 100 years which made their continuance impossible. But it was not only wapato, but the many animals who depended on wapato to create an ecosystem and provide food for so many other species. Wapato in this regard was a keystone species that enabled the environment and ecosystem of the lake to prosper previous to the changes brought by white settlers. Without the plant in great abundance, the character of the lake and land is forever changed.

In addition, the Tualatin peoples were removed to the Grand Ronde Reservation in 1856. But the Tualatins did not stop visiting the lake to harvest wapato after their removal. There are records of these people continuing every year to gain permission to visit the lake to gather wapato. They continued to do this into the 20th century. The destruction of the wapato beds at the lake destroyed the lifeways of their people.

Wapato Lake, pieced together from four GLO maps, 1854

The following are some accounts of changes wrought by settlers and farmers at Wapato Lake.

The basin which holds Wapato lake has a significant amount of water draining through it. In some parts of the year the area is drier and the lake is smaller leaving more soil area for farming. But in the rainy seasons, and Oregon has many of these, the amount of water runoff makes it difficult for farmers to depend upon the open land to remain dry for their crops. Many years, since the beginning of farming in the area, in the 1840s, farmers’ crops would be flooded out. Still, farmers would plant their crops in the loamy nutrient-rich soil because, in drier years, the crop yield was stupendous. As farming and technology advanced in the region, farmers began looking for ways of draining off the excess water from the basin so they could have dependable crop yields. Draining through canals and diking began early with some of the first attempts by early settlers like Daniel McLeod. These methods advanced and continued into the 20th century and many farmers eventually gave up because the rainfall was so extreme that even advanced dredging and diking was not enough. This is the situation now in 2021. Since the 1990s, farmers have given up on trying to control water and efforts have been underway to purchase back the former Wapato Lake lands so that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service can remake the lake.

Of the destruction of the ecosystem, there are newspaper articles that dramatically document this.

November 18, 1875 (Washington Independent)- The Wapato Lake– This Wapato ditch improvement is likely to result in a much greater benefit than would appear at first thought. It will not only drain the lake itself and thus abolish one great cause of sickness in the southern part of the county, but it will dry up a large section of swamp land between the lake and Parson’s mill. The engineer who has surveyed the ditch has made careful estimates of the amount of water in the lake at the end of the rainy season, about the time for sowing spring grain, and he finds one thousand acres of water six feet deep. This vast body of water has to go down the Tualatin during the spring and summer. The lake is nearly a dead level and full of tules and marsh grass which prevents the water from running out rapidly. Observation continued for a long time show that it does not run out and mingle with the stream faster than one rod per minute. Now taking the average width of the stream at three rods, and Wapato Lake will alone keep a stream in the Tualatin down to Parson’s mill, six feet deep for nearly forty days. Then add this Wapato reservoir to the usual amount of water coming down in the stream all the time from the Coast Range, and it is easy to see why all the bottom land between Wapato Lake and Parson’s mill is so wet and worthless in the present condition of affairs. The escaping water from the lake added to the stream keeps the Tualatin bank full and sets the water back in all the draining ditches above the mill until near about the middle of June. This condition of affairs not only prevents successful cultivation of these rich bottom lands, comprising many thousands acres between the lake and the mill, but it also keeps numberless ponds and marshes full of stagnant water until the hot weather comes on, breeding disease and pestilence. This new ditch improvement is not only intended to drain the lake itself, but also carry off the eater and prevent the annual reservoir. This will send the water off down from the mountains, and when the rainy season is over the Tualatin will go down as rapidly as Gale’s creek, and the farmers between the lake and the mill will have just as good a chance for crops as those on the splendid Gale’s creek bottoms.  Therefore they are all interested in the speedy opening of this new ditch. It will practically drain a valley seven or eight miles long, and is therefore to some extent a public improvement, although projected by one man for the benefit of his own lands. Observer

November 10, 1898 (Hillsboro Argus)- County Surveyor Morrill has just completed the sub-division of the famous Gaston tract on Wapato Lake and the 1,080 acres have been cut up into lots running from seven to seventy acres. The land is of the richest Beaverdam and will raise vegetables and flax in abundance. B.F. Brewster, of Boston, owns the property, and will soon put it on the market.

