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What does 'natural' mean for Wapato Lake?

Chapters in waterway's long history include onions, Atfalati


Sharks once ruled what today is Washington County, roaming a vast inland sea cut off from the ocean by the Coast Range mountains. Glacial activity, floods and erosion continued to shape the land, and eventually the inland sea drained to the ocean, opening the land to humans.

While humans don’t need vast seas to survive, they do need water, and the first native people were drawn to one of the few remaining bodies of water in the area, a lake near what today is Gaston. The lake sustained the Atfalati people, who survived on the wildlife that depended on its waters, and on the edible roots of a plant they called the wapato, which gave the lake its name.

The first white explorers came to the area in the 1830s. They found the Atfalati’s name difficult to translate into English, changing it to “Tuality” and “Tualatin,” but they found the peaceful natives relatively easy to live with. The settlers took the best farmland in what we know today as Forest Grove and Hillsboro, but had little use for Wapato Lake, which they considered a disease-ridden swamp. By the 1850s, however, the Oregon Trail had led to such a clamor for land that settlers were willing to claim even the swampland. Before long, the few Atfalati who had survived disease epidemics were pushed onto the Grand Ronde reservation.

White settlers enjoyed the duck hunting on Wapato Lake, but immediately devised plans to drain it and convert the fertile soil to agriculture. When Joseph Gaston surveyed Washington and Yamhill counties for his railroad in the late 1860s, he chose the shores of Wapato Lake as his base of operations, in part because he dreamed of a farming empire on the lake bed.

It took only a few years for Joseph Gaston to fail as a railroad baron, but he stayed in the town that bore his name until 1896, determined to drain the lake. After decades of struggle, he gave up and moved to Portland.

Others were eager to take up the effort, however, and devised new plans to drain the lake. For the next 30 years each effort fell victim to the most unstoppable forces of nature in Oregon: rain and gophers. Finally in the 1930s, Blaine Brown and other landowners got a helping hand from Depression-era New Deal programs and succeeded in draining the lake, at least during the growing season.

The fertile soil was ideal for onions, and within a few years a vibrant community of Japanese-Americans turned Gaston into one of the largest onion producing areas in the Western United States. In 1942, those farmers were sent away to internment camps, and most never returned when World War II ended.

Onions remained a vital crop for several more decades, along with dairies, and corn, wheat and other crops, but farming on Wapato Lake was never easy.

Maintaining the system of levees and drainage was expensive. Chemicals and manure polluted the Tualatin River. Algae blooms created toxic conditions.

By September 2000, a group of farmers took a cue from Joseph Gaston a century earlier and gave up on farming Wapato Lake. They signed a letter asking the federal government to buy their land to create a wildlife refuge.

Not all farmers liked the idea, however, and contentious meetings pitted neighbor against neighbor as the process dragged on. Over the next decade, however, virtually all of the landowners had decided to sell to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Now, with about 4,300 acres in federal control, officials once again are wading into the process of restoring the lake to some semblance of its natural state.

Sadly, after 150 years of altering nature, no one even knows exactly what “natural” means for Wapato Lake. The sharks are long gone, as are the Atfalati. The wildlife remains, but in numbers that pale in comparison to the 1800s. With water diverted for irrigating neighboring farms, no one knows exactly how big or how deep the lake will be, or even if the wapato plant will re-establish itself in the lake that bears its name.

Only one thing is certain: There will be many more chapters in the amazing history of Wapato Lake.

“Now &Then” runs occasionally in the News-Times. The Bilderbacks research and write books about western Washington County. To contact them or get more information, visit kenbilderback.com.

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