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Our First Fifty Years by Tom McAllister

By Tom McAllister

Audubon Society of Portland, one of the first in the Nation, has blazed a trail of nature protection and appreciation that has shone for a century.

pittock bird sanctuary sign

Our vibrant young state was a land of unlimited opportunity and was filling fast when Portland Audubon had its origins with the opening of the 20th Century.  The Lewis and Clark Centennial and American Pacific Exposition and Oriental Fair of 1905 was held in Northwest Portland at the site of Guilds Lake.  Wintering swans, ducks and geese gathered here before the lake was filled.  That fir was the bash that put the City of Roses on the world stage.

There was still “free land” for homesteaders in the public domain.  The deep loess soils of the Columbia Plateau were ripe for transformation from native Bluebunch Wheatgrass into wheat and the upper Rogue and Hood River valleys into orchards.  Vast forests of Ponderosa Pine, Douglas Fir, Western Red Cedar and Sitka Spruce were the finest in the Nation.  Hard rock mining, salmon canning, wool and wheat for local mills and export and lumber formed the basic industries.

In 1902 Portland had 90,400 population.  Astoria was then Oregon’s second largest city, 8,400, and Baker City, 6,600, was third.  Commerce with the markets of the world, fishing and mining were the job foundations for that one, two, three, ranking.  Incomparable runs of salmon, virgin soils, mineral riches and a wealth in timber just opening for rapid extraction with the onset of railroad logging filled Oregonians with boosterism and optimism.

While we struggle in the 21st Century with overcrowded highways and the expense and pollution of our cars our founding members traveled cheaply and conveniently by railroad, trolley and interurban lines, the latter powered their first electricity from turbines at Willamette Falls and new dams on the Clackamas and Sandy rivers. Comfortable sternwheelers and fast packet boats kept schedules all along the Columbia and up the Willamette to Salem, Albany, Corvallis and Harrisburg.

In the beginning Portland birders formed a John Burroughs Club in 1898 under the leadership of the Reverend William Rogers Lord.

Lord authored the “The First Book of the Birds of Oregon and Washington” (1902) and was a lecturer of national prominence. He illustrated his programs with stereopticon slides of paintings by his artist friend Louis Agassiz Fuertes.

Burroughs at his “Slabsides” log house on the Hudson River and Fuertes in Ithaca, N.Y. were esteemed by our founders, the one as a writer of books and features on outdoor life for both children and adults and the other as the foremost illustrator of birds.

From 1904 to 1927 Fuertes illustrated almost every issue of Bird-Lore magazine (Audubon Magazine after purchase by National Audubon).  Those color prints were integrated into leaflets that became a prized part of membership in junior Audubon classes that our Society supported in the public schools from 1912 into the 1940s.

Astoria birders organized as the Oregon Audubon Society (OAS) in 1901, and in 1902 the John Burroughs Club of Portland merged with them under that name.

In the November-December, 1905, issue of Bird-Lore is a section with state reports, including one from Miss Metcafe, secretary for OAS, and a United States map.  That map shows a date of origin for each society.  Our date is 1902.

Over the years OAS reached out to establish other chapters, but changed its name to Audubon Society of Portland in 1966 when the members voted to affiliate with National Audubon Society.  This was a good will gesture to recognize the independence of those other Audubon societies within Oregon.

National Audubon Society began with a 1901 meeting of state Audubon societies that joined to form a loose-knit group called the National Committee of Audubon Societies.

There was a convergence of kindred souls at our founding.  Vice-president Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt entered the White House in 1901 on the assassination of Pres. William McKinley.  And a charismatic young naturalist, writer, lecturer, photographer, William L.  (Bill) Finley, and his partner, Herman T. Bohlman exposed their 5 x 7 glass plate negative to wildlife scenes that entranced the nation.

Roosevelt reveled in the robust outdoor life and was a whirlwind of physical and political action. It puzzled Whitehouse staff when the new President walked outside to stand motionless for long periods under the trees.

They were unaware that here was a published ornithologist who debated the identification of Genus Empidonax flycatchers when he met with John Muir by a Sierra Mountain campfire.  That genus remains a puzzle for most birders.

In the formative years of Oregon Audubon Society the nation had a president who jumpstarted the conservation movement.  With an eye to the future Teddy Roosevelt modeled a 230 million-acre public lands legacy that included national forests, parks, monuments and refuges.

“We want the active and zealous help of every man far-sighted enough to realize the importance from the standpoint of the nation’s welfare in the future of preserving the forests,” declared Roosevelt.

Finley and Bohlman spent weeks, even months, on location once their camp and blind were established.  They followed the development of Red-tailed Hawk, Golden Eagle, and Great Blue Heron nests from egg to fledgling.  They spent a full four months by a cliff side California Condor nest.  Finley and Bohlman were key personalities in the early OAS.

These boyhood companions attended the old Portland High School and worked as a team from 1896 to 1908 transporting ponderous cameras, glass plates, developing equipment and camp gear deep into marshes and onto treetop platforms.

They rowed a 14-foot dory through the breakers with all their gear and used block and tackle to raise their equipment onto the ledges of offshore sea stacks.  Foremost among these wild settings that teemed and resounded with colonial nesting birds were Three Arch Rocks, Lower Klamath Lake and Malheur Lake.

Bohlman was the reserved and skilled photographer who drove a 1908 air-cooled Franklin car and favored a handle-bar mustache.  Finley was the clean-shaven extrovert who through his illustrated lectures and magazine articles spread a message across the land of the need to save habitat as well as pass protective bird legislations.

Their derring-do and the results captivated audiences and readers nationwide.  Finley packed the lecture halls.

- excerpted from 'Our First 50 Years' by Tom McAllister

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