November 24, 1901 (Oregonian)- Game Wardens Puzzled– Is Wapato a lake or not a lake? – Interesting questions concerning the hunting of water fowl- the law on the subject- The question at present puzzling the game warden is, “Is Wapato a lake or not a lake?” It is now a very large wet spot, deep enough in some spots to swim steamboats, and deep enough at any spot to float ducks. But the lake selected a location for itself that in dry seasons is not a lake, so far as water goes, for its water all leaks out and evaporates, and the sportive antics of horses pasturized there raise quite a dust where the glimmerglass surface is supposed to be. The site of the lake was bought up years ago under the swamp land act, and belongs to several owners. it is a fine field for duck shooting, and blinds have been built along its borders. If Wapato can’t be shown to be a legal lake, then these blinds, extending for many miles are unlawful, and their builders or owners or occupants are liable to prosecution. Section 13 on the game warden law says: “It shall be unlawful for any person to build or use any blind or other structure in any public lake or river in the State of Oregon, or in the Columbia River, or in any lake in the State of Oregon, which is not wholly owned by himself, his leasor or licensor, which stands more than one hundred (100) feet out from the shore or margin of such lake or river, for the purpose of shooting wild ducks, geese, swan or other waterfowl therefrom at any time.” Warden Quimby has asked a leading lawyer for his opinion in the case, and has received the following: “In regard to section 13, the court will generally construe an act or part thereof in such a way as to give it validity, if it is not clearly contrary to the constitution: and in arriving at the meaning of any section of the law the general intent and purpose of the act will be taken into consideration. “The game law of 1901, of which section 13 is a part, was passed for the express purpose of protecting the fish and game of the state; and, having that fact in mind, the court would probably construe the name ‘lake’ to mean any body of water to which, at any time of the year, the name lake could be properly applied regardless of the fact that such body of water might at certain other times of the year entirely disappear.”

January 11, 1904 (Oregonian)- Haunt of the Canvas-back duck– The fact that many canvas-back ducks have been received by game dealers in this city of late from Wapato Lake in Yamhill County, has led many to suppose that wapatoes, the favorite food of these fine ducks, were still plentiful in that lake all attracted the ducks. The carp have about exterminated the wapatoes from the lake on Sauvie”s Island and other places along the Columbia and they have been deserted by the canvas-back ducks for several years. An old-time sportsman, who has a farm in Yamhill County, says that while wapatoes used to be plentiful in Wapato lake, as its name indicates, there are none there now, the lake having been drained and much of it converted into wheat fields, which yield abundant crops, while the lower portions are swampy pasture lands on which hundreds of cattle feed in the Summer. These have eaten off the foliage of the Wapaotes and killed them. The site of the lake is covered with shallow water in the Winters forming a temporary lake some ten miles in length and in places several miles in width, and thousands of canvas-back ducks still resort there to feed on the scattered wheat ears left on the submerged grain fields. It is, however, very difficult to kill many of them, as they are shy birds, and will not feed on wheat put out for them within gunshot of blinds, and when bands of them are shot at, they fly several miles away, out of this lake and escape the hunters. The lake is so large that they cannot be surrounded or got at in any way except occasionally by stratagem. No wonder “Yamhill beats the world,” when tracts of it are wheat fields in the Summer and a wapato lake abounding in canvas-back ducks in the winter.

March 22, 1914 (Oregonian)- Canvass backs to Lose Last Refuge– Wapato lake, Oregon, will be drained and ducks will accordingly be deprived of favorite feeding place. The Last refuge of the canvass back duck in Oregon- Wapato Lake at Gaston- is to be drained and Oregon’s duck hunters will get few canvass back ducks in the future. Arrangements have been made to drain the lake and use the land for farming purposes. Wapato Lake is the only body of water in Oregon, where the canvass back duck could get the edibles which it lives. The German carps have done away with the old wapato in the Columbia river duck lakes and for a number of seasons, there has been no canvass ducks killed in the Columbia Riber Valley.

