History of Portland’s Benson Bubblers

A painting of a pigeon on top of a Benson Bubbler.

Many painters have made Benson Bubblers their muse. | Photo via @funafpainting

When you think of Portland icons, Benson Bubblers are right up there with rose gardens and the White Stag sign for the city’s most beloved features.

The charming drinking fountains dot street corners across downtown, attracting tourists posing for photos and the occasional pigeon or parched pet. Their signature bronze bowls + four arms have captured hearts and minds for more than a century, showing up in pieces of art and even tattoos.

But if you’ve ever wondered about the history behind the Benson Bubblers, we’re here to quench your curiosity.

A drinking fountain with four bowls pumps water on a street corner

Benson Bubblers have an iconic green patina due to the copper. | Photo via @ericriggsbee

Like the best local legends, there’s no consensus on the reason why Simon Benson — a Norwegian immigrant, local timberman, and philanthropist — gifted $10,000 to the City of Portland to build these storied hydration stations.

Some believe he was moved by a little girl who was crying at a Fourth of July parade because she couldn’t find a drink of water. Another tale claims it was a diversion tactic to keep loggers out of the saloon during their break. Either way, the first one was installed in 1912 at Southwest 5th Avenue + Washington Street.

Today, the Portland Water Bureau maintains 52 four-bowl Benson Bubblers and 74 single-bowl variations; in the 1970s, at the request of the Benson family, a boundary was drawn around downtown to keep the original tetrad version more unique. One was presented to Portland’s sister city, Sapporo, Japan, in 1965.

An ornate old house sits among trees and modern concrete buildings

The Simon Benson House is home to the PSU Alumni Association. | Photo via Another Believer

Architect A. E. Doyle designed the Benson Bubblers, in addition to other noteworthy projects like Multnomah County Central Library, Multnomah Falls Lodge, and Jeld-Wen Fieldnow known as Providence Park.

Most locations flow from 5:30 a.m.-11:30 p.m. daily, unless frigid conditions cause a temporary shut down. Efforts like narrowing feed lines (1995) and incorporating flow-restriction devices (2005) have drastically reduced the fountain’s water usage to less than one-tenth of 1% of Portland’s daily demand.

If you’re wary of trying them, they are cleaned bi-weekly, so drink up. 💧

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