What follows is a summary of my background research into Congressman and would-be Portland developer Lafe Pence. The paintings based on this research appeared at Froelick Gallery in November 2014 and were funded in part by a project grant from the Regional Arts and Culture Council.
Aside from borrowing the voice of young witness, the account is more or less accurate. This is a draft. I continue to look for better ways to tell the story.
The Reclamation of Lafe Pence or The Killing of Guild's Lake
By Frances Reid
"Lafe Pence, the wit of the Colorado delegation in the lower house of Congress, has declined to stand for re-election on the ground that he cannot live in Washington on $5000 a year.’
The Oregonian, 16 August 1894
“Lafe Pence has planned and already begun to construct a series of ditches for the purpose of sluicing down the steep hills, filling Guild’s Lake and making land where there are only water and steep canyons now.”
The Oregonian, 21 May 1905
Some notes about a man we knew when we lived in Oregon and the effect he had upon my family, the city of Portland, and an unfortunate house-painter out for a day of fishing.
When I was a little girl, I lived in Chattanooga, Tennessee with my mother, father, and my brother, Jackson. My father was a clerk. He got very sick, too sick for us to take care of him and he took the train back to Oregon to die in the home of his parents. My mother moved us to Chicago and there married a man named Charles Skemp. Mr Skemp is my stepfather. He moved us all to Oregon. There were plenty of jobs in Oregon. He went to work for a man named Lafe Pence.
Mr Lafe Pence was from Indiana by way of Colorado. In Colorado he had been a lawyer and a miner. He was a supporter of Free Silver and Colorado elected him to the House of Representatives in Washington DC. He stood up for the Pullman strikers, and said things that got him in the paper all the time, but he lost the next election and went back to the law and to mining.
In 1904 he came to Portland for a meeting of the National Mining Congress. They were trying to choose a permanent home for their organization. Utah wanted it to be Salt Lake City, but Mr Pence orated and made a joke out of their appeal. Denver won the vote. After that Mr Pence thought he’d stay in Oregon.
Mr Pence chose the right time to be in Oregon because the 1905 Lewis and Clark Centennial and Pacific Exposition and Oriental Fair was opening. The Fairgrounds covered the land just north of town. It began on the bluff at the edge of Upshur, near our school and the ball field. Then it cascaded down the bluff to the edge of Guilds Lake and a beautiful bridge crossed out to Government Island where the double-towered Government Building stood. It was a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Before the Fair, the lake was a big marsh north of the city between the Tualatin Mountains and the Willamette River. It was mostly owned by a Mr Guild and there had been a two-story log roadhouse that sat out on this spit of land in the middle called The Tongue. Both spit and roadhouse were once called by that name. There was a dairy on the bank above it. There were Chinese vegetable gardens lining St Helens Road on its west and north side. When the Indians came in from the reservations to trade, they camped along the lake or near the the mouth of the creek. In the winter the lake filled with rain and runoff and then drained out considerably in the summer. As it was a popular swimming and fishing spot, the lake also claimed an annual drowning victim.
In the hills above the lake were some fine new homes. In one of them lived a man named Colonel Hawkins. The Colonel was very proud of the city and the hill and Balch Creek which ran below his house and into the lake. The land around the creek had just been donated to the city for a steep, lush park, Macleay. In preparation for the fair, a designer from New York, one of the Olmsted brothers, came out to see the city. Colonel Hawkins showed him around. Plans were drawn up for the Fairgrounds but also for parks across the city as a whole. The Colonel was excited to see much of Guild’s Lake preserved as a city park after the Fair came down. The Colonel sat upon the new Parks Board.
Lafe Pence’s ideas of civic development differed a little from those of Colonel Hawkins. He said when he came to the city that he saw something else:
"I have been engaged in placer mining for years and have always found my dump too small, so when I came here five years ago and saw what a dump Guild’s Lake and Balch Creek would make, it made me feel sick that it was not out by some placer claim of mine. Then I saw that the hills could be sluiced down into the lake, making yard room for the railroads, and factory sites and city lots could be sold where there are now steep hills. Since then I have made thorough surveys, and for the last two winters I have had men gauge the water that fell on these hills. I found that from Balch Creek alone I could sluice down acres and acres. That is my present undertaking and only a small part of the water system I am going to begin upon."
The idea had occurred to others as well maybe, but none were as determined to see it happen as Mr Pence.
