Long before the Human Access Project began its campaign to revitalize the Willamette River, one Portlander made quite a splash by advocating for swimming in the city’s waterway.
Thomas Bundy was in the twilight of his life when he came to the Pacific Northwest, bringing with him a hazy past. One thing was certain — as a boat builder and sailor, he loved the water. In the spring of 1898, he established Bundy’s Baths on the east bank of the Willamette River, just downstream from where the Ross Island Bridge is now located.
The bathhouse, AKA Neptune’s Baths, became the focal point of aquatic recreation at the time. People would ride the Brooklyn streetcar to Woodward Street and spend long hours playing and sunbathing on the shoreline.
It was a particularly popular place for girls and women to swim and dive, and competitions were often held there. By the summer of 1915, the business was renting out approx. 1,300 swimsuits a day. A long line of houseboats and the Portland Yacht Club had laid anchor nearby.
Windemuth, another swimming resort that doubled as a floating dance platform, was built in the center of the river just off the northern tip of Ross Island. Farther locations, like Oaks Park, Swan Island, and Elk Rock Island, enjoyed a swimming heyday as well.
It wasn’t long before industrialization and sewage fouled the fun. By 1919, Bundy’s Baths had been dismantled and replaced with a dockyard for transporting lumber, and in 1924, city officials banned all swimming in the Willamette River due to concerns over bacterial contamination.
Nevertheless, the spirit of those halcyon days still resonates today. Plans for the Portland of the future — like those outlined by Albina Vision Trust and the OMSI District — look to renew a healthy and equitable relationship with the river.