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Gaston author explores past, future of Wapato Lake

Now a wildlife refuge in the making, lake has hosted Native culture, onion farms in its eventful history.

TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Journalist Ken Bilderback gives a talk on the history of Wapato Lake at the Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge.It was the wintering ground at the heart of Tualatin, or Atfalati, indigenous culture. It was a nuisance to a self-styled railroad tycoon. It's been both a blessing and a bane to onion farmers. And now, it's a nascent federal wildlife refuge.

Wapato Lake near Gaston has undergone many transformations in its history — so many, according to local author Ken Bilderback, that its “natural” condition is unknown.

“I think it's fair to say that nobody can tell you, really, this is what Wapato Lake looked like,” Bilderback said. “And nobody can tell you what it's going to look like. … Everybody wants the lake to be natural, but nobody really even knows for sure what 'natural' means anymore.”

The lakebed, which fills partially with water during the winter months but often dries up in the summer, is officially known as the Wapato Lake National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge was established by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service two and a half years ago, but it remains largely conceptual. It is administered from the Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge, several miles to the east in Sherwood, and the federal government is still sharing space in the lakebed with the remnants of the once-booming onion business.

“We're going to have a wildlife refuge there — we already do, sort of, but it's still being used for farming in the summer,” said Bilderback.

As goes Wapato, so goes Oregon

Bilderback gave a talk at the Tualatin River NWR on the history of Wapato Lake last month. A journalist by trade, Bilderback now lives in the Gaston area and is the author of an upcoming book about the lake.

“Really, when you start tracing the history of Wapato Lake, you find tie-ins to almost every important aspect of Oregon history,” said Bilderback during the May 12 talk.

For millennia, Wapato Lake was the epicenter of life in the Tualatin Valley, Bilderback said. The Tualatins — the band of Kalapuya Indians who inhabited the valley until the arrival of American settlers and the introduction of devastating diseases to the region — overwintered around the lake, which is named for the root vegetable also known as “Indian potato” that was a staple of their primarily vegetarian diet. Wapato grew in abundance around the lake, so much that it could sustain the populations of all the surrounding villages that spent the cold part of the year there.

In the mid-19th century, as settlers streamed into the Willamette Valley and Oregon became a U.S. territory, the swamp lake was not seen as desirable land, according to Bilderback.

“(The settlers) snatched up the farmland, basically, west of the Cascades — but nobody wanted Wapato Lake except for the Atfalati,” he said. “At first, that looked like it was going to work out fine.”

It seemed like a rare opportunity in the history of the United States' westward expansion for the Natives and the Americans to reach a mutually agreeable solution to a problem. As other Native bands and tribes were moved onto reservations throughout the West, the Tualatins asked for Wapato Lake to be set aside as their own reservation. The settlers were amenable, Bilderback said, and a treaty was drawn up — but by the time it reached Washington, D.C., for ratification, the Americans' attitude had changed.

“By the time the treaty got back there, the government had decided, 'No. We don't want any of those Indians anywhere near civilization. We're going to send them all out to remote reservations.' And so the Atfalatis were sent to what's now the Grand Ronde reservation,” Bilderback said.

A couple of decades later, the land was “snatched up” by a businessman named Joseph Gaston, who promised to drain the lake and turn it into farmland, Bilderback said. Gaston built a railroad past the lake, but he struggled to fulfill his promise to drain it.

“Truthfully, he never really had any success at all,” Bilderback said.

Rise and fall of the onion farmers

Gaston lent his name to the area and the town near Wapato Lake, but it wasn't until the 1930s that anyone had any lasting success in draining and diking the lake. The project was finally accomplished, Bilderback said, by Blaine Brown and A.F. Hayes, who brought their expertise from a similar endeavor near Salem, in the area that was once Lake Labish.

“They finally tamed (Wapato Lake) to the point that they could grow onions,” said Bilderback.

Unfortunately for Brown and Hayes, their workforce was seriously diminished after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, pushing the United States into World War II. Many of the farmers who'd worked the area were Japanese Americans, Bilderback said, and they were rounded up and sent to internment camps under U.S. federal supervision during the war. Afterward, many found unwelcome responses when they sought to return to their farms.

Even still, the postwar onion business boomed at Wapato Lake.

“Gaston became very famous for its onion farms — became one of the centers on the West Coast,” Bilderback said.

But Mother Nature would have the last word. Gophers remained a menace, undermining the dikes that kept Wapato Lake from filling. And when the nearby Tualatin River flooded in early 1996, Bilderback said, the farms were devastated.

“When you talk to the onion farmers, everybody has a different reason, each of which is valid, for why the onion business eventually failed,” Bilderback said, adding, “Really, the last straw was the flood of 1996. … It just wiped out Wapato Lake. Wiped out the pumps, which were old anyway, wiped out basically all the infrastructure. FEMA came in and rebuilt it, but by then, it was sort of the end of the line for most of the farmers.”

In 2000, Bilderback said, the onion farmers sent a letter to the federal government asking them to buy Wapato Lake. The lake finally became a wildlife refuge in December 2013.

Lake's future still uncertain

The lake's history has had many twists and turns, and its future looks much the same. Erin Holmes, refuge manager for both the Tualatin River NWR and the new Wapato Lake NWR, said when she was first appointed to manage Wapato Lake, she envisioned demolishing the dikes and letting nature take its course — but the situation is more complicated than that, she discovered.

“There are other issues,” Bilderback explained. “You know, you could blow up that dam, but first of all, there are or were still private landowners who have claims to the land. … If you blow up that dam and you connect the channel directly to the Tualatin, there are things like invasive carp that could come in … new insects could come in that we've never had before. Just any number of things could happen that nobody could plan for.”

Holm said an environmental assessment is being conducted at Wapato Lake. She said she hopes to be able to provide details of how the federal government might proceed in restoring the lake this fall.

Bilderback's forthcoming book is titled "Wapato Lake: Oregon History as Viewed From a Swamp." He is the author of other titles as well, including another book on Gaston history titled "Creek With No Name: How the West was Won (and Lost) in Gaston, Oregon."

By Mark Miller
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