Mr Pence befriended Oskar Huber. Mr Huber was a contractor in charge of Works for the Fair. Mr Pence began to claim water rights on almost every creek and small river within 40 miles of the city. He said this would allow him to assist Mr Huber with the fountains and water supply for the Fair. The water laws of of the wet Willamette Valley were not ready for the arid Colorado savvy of Mr Pence. Changes and new interpretations were made as quickly as possible to keep Mr Pence from getting control of the very drinking supply of the city. Which isn’t to say that’s what he meant to do. But he did succeed in holding claims to many springs on the ridge above the lake and creeks running on the west side of it as well, some over a dozen miles away.
Water for the Fair was very important. In addition to the fountain, the lake had to be maintained at a navigable depth all summer long, the Shoot the Chutes ride had to have water, the Elk needed a diving pool, and a fire suppression system must be in place for the many, many new buildings. The most obvious danger was to the The Forestry Building. It was a timber cathedral made of giant logs, most of them with their bark still on (even if they had to glue it back into place). Instead of saints it was filled with mounted animals and the riches of our endless forests. All the other buildings looked like they were made of stone and marble, but were really flammable wood frames with lathe and plaster. The Fair was meant to last a summer, not more than that. It was built to bring people into the city and they in turn would build a more permanent edifice of prosperity. Using his water resources, Mr Pence would provide them with places to work and places to live.
Mr Pence provided work for my stepfather and dozens of other men. To be near the work, we lived near the Fairgrounds. My brother, Jackson, and I had the run of the fair, when we could get a ticket, and when I wasn’t helping my mother with the new little ones, Dwyer Harvard and baby Hal Pence Skemp. Thousands of people a day poured out of the streetcars and through the turnstiles. First they’d hit the sunken gardens and the big exhibit buildings, but then they’d head downslope for the lake, the bridge, and the Trail. What had been called in Chicago The Midway, was in Portland The Trail; this was where the games and entertainments were - like the Haunted Swing, the Radium exhibit, or the Streets of Cairo. Behind the Trail was the Carnival of Venice, and behind that was the launching grass for the aeronauts. The aeronauts piloted dirigibles above the Fair or took riders up in a tethered hot air balloon for a birds-eye view of it all. In a water pocket between Venice and the aeronautic concourse lived the hydraulic ram, keeping the works operational.
The whole Fair was electrified and lights were on everything. Some nights were even brighter with fireworks or mock battles fought between little Spanish and American navies, all commanded by “Admiral” Huber. When he staged the Battle of Fort Moro for us he even blew up his own office shack on the edge of the water.
To keep fairgoers safe from the ravenous maw of the lake, a lifeguard station with a lookout tower was built on the western edge of the peninsula. The lifeguards performed rescue drills for spectators on a regular schedule. No drownings were reported from June to October 1905.
After the Fair, Mr Pence put his plan fully into action. From company offices behind the Forestry Building, Mr Lafayette Pence bought several retired Fair pavilions to tear down for material. Chunk by chunk his workers turned the young widow lumber into flumes to carry water to the mountain and rubble to the lake. His crew dug a canal across the upper stretch of the hill and ran a flume down its front.
Mr Pence had tried to claim water rights on almost every creek and small river within 30 miles of the city, but he mostly used the nearby Balch and Sylvan creeks and the local rainfall on the Tualatin Mountain to power his hydraulic giants. The giants were big hoses such as he’d used in Colorado placer mining. First his crew would loosen up the hillside with dynamite then they’d aim the giants at the dirt and rock and scour it all to smithereens.
This program worked pretty well, save for a few troubles. First, he and his men could only go at it in the rainy season. Second, Oregonians didn’t believe he could just claim water rights as he did, so a judge had to sort that out - first by saying Mr Pence could claim any idle water rights anywhere. That went over poorly with the public. Then the judge cleared things up a bit by saying that the local wetland landowners could step forward and prevent Mr Pence from stepping on their toes. In the end, Mr Pence did not win a share of the Bull Run or the Sandy, but he did make out fine enough. And Oregon learned a thing or two about water law.
He also had to contend with Colonel Hawkins. The Colonel didn’t much care to have Mr Pence’s flumes run anywhere near the new park in the Balch Creek Gulch. He said Mr Pence was a born mischief-maker. Which was true enough. And Mr Pence bet on his own mischief by buying up as many of the old Fair buildings as he could. His men broke them down into lumber for his flumes and gates. They ran canals for miles out the west side of the mountain. They dug tunnels through the mountain and a ditch across the east side to catch the rain. And, while still arguing with the park board about permits, he ran his flume as close to the new park, Macleay, as he could.
In February ‘06, someone told the mayor, Dr Lane, that the flumes were crossing into the park. Dr Lane was sick of the bickering. He grabbed his favorite police captain, Captain Bruin, and with several patrolmen, crowbars, and sledgehammers went up the hill and beat apart 20’ of flume. This sent the water rushing back to the creek. Dr Lane hadn’t given Mr Pence a chance to argue or explain. The mayor set a guard there to keep anything from being re-built. And Dr Lane and Captain Bruin went off to shoot the captain’s revolver into some tree trunks. Captain Bruin was something of a war hero, with a price on his head from angry Filipino guerillas. Dr Lane and Captain Bruin must have made at least one of their targets.
