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Tourist mecca, hunting paradise, 'grandest farm in Oregon' fell through but wildlife refuge may work

COURTESY PHOTO: WASHINGTON COUNTY MUSEUM - This photo of Wapato Lake looking west toward Gaston was taken around 1895, about the time town founder Joseph Gaston gave up on his dreams and moved to Portland.
In the early 1900s, people in Gaston were excited at the prospect of Wapato Lake becoming a tourist mecca.

They envisioned trainloads of visitors from Portland arriving to watch sailing regattas from the veranda of a grand new resort. They pictured the two other hotels/boarding houses in town filling with people coming to the lake to hunt, fish and even ice skate.

There were challenges, to be sure. For example, the first couple of regattas in 1904 had not gone well because the boats kept running aground in the shallow lake. The lake was so shallow, in fact, that the federal government had declared it a swamp.

And not everyone was excited about becoming a tourist town. Many longed for the good old days of the 1800s, when farmers drained the lake every year and planted crops. The agricultural efforts had been the dream of the town's founder, Joseph Gaston, who in 1870 took advantage of the Swamp Act to acquire the lake free from the federal government in exchange for his promise to drain it.

After his dream of becoming a railroad baron ended in bankruptcy, Gaston turned his attention to farming the lakebed, which he predicted would become perhaps the grandest farm in all of Oregon. He struggled for 25 years until 1895 when he gave up and moved to Portland.

COURTESY PHOTO: U.S. GEOLOGICAL SURVEY - This General Land Office map, drawn in 1851, shows Wapato Lake in the bottom left quadrant.Many in Gaston were glad that the town founder's farm had failed, because after he left, the waterfowl population swelled, turning Wapato Lake into one of the best hunting grounds in Oregon.

On November 19, 1896, the Washington County Hatchet reported that "a syndicate are about to purchase the Gaston lake, erect an elegant and commodious hotel, buy a steam yacht and fit the grounds up so that it will be one of the finest resorts in Oregon."

The hunting was so good, in fact, that entrepreneurs leased the land and brought trainloads of hunters from Portland to shoot thousands of ducks.

But the hunters left most of the waterfowl to rot in the lake. This did not sit well with local hunters, who relied on the waterfowl for food, not sport.

The hunting business soon failed, as did the regattas and plans for a resort.

Then in 1910 a family of farmers from Washington bought the lake. Much like Joseph Gaston, the new owners struggled for 25 years until throwing in the towel. Again, some locals rejoiced, but then Blaine Brown and A.F. Hayes, onion farmers from Salem, bought the lake in 1935 and built a system of dikes and pumps much more sophisticated than anything the town had seen before.

The new infrastructure was so grand that many feared if the dikes broke the resulting flood would wash out roads and inundate neighboring farms. Within weeks their worst fears were realized when the levees broke.

In 1937, the calamity repeated itself with more flooding.

Brown and Hayes rebuilt, however, and their new system lasted for the next 60 years. Onion farming became Gaston's lifeblood.

Eventually, competition from much larger onion-growing areas in Eastern Oregon, Idaho, and overseas combined with other forces to drive the Gaston farmers to the brink by what seemed like a perfect storm of devastation.

The storm became literal in 1996 when the worst floods in recent memory wiped out much of the infrastructure Brown and Hayes had built. The federal government paid to repair the damage and bought out some landowners who gave up their dreams of farming Wapato Lake. A few farmers struggled to survive, but in 2000 they reluctantly wrote a letter to the federal government asking officials to buy their land for a wildlife refuge.

That process took more than 15 years, but this year the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service finally unveiled plans for the refuge, with a particular focus on Wapato Lake. Once again, some people are rejoicing at the prospect of carloads of tourists from Portland coming to the lake.

But others are longing for the good old days of the 1900s, when every year the lake was drained for agriculture.

Ken and Kris Bilderback are authors of four books about local history. This column is condensed from their upcoming book, The Rise and Fall of Wapato Lake.

Wapato Lake Today

Curt Mykut, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) who is working on the Wapato Lake National Wildlife Refuge plan, spoke at the Gaston High School gym May 15, presenting a draft version of an environmental assessment that included three main proposals for how FWS could manage Wapato Lake.

According to Mykut, FWS received 11 formal written comments on the draft assessment. A final version, including FWS responses to all questions and comments, will be publicly accessible by the end of August, Mykut said, at which point it will be available on FWS's Wapato Lake web page, which currently holds the draft assessment and other information: fws.gov/refuge/Wapato_Lake/.

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