It all started on a rainy day on the southeast esplanade on Portland’s Willamette river. We came across one of the copper fountains that dot the PDX landscape, known as the Benson bubblers, and I wanted to know more about them.
“Huh,” I said. “I wonder how many there are in Portland.” I knew I’d seen a few near my house, and near my workplace. I’d even noticed a few in some of the more far-flung reaches of the city.
via portlandoregon.gov, a map of some of the Benson bubblers
But as it turned out, information on the Bubblers was scattered and incomplete. The Portland wiki had a good history and a few noted down, but not a full list. And to my surprise, neither did the official city site.
I did learn that their history is intimately connected with the development of the city of Portland, and in my opinion they’re an interesting iconic symbol in a city that doesn’t have a lot of tourist-friendly imagery.
Created by a Norwegian immigrant who made his fortune in the evolving American landscape, the original bubblers with four bowls were installed in the downtown area between 1912 and 1917, reportedly as part of the burgeoning temperance movement that accompanied the western gold rush.
Over the years, 30 more sprung up around the city. In the ’70s the Benson family asked that the four-bowl versions be limited to the downtown area, so there are now 74 single bowl variations. They pull water from the Bull Run watershed, the city’s primary drinking water supply.
So, approximately 100 years after they were first installed, I decided to create a publicly-accessible map of every bubbler (both four-bowl and one-bowl) in the city.
The first hurdle was getting a list of all of the locations of the bubblers. As you can see from the map above, information was scarce. But finally, after several rounds of phone tag and a few emails, I got a maintenance record from a very helpful city employee.
So I had all that info and a great idea–but it was one I didn’t know how to implement, as I’ve done little to no programming since my high school computer science classes.
And so, bensonbubblers.com was born. It works on all devices, and can detect your location. Right now, it’ll show you the five fountains of any type nearest you, or any street address you enter.
There’s a lot of stuff I’d like to add–a way to sort by four- or single-bowl fountains, a historic note and a photo on every entry, customized icons. But for now, I’m very satisfied with it.
Visit the site here, let me know what features you’d like to see in a future release, and be sure to use it whenever you’re out in Portland and feel a little thirsty.
Addendum: I just spent the last three days at a conference that was largely dealing with how institutions like museums are attempting to sort out great amounts of catalogued information, and how to present that information to the public, digitally.
My main takeaway, from the conference as well as my own personal experience, is that if you don’t make the information available to people on your own, they’ll eventually find it for themselves–at which point they’re free to do with it whatever they choose.