The next day, Mr Pence swallowed his fury and invited the mayor to re-visit the site with himself and a surveyor. They rode up together in a buggy. Mr Pence called Dr Lane an artist with a sledgehammer and asked for his help demolishing the old Fair buildings. They walked the flumes, made measurements showing only proximity to the boundary, not actual trespass. The guard was called off, apologies were made, Mr Pence got the permits and went back to work.
But the lake didn’t fill right off. Sluicing could only happen in the rainy season. And in that season he said he was scouring out hundreds of yards of mud by the day. It ran down the flumes and anywhere he wanted it - usually out along the old Bridge of Nations towards the island. In the summer, when water was low, he kept his men busy by proposing a to run a streetcar railway down the river to the town of Linnton. That meant lots of flume work up by Linnton, and some use for his other water claims. And they continued to pull apart the Fairgrounds.
To really make sluicing and hydraulicking work it’s best to loosen the earth with dynamite. The Pence Company began blasting on the hillside. That didn’t sit well with the people already living in the nice homes above Balch Creek. With the arrival of fall in 1906 and the new rains, the neighbors really started complaining. Mr Pence didn’t want to cause too much trouble, so he laid back on the blasting.
Relying on his hydraulic giants alone slowed Mr Pence considerably, though he stayed a little quiet about this. But his work went alright enough through the winter, ice storm and all. Until February again. This time the flume went down of its own accord. Four men dropped 40’ into Balch Creek. A fifth man caught himself, then climbed down the standing timbers and started unburying the other men. A young neighbor woman, Miss Howell, called the police, then rushed into the creek. She began doing the ambulance work before the ambulance got there. The four men were taken to the hospital. They were in rough shape. One man, Mr Pardin, died almost immediately. Another, a man from Iowa named Thompson, had broken his back and died in the hospital next month. Mr Thompson had been a patrolman on the Fair’s police force, so he was pretty familiar to us all. Thompson’s brother took the casket back to Iowa.We’d all been surprised when Mr Thompson died - it really looked like he was going to make it.
This accident did not end Mr Pence’s ambition. The flume across the creek was back up and carrying water within weeks. They all worked until the rains ceased. Then Mr Pence started leasing up more of the Fairgrounds and buildings. This time he had his sights on the big, double-towered Government Building out on the island. He said it could make a fine condensed milk factory, or something of that sort. The trouble there was, this being a big half-empty swamp on the edge of town, there were always tramps and such camping around, smoking tobacco, lighting cook fires. Mr Pence invited my stepfather to set up the family on the island and keep an eye on its buildings until something commercial might be done with them. He leased us the 10 room lifeguard station on the west edge of the island for our home. My stepfather could use one of the other small buildings for a barn for his chickens. This suited us just fine. The lifeguard house had its own dock and its own lookout tower.
From our new home, we had the whole view of the lake, the mountain, Mr Pence’s works coming out of Balch Creek, the few fair buildings left - like the giant log one - still on the South bluff. You could see all over to our school, the Lincoln house, the incinerator, and the sawmill. But our arrangement with Mr Pence did put us in a situation of some risk.
Lots of town people still used the lake to fish and play on, and that was fine. But others, not so savory, would come on to the peninsula to camp or hide out or get into trouble. Many times my stepfather or my mother had to holler them off the land. When they didn’t pay attention, my stepfather would bring out a .45 revolver. That gave him their attention and the trespasser would quickly move along.
One day in August 1908, the two brothers named De Mars were fishing with their old father and a woman friend. They had a keg of beer in the boat. One brother had been on the other side of the island and was coming across to the boat to get a new hook. He let himself into our barnyard as a shortcut. I was outside with the little ones at the time. I saw him and told him he was trespassing and to get out of there. He mocked and teased me, and showed me great disrespect. And then our shepherd dog, Bob, came bounding out to give him the what for.
On that afternoon, our stepfather, Mr Skemp, was at work at the other end of the peninsula. My mother was in town at a World’s Advanced Thought meeting. I couldn’t really say what they talked about there, it was just something she went to sometimes. It made her feel better. But they were out. And when they were out, Jackson and I were in charge.
