Connect with Metro
503-797-1700
503-797-1804 TDD
503-797-1797 fax

History of Blue Lake Regional Park

Places and activities    Places to go    Blue Lake Regional Park    Blue Lake History

Metro's Blue Lake Regional Park, publicly owned since 1960, is deeply intertwined with the lives of millions of Oregonians.

Every year, 350,000 people picnic, splash, swim, fish, bike and play at Blue Lake Regional Park in Fairview. A publicly owned park since 1960, Blue Lake is deeply intertwined with the lives of millions of Oregonians. But long before it was a park, its history reaches back to the Upper Chinookan people who once lived there. Like much of the resource-rich bottomlands along the lower Columbia River, today’s parkland was home to Native Americans—a settlement called Nichaqwli, which explorers Lewis and Clark recorded in their journals as Ne-cha-co-lee.

Blue Lake's origins

According to Oregon Geographic Names, the lake was named by Pete and Jim Odell and Jake Lenz; while out hunting, they looked down and saw a lake they thought looked like a blue huckleberry. The shallow, 64-acre floodplain lake is influenced by levels of the Columbia River; it was connected to the Columbia until a dike built in the early 1900s protected land to the south from the river’s annual flooding. Marine Drive runs atop that dike. On the south, the lake’s waters lap a sandstone ridge, part of the Troutdale Formation, rock deposited by floods of the ancient Columbia River. Interlachen Lane runs along this ridge. Beginning in the 1840s, early settlers raised grain and ran livestock in the Columbia’s fertile bottomlands including the area around the lake.

Birth of a park

While swimmers have probably enjoyed Blue Lake for millennia, in 1925, the lake was first harnessed for organized recreation. A newspaper ad for the July opening celebration of Blue Lake Park notes the lake water “is constantly re-fed from the springs and has a temperature that is simply delightful.” Camping, swimming, boating, and a dance hall were attractions at the new park.

In a May 2013 interview, Mary Lou Johnson, daughter of the park’s owners, tells of her childhood on the lake. "In the beginning,” she says, “Dad and Mother bought the boat and canoe concessions. I was three years old when it all began." That was in 1928.

Blue Lake Park’s boathouse and swim area, circa 1930. The Welsh family lived in the second story of the boathouse in 1928, the first year they operated the boat concessions at the park.

Blue lake swimmers

Blue Lake Park’s boathouse and swim area, circa 1930. The Welsh family lived in the second story of the boathouse in 1928, the first year they operated the boat concessions at the park.

Berries in the morning, swimming in the afternoon

Today once-rural Fairview is a Portland suburb, home to 9,000 residents. But back in the 1930s, Mary Lou says, “East County was covered with berry fields as far as you could see. Everyone picked berries in the morning and then came to Blue Lake to go swimming in the afternoon. It wasn’t unusual for a family of 10 kids to be dropped off at the park entrance."

Her parents charged a modest park entrance fee. "It cost 10 cents each to get in the gate and an additional 10 cents if you wanted to swim and use the bathhouse,” she says. “You could buy a pass for $5 that covered everything all summer long. My dad gave away hundreds of passes each year. He loved seeing kids enjoy the park and all the fun it offered.”

A family business

Blue Lake Park was a family business, with all hands on deck. Mary Lou recalls, “I worked many jobs in the park from sun up to sun down. I worked the gate selling tickets, helped in the bathhouse, cleaned toilets, picked up garbage and raked leaves. Each morning we had picked up all the garbage by 8 a.m. and depending on the weather, closed the gates at 11 p.m. The season started with April school picnics -- they came by the busloads.”

Unlike today’s year-round operation, the park was only a spring and summer attraction. But when the gates closed, the work didn’t end for the Welsh family. Mary Lou says, "After Labor Day attendance died down rapidly, so we closed up for the winter in late September. We were always busy preparing for the next summer. We used the dance hall as the workshop, building picnic tables, repainting the horses for the merry-go-round and doing general maintenance.”

In the park’s first decades its offerings were much different than today--combination of big band dance hall, carnival, neighborhood pub and communal backyard. Mary Lou remembers: “Along with many carnie-type games like a hammer that you hit the bell with to show your strength, we also had a baseball diamond, horse shoe pits and a dance hall with an old nickelodeon that played music where my brother and I learned to dance as kids.”

There were big bands on weekend nights, and other adult entertainment. Mary Lou says, “The popular activity for adults was bingo and they played it every day. Some also enjoyed the tavern that sold beer too. In addition to all the activities, families could prepare meals throughout the park on the small concrete cook stoves with a metal tops using firewood we provided."

In the 1940s, local women formed a synchronized swimming club and practiced in Blue Lake.

synchronized swimmers

In the 1940s, local women formed a synchronized swimming club and practiced in Blue Lake.

