A City’s Lifeblood


As efforts to clean up Portland Harbor begin, the communities most affected by pollution see a chance to reconnect to the Willamette River.

When Wilma Alcock was young, she fished the Willamette River nearly every weekend. Her favorite spot was Mock’s Bottom—a crescent of land that lies at the base of the steep bluffs along Willamette Boulevard. It has since been swallowed up by the Swan Island Industrial Park, but back then it was just marshy riverbank.

On warm summer evenings and crisp fall days, Alcock clambered down to the water to dip her line in the lazy current. She caught bluegills, ring-tail perch, and crappie—a tasty black and white speckled sunfish. “We used to catch them plentiful,” Alcock recalls. Now seventy-nine and retired after a career in nursing and childcare, she has an infectious laugh, short white hair, and smooth skin that belies her age.

Alcock grew up fishing, like many people of her generation in Portland’s African American community. She learned from her father, who always called her Bill. “You know, Wilma, William, Bill,” she explains. She got a cane pole at age eight and baited her first worm not long after. That’s when, she says, the “first little bit of callousness” came into her life. She knew how to cast by ten and has fished ever since.

But Alcock stopped fishing the Willamette in the 1970s. Part of the reason was that she was busy raising her four children. But it was also because the river had become so polluted that her catch was visibly unhealthy. “You didn’t need nobody to tell you not to eat the fish,” Alcock says.

Read the full story at Oregon Humanities.

