This effort is just the latest chapter in the long—if scattershot—history of a place that, despite being in the center of the city, has never quite found its place. A man named Ross first claimed the islands as a homestead in 1850. In the latter days of the wild frontier, a Ross distillery cranked out Blue Ruin whiskey, “a fluid of high voltage.” Period accounts, unearthed by Portland Parks & Recreation planner Nancy Gronowski, describe Ross Island circa 1890 as an enclave of proto-beatnik houseboat dwellers, where “liberated ladies played ukuleles for gentlemen who recited poetry.” Stretch the imagination, and the island becomes an early incubator of Portland’s ever-blossoming bohemian scene.
For decades, Ross Island Sand and Gravel ran the islands as an industrial fiefdom, gouging out gravel to produce the concrete that built much of downtown Portland.
Houck is hardly the first to see this offshore kingdom as a potential civic asset. The 1903 Olmsted Plan—the landmark scheme that sketched Forest Park, Mount Tabor, and much of the rest of Portland’s emerald necklace—described Ross as a future setting for field sports and pleasure outings. Portland’s first parks superintendent even drew up a proposal for the island featuring classical, formal gardens, à la Peninsula Park. Portland voters proved too cheap to buy the islands, however, leaving geology, hydrology, and industry to conspire.
The 40-meter-thick layer of gravel (Holocene alluvial gravel, if you want to get technical) that makes up the archipelago’s bedrock is a perfect ingredient in concrete. By 1926, a syndicate of connected local bigwigs—a member of the dock commission board, a powerful attorney, and a former governor—set up the Ross Island Sand and Gravel Co in a flurry of cozy deals with state and local regulators. (The dock commission, for example, issued the necessary building permits, while the state blocked a lawsuit aimed at stopping the company.) The company mined the center of the archipelago for the next 75 years, turning the former central channel into a deep, oblong lagoon.
In 1977, Robert Pamplin Jr., millionaire heir to a textiles fortune and a local power broker in his own right, bought Ross Island Sand and Gravel. Pamplin—whose other holdings and endeavors, past and present, include newspapers, radio stations, a Christian recording label, farms, vineyards, a Civil War museum, a ghost town in Eastern Oregon, and, according to his foundation’s website, the accumulation of more academic degrees “than any living American”—cuts a somewhat eccentric figure. His tenure with the island, at least so far, suggests he can’t quite decide whether to be a benevolent local patriarch or a reclusive, get-off-my-lawn tycoon.
Given the threatened species of salmon and steelhead that ply the waters surrounding Ross Island—the most undisturbed section of Willamette River within the city—Pamplin’s ownership of Ross puts him on the hook for water quality, species protection, and habitat restoration, not to mention the larger question of what will happen to the islands when his company no longer wants or needs its island factory. Over the past 30-plus years, Pamplin has conducted a marathon fencing match with city and state officials over the islands. Along the way, his management of Ross garnered so much negative publicity that he started his own newspaper, the Portland Tribune, largely to hit back at the Oregonian. (Pamplin, through a representative, declined to be interviewed for this story. Ross Island Sand and Gravel officials did not return calls.)
In 2002, Pamplin made a much-ballyhooed pledge to give a large portion of Ross to the city. Negotiations over the details broke down, however, and Pamplin rescinded the offer. This impasse continues to color public discussion of the islands, with Ross’s mercurial overlord often being perceived as the bad guy. And that might have been the end of the story, if Houck and other environmental advocates hadn’t initiated their own direct negotiations with Pamplin. The result: Ross Island Sand and Gravel donated 45 acres on the northern and western sides of Ross to the city in 2007. Not only did the gift give the public a firm toehold on the islands, but it also set the stage for the next act in the islands’ future.
“Too much has been made of what Pamplin originally promised,” says Bob Sallinger of the Portland Audubon Society, a leader within the Friends of Ross Island who was involved in the negotiations. “The clock didn’t stop in 2003. We need to look at the next big challenge, which is to get everyone who has a stake in the place to sit down together.”