Portland Walking Tours

The Benson Bubbler: A Refreshing Piece of Portland History

May 9th, 2016

No doubt you’ve noticed the elegant bronze water fountains in many locations downtown, and perhaps you even know that they are called Benson Bubblers. So what’s the deal behind these iconic pieces of Portland history that still flow reliably today? Let us tell you the true tale!

Benson Bubbler

There once was a guy named Simon Benson who was born in Norway and immigrated to Wisconsin with his family when he was 16. In 1880 he moved to Portland with his wife and children and proceeded to take over the Pacific Northwest timber industry by storm. In fact, as a lumber baron he became so wealthy that he was officially one of Oregon’s first millionaires. What did he do with his money? He used it to help others and make the world a better place.

In 1912, to try to prevent his workers from becoming drunk at lunchtime in the saloons, Benson gave the city of Portland $10,000 to create 20 water fountains. Well-known architect A. E. Doyle, who left his mark on quite a number of buildings in Portland (Central Library, Reed College, Meier and Frank Building, and many more), designed the fountains. In 1916 Benson gave the Portland School District $100,000 to fund what is now Benson Polytechnic High School. And the elegant Benson Hotel? It wasn’t just a monument to show off his wealth. He thought Portland needed a first class hotel to attract more tourists to improve its economy.

But back to our beloved bubblers. The first one was installed at SW 5th Avenue and Washington Street, and currently there are 52 original four-bowl style bubblers. Single bowl ones also exist, of which there are 74. There is even one three-bowl bubbler! Where to find them? As luck would have it, there is a map that shows where each style is located. Since fresh and not recycled water bubbles through them everyday from 6:00 AM to 11:00 PM, people have been concerned about how much water they use, but this being Portland, we have that covered. Conservation efforts have cut down on flow and increased efficiency, and the bubblers only use 1/10 of one percent (0.001%) of the city’s daily water.

Mr. Benson’s descendants have requested that the bubblers only be placed inside a certain downtown area in order to keep them special. However, there are a few notable exceptions. In 1965 one was sent to our sister city, Sapporo. It’s pretty cool to think of a Benson Bubbler in Japan, isn’t it? There is also one at Maryhill Museum in Washington State along the Columbia River Gorge because its founder was a friend of Mr. Benson’s. In 2012 the city of Pendleton also received one. Who knows if another worthy location might be gifted one someday in the future?

So go get your drink on and enjoy that good clean fresh water that is so plentiful in Portland! And guess what? On our Best of Portland walking tour you get to see and drink from the Benson Bubblers, learn how to detect a 1912 original, and explore oh so much more about our amazing city where Simon Benson so generously left his legacy. The Best of Portland walking tour takes place every day at 10:00 AM and 2:00 PM, and begins indoors under Pioneer Courthouse Square. Click here to purchase tickets!

Article by Natasha Kelly


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