Although Oregon gained national attention as an environmental pacesetter during the early 1970s, the state had a long history of using its waterways as municipal and industrial dumping grounds. The post-war condition of the Willamette River belies the state’s reputation for clean water. As early as 1907, the newly created Oregon Board of Health referred to the Willamette River as “an open sewer,” a characterization that would fit the waterway for the several decades. A Portland City Club study in 1927 called the river “filthy and ugly,” a description that eventually led to an initiative measure in 1938 and the establishment of the Oregon Sanitary Authority.
Despite the new enforcement agency, state legislators dragged their feet, municipal governments procrastinated in installing primary sewage treatment facilities, and industries continued to dump indiscriminately into the river. While such improvements were put on hold during World War II, a major flood in 1948 spurred the construction of several multi-purpose dams known as the Willamette Valley Project. It was not until 1950, however, that the Sanitary Authority set its first deadline requiring pulp mills to cease dumping waste liquors into the river.
By the 1960s, the Willamette River had become the center of increasingly intense politicking, especially with the emergence of two progressive political figures, State Treasurer Robert Straub, a Democrat, and Secretary of State Tom McCall, a Republican. McCall had been a television reporter and evening commentator on KGW-TV in Portland, and he had paid attention to pollution issues, especially those affecting the Willamette River. Finally, after a year in preparation, KGW aired McCall’s famous documentary, Pollution in Paradise, on November 12, 1962, a sharply critical report of the condition of the Willamette. In the film, McCall firmly staked out a moral position in the pollution debate and pushed questions of livability to the forefront of public attention. Pollution in Paradise was a tour de force, pressing home the powerful idea that there was no contradiction between jobs and quality of life in Oregon.
More than any of Oregon’s elected officials since World War II, charismatic and flamboyant Tom McCall helped forge a modern identity for the state. As a student at the University of Oregon during the Depression years, McCall became acquainted with Richard Neuberger, who would become one of the region’s most prominent journalists and a future U.S. senator (1954-1960). The dean of the university’s law school during McCall’s undergraduate years was the brilliant and outspoken Wayne Morse, who would serve in the U.S. Senate from 1945 until 1969.
As McCall worked his way into Republican Party politics, he served a stint as executive secretary to Governor Douglas McKay in the late 1940s and made a failed attempt in 1954 to win the third congressional district seat. Democrat Edith Green defeated McCall by a narrow margin in that election and went on to serve ten terms in the House of Representatives.
McCall’s statewide presence as a television commentator helped elevate him to the secretary of state’s office in 1964 and then to the pinnacle of Oregon politics in 1966 when he was elected governor in a successful campaign against Bob Straub. Time has not diminished the significance of Tom McCall’s election to Oregon's highest office.
It would be an understatement to say that McCall brought a different style, a flair for imaginative expression to the governorship. While he shares credit for several wide-ranging environmental achievements, it was the Willamette River that brought the governor to national attention.
McCall’s two terms in the governor’s office were fortuitous, paralleling significant improvements in water quality in the Willamette River and the completion of the last Willamette Valley Project dams McCall also acted forcefully on several fronts appointing himself interim chair of the State Sanitary Authority, threatening to shut down pulp and paper mills unless they cleaned up their acts, and creating the new Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) with expanded statutory responsibilities. Even with the vantage of hindsight, events seem to move at a dizzying pace during those years.
© William G. Robbins, 2002