October 5, 1915 (Oregonian)- Wapato Lake Rented– Gun Club pays for rights to hunt ducks in marsh. Pheasants attract crowds of sportsmen to Gaston for Sunday outings, and birds are abundant. Gaston, OR. Oct. 4- (special)- The Wapato Lake Gun Club, of Hillsboro, has rented the shooting privileges for the pheasant and duck season on the 800-acre tract owned by the Gaston Gardens Company here. This tract is a level expanse of stubble fields, intersected by several ditches, and as soon as the Fall rains set in in earnest it will be Wapato Lake, famed for its duck shooting, there are plenty of mallard, teal, butterball, sprig tail and other varieties.

September 3, 1916 (Oregonian)- Flax Quality is high– Wapato Lake crop declared best in Oregon.- Gaston, OR, Sept. 2 (Special)- the 100-ace flax crop on the Wapato lake tract here has been pronounced the best in Oregon by several flax experts from the Salem and Eugene flax mills, who have been here negotiating for its purchase. As their plants are unable to handle the crops this Fall for lack of room, it will be stacked her over Winter and covered or rooted over. Thus is common in flax-growing countries but has never been tried yet in Oregon and the experiment will be watched with interest. Flax is very impervious to moisture, and one authority made the statement that if certain experts at stacking were available, the flax would come through the Winter rains undamaged without being covered at all. T.E. Armstrong, the local manager of the Wapato Lake tract, is planning to roof the stack and may build a protection on the south side also. He will begin harvesting the flax this week. A reaper will be used to cut it, and the bundles will be bound by hand and stacked to form a long rick about 20 X 60 feet. The field this year is a good heavy thick growth, and has the length that makes the best fiber. This is the same tract that was harvested last Fall by 100 convicts from the State penitentiary who completed the job by pulling the flax in six days under the direction of the Federal expert, J.C. Cady. The bundles of flax were late shipped to Salem, making 18 carloads and purchased by the state. The Wapato Lake tract consists of 600 acres of Beaver Dam land, is owned by ex-Governor Miles C. Moore, of Washington, and is under water from about November 15 to April 15, when it is known as Wapato Lake.

February 26 1917- (Oregonian)- Ducks Awake Farmers– Flocks feeding on Wapato Lake at night quack in chorus. Gaston, OR Feb. 25- (special)- The usual peace and quiet enjoyed nightly by residents about Wapato Lake has been disturbed sadly of late by vast armies of wild ducks which have made their home on the lake. Pioneers complain that they never saw so many ducks with such vocal volume. The birds can be seen rising from the water in veritable clouds, and their cries at night as they feed and dive forms a continuous chorus.

(Incidentally- The Oregon Duck Mascot “Puddles” is noted as a dabbler duck. The dabbler ducks spend most of their time in shallow water and only occasionally dive below the surface. The Canvas-backed ducks are dabblers and divers. Ducks in Oregon used to be more prominent, before the draining of their wetlands. It always seemed strange to me when attending UO that the Ducks were the mascot in Oregon because we do not see many ducks here, but now we know why.)

April 3, 1917- (Oregonian)- Wapato Lake, Near Gaston, Rises– Gaston OR, April 2, -(special)- A heavy cold rain with cold winds has been falling almost continuously since yesterday, and all creeks and streams are full and overflowing. Wapato Lake, which is now coming up rapidly and is within a foot or so of high water mark. The Farmers are much behind in their spring work and the dairymen especially are getting impatient for good weather, the high cost of hay and grain taking the profit out of the production at the time when the farmers were just beginning to expect some pasturage soon.

January 19, 1919, (Oregonian)- on Wednesday local hunters were out for their last day’s sport of the season on Wapato Lake and most of them report good luck, several getting the limit. The lake was rented for the pheasant and duck season to a club of local men. Ernst Mattesson, one of the old-timers, has hunted in this locality since boyhood, and says it was the best season for many years, the low water being largely responsible. When the lake was frozen during the first ten days of this year, the shooting was fair. In the Summer Wapato Lake is a waving field of grain, hay, corn, and about 100 acres of flax.