A place for memories

As a young teen in the late 1930s and early 1940s, it wasn’t all work for Mary Lou. "Each summer,” she says, “the park was full of high school kids from all over town. We did everything together - swam, learned to dance, grew up together. We made a lot of friends during summers at Blue Lake, and formed eternal bonds with the neighbors. As a young woman, I think I had a crush on every lifeguard.”

In 1939, swimmers in a Red Cross safety class practice their life-saving technique. "My brother and I learned to swim before we could walk really," said Mary Lou. She is the teen in back, in the second pair from the right.

Multnomah County takes the reins

Through the 1950s, the park continued to have carnival elements: rides included a merry-go-round with a live pipe organ, an octopus and roll-o-plane.

In 1960, the Welsh family sold Blue Lake Park to Multnomah County, which closed the park for three years as it upgraded its water system, built a new bathhouse and dock, hauled off the carnival-style rides and razed the dance hall.

When Blue Lake Park reopened in 1963, it was again a huge draw. The upgraded swimming area with its new concrete dock and deck offered a day’s worth of thrills with two dive tours and three springboards. When crowds were thick, up to 17 lifeguards earned every penny watching hundreds of swimmers. In 1974, at its peak, the lake drew 666,000 visitors to swim and fish.

Throughout the 1960s to 1980s the park was upgraded with a food concession, courts for volleyball and basketball, paddleboat and canoe rentals, and an event facility, the Lake House. In 1991 the concrete-lined swim area was converted to the fishing area.

divers at blue lake

Five divers synchronize their flight at Blue Lake Park, circa 1970.

Water quality challenges

The intense use came at the expense of water quality. As far back as 1937, invasive aquatic plants and algae blooms affected water quality in the lake. Studies showed evidence of algae blooms in Blue Lake as early as 1900. Metro works with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality to monitor water quality, aquatic plant populations and algae blooms. It uses a variety of treatment measures including the use of weevils as a biological control of invasive Eurasian watermilfoil, raking, and SolarBee units.

Metro and an evolving park

In 1994, Multnomah County Park Services Division merged with Metro Greenspaces to become Metro Regional Parks and Greenspaces. Blue Lake added “Regional” to its name to better reflect its role in a park system that spans three counties.  Since then the park has kept adapting to an evolving demographic in the region, and changing recreation tastes. In 2006, a water spray ground was installed; in 2007 the natural discovery garden opened; in 2011 the natural play area was completed; in 2012 a disc golf course was added; in 2013, the archery range was relocated to Chinook Landing Marine Park across Marine Drive.

The 3,500-square-feet water spray ground near the lake’s edge is hugely popular on warm days. The 18-hole disc golf course at Blue Lake was a community effort, teaming Metro with Stumptown Disc Golf — an association of local players — along with sponsorships by Keen and Next Adventure. The Professional Disc Golf Association has given the course its highest rating, gold.

In 2005, the Confederated Tribes of Grande Ronde joined Metro and others to dedicate a sculpture, “Encounter at Nichaqwli,” erected in the wetlands at the lake’s west end. It commemorates the Native Americans who helped guide Lewis and Clark to the mouth of the Willamette River in 1806. The natural discovery garden opened in 2007, but in 2012 the garden received its finishing touch: Two 14-foot cedar poles engraved with traditional symbols from the Columbia River's Wasco tribe.

Though the dance hall and diving towers are gone, Blue Lake’s attractions are still an eclectic mix: nature activities like fishing, swimming, bird watching or strolling in the wetlands are complemented by boat rentals, biking, natural play areas, disc golf and ball courts. Families, businesses and clubs hold reunions, meetings and celebrations in the Lake House. And several large civic events are now Blue Lake traditions. The annual Blue Lake Triathlon began in 1983 and has evolved to include various events held over two days of running, biking and swimming. In 2012, 1,000 people competed.

Sources

  1. Metro’s 2012 Blue Lake Water Quality Report (PDF)
  2. Atlas of Oregon Lakes
  3. Oregon Geographic Names, 6th edition by Lewis A. McArthur
  4. PDXHistory.com article/images on Blue Lake Park
  5. City of Fairview website
  6. Geologic Map and Diagrammatic Section of Portland, Oregon and Adjacent Areas, D.E. Trimble
  7. Julie Cash interview of Mary Lou Johnson, May 20, 2013

Need assistance?

Metro parks
503-797-1850
metroparks@oregonmetro.gov

© 2014 Metro. All rights reserved.

Send questions, comments and suggestions about the website to feedback@oregonmetro.gov.

Metro
600 NE Grand Ave.
Portland, OR 97232-2736
503-797-1700
503-797-1804 TDD
503-797-1797 fax