Jackson heard my trouble and ran out of the house. He hollered at Bob to sick the man, get him off our place. The man quit mocking and rushed for the shoreline. But there he grabbed up a club and started swinging it at the dog. Then the man’s brother, his name was George, he was the house-painter, jumped out of the rowboat with an oar and came in to attack our dog. That’s when Jackson sent me back to the house to get the gun. I found it on the mantel and brought it at a run. It was a heavy, long-barrel .45. I don’t think Jackson had ever held it before. The man with the oar was still swinging at Bob. Jackson cocked the gun, brought it up level and said, ‘You move another step toward that dog and I’ll send a bullet through you.’
It was almost funny, it was so very like what young Jim Hawkins says to Israel Hands in Treasure Island. Then Jim really shoots Mr Hands.
George De Mars didn’t stop. He rushed at us. Jackson didn’t aim at all, he just shot. The shot hit the man. Mr De Mars let go of the oar, it dropped, then he fell forward.
Then all of us kids just ran. We ran past the barnyard, ran through the column porch at the Government Building. We ran straight into a spooked old man. Jackson gave him the gun. It turned out he was old Mr De Mars, the dead man’s father. We ran on to our neighbor Mrs Baker’s house. That’s where my stepfather found us and he ran to the shore for a phone and called the police. The police came, and then Mother came, and then the police took Jackson to jail.
They held Jackson in jail for several days. The court could not determine if he should be tried as an adult or as a youth. And we couldn’t raise the 5,000 for the bail or put up enough property for a 10,000 bond. Jackson been straight-up about what he had done, but being straight-up meant the papers saw it as cold-blooded murder instead of dutifully protecting our family. He was the “Eleven-year-old Boy Murderer”. It was scarier than anything for him. I know he cried and cried. Our mother wouldn’t leave him so they had to let her stay at the jail.
And then Mr Pence came in to the court. He put up his property and signed the bond. They let Jackson come home until the trial. We didn’t know at the time how lucky that was.
It was very lucky they even let Mr Pence sign the bond. He was already in deep trouble with the county. The bank that was backing his company didn’t have the money to cover the checks he was writing. Mr Pence said he hadn’t known about it right away, and when he found out he told an upright backer of the bank, Mr Ladd, that something funny was happening. Mr Ladd agreed, and pulled out of the bank. Then a couple weeks later the county shut the bank down and started to go after anyone the bank gave bad money to. Especially Mr Pence. By August, the sheriff and the constable had been trying for months to get a firm grip on something Mr Pence owned. They just couldn’t seem to do it. They would go looking for him and then claim they can’t find him. Then one day he shows up at the court, signs for Jackson, and says, if the constable wants to talk, just come down to his offices on Thurman and talk or call, and gives his telephone number. Mr Pence could be friendly and innocent as all springtime.
The court accepted his bond and Mr Pence sent his attorney, Mr Idleman to help Jackson in his trial. They tried him as a juvenile, so not for murder like an adult, but for delinquency. That way, if guilty he might only be locked up in reform school until he was 21. Lots of people from our school and the church and even from back in Tennessee wrote letters attesting to his character. Former police captain Mr Bruin came in and testified about trigger pull, trying to help him out, saying how he couldn’t have intentionally made an accurate shot. Then the judge and lawyers all started arguing over pull weight because they’d served in the Philippines, too. Eventually, the jury said he had not committed murder, but was guilty of delinquency for using the gun. When the judge told them “guilty of delinquency” was as good as a murder conviction, many folks asked for a retrial, even the papers changed their tune. But it was too late, the judge wouldn’t have it. He said he wouldn’t stand against the decision of 12 respectable members of society. He did make Jackson’s sentence as gentle as he could under the law. It still about broke my mother. Jackson was sent back to live with our grandmother in Chattanooga and she was instructed to enroll him in a military academy.
This final exposure of his finances may’ve been too much for Mr Pence. By the next summer he had left Portland, taking a position in Washington DC as a lobbyist for the railroads. He was a lovely talker, and we’ll be forever grateful to him for stepping in for Jackson, but I think his enthusiasm for moving mud must’ve finally burned itself out. The harm was done, of course, and another company of former miners came in from Seattle and flattened other parts of the hillside and continued to fill in the lake, though they did it simply with dry-grading and with water pulled up from the lake itself rather than with Mr Pence’s vast system.
My own family moved on to Tacoma. Jackson finished school in Tennessee and returned west to become a miner in California before joining the army under Pershing and MacArthur. We left the lifeguard house empty. A couple years later a tramp sheltered in the Government Building and his cookfire went out of control and burned the whole thing down to cinders and rebar. The lifeguard house survived - the wind that night was coming from the southwest and saved it from the embers.
I miss the island and the Fair. The city was going to buy the lake shore after the Fair, but only came up with enough for the log building on the bluff. It’s too bad about the island, but at least the city will have the Forestry Building forever now.