The last major water control project was in about 1933 to 1935 when G. Blaine Brown and Abraham Folsom Hayes dredged a 3-mile canal and set up a system of diking to drain the valley and lake. But every rainy season since then the diking needed constant maintenance to clear out near-constant blockages to the draining water. Today, it has become cost-prohibitive to continue rebuilding and maintaining the water control system every season and therefore many farmers have given up. Wapato Lake is now planned to be remade in a project headed by the Tualatin National Wildlife area under consultation with the Confederated tribes of Grand Ronde as a waterfowl migration area in western Oregon, one of its original purposes.

Testimony was heard in 1963 of the situation at Wapato Lake by the investors Brown and Hayes:

“Improvement of Tualatin Valley areas by drainage has been attempted in a number of locations. The first attempt was made at Wapato Lake, south of Gaston. This was a very shallow lake and swamp on a tributary of the Tualatin. By diking. diversion of tributaries, lowering the outlet and pumping this lake has been partially reclaimed, but due to difficulties and cost the project is not entirely a success. Another drainage project, organized as a municipal district, includes the former Lake Louisignout and the bottom lands below it. This has quite successfully accomplished its purpose, but would be further benefited by rectification of Dairy Creek below the outlet. Other areas near Beaverton and on the “onion flat” near Sherwood have been improved by less ambitious plans of ditching. This work serves its purpose in removing surface water and allowing earlier spring cultivation, but no attempt is made to control the winter floods. Full reclamation is tied to a general improvement of the outlet stream.

Mr. Blaine Brown of Forest Grove gave the following facts which help point out the significance of flood control work carried out in Washington County in the past. Hays [sic] and Brown bought 700 acres that would only grow certain water tolerant grasses before diked and drained 30 years ago. Brown has 135,000 feet of underground drains, now this land is highly productive and of much greater value for onion production.

Mr. Brown and A.F. Hayes have gone to considerable expense to clear the congested Tualatin River from Gaston to mouth of Scoggins, about 3 miles. About 1500 acres in the Wapato Lake area, which has some of the best soil in the county, depends on the drainage of this creek. Much of this land is in need of better drainage in order to grow crops of higher value than wet land tolerant grasses. The onion and truck crop land requires a degree of drainage which can not be obtained without channel clearance in the Tualatin and its tributaries. An estimated 1500 acres of peat soils in other parts of the county have similar needs.

The situation has become steadily worse in the Tualatin and its tributaries during the past 30 years. Practically all the road fills have been raised which further restricts stream flows. The watershed area has been logged, thus snows melt early to reduce summer run-off. The streams have steadily become more congested with log debris and silt. Summer flows have steadily decreased while the need for water has increased. Early fall floods destroy truck crops before harvested. Spring flooding prevents planting crops on time in the spring. We are in competition with areas that have good land, drainage and irrigation and therefore Washington County farmers can not compete without improvement of the Tualatin and its tributaries.”

(Sterling K. Eisiminger, Corps of Engineers,  Washington County Soil Conservation District, April 1963, Willamette River Basin, Oregon; review report. Transcript of public hearings held by Willamette Basin Task Force…1963. Prepared by U. S. Army Engineer District, Portland, Corps of Engineers. Hathitrust)

Interestingly, the draining of Wapato Lake was only one such project being pursued in the region. Abraham F. Hayes was the brother of Jay O. Hayes who had previously purchased property at Lake Labish, north of Salem, OR, and had dredged a ditch from that lake to the Willamette  River in 1914, making the lakebed dry by 1918. A.F. Hayes likely learned how to do this working with his brother, then invested himself in a similar project at Wapato Lake, with G. Blaine Brown. Both Hayes and Brown were noted to have relocated from Lake Labish to Wapato Lake for this purpose. The Hayes family were wealthy investors from San Jose, California and their family wealth enabled them to privately conduct their own dredging projects. Hayes family members co-owned the San Jose Mercury News and had been miners in northern California so they had deep pockets for investments.

In 1935 William Finley and the board members on the Advisory Council on Wild Life, recommended to the Oregon State Planning board that they acquire Wapato Lake as a “permanent Water Fowl Preserve.” The Planning board responded that they did not know any board with the funds required for this purchase. The recommendation did not result in the preservation of the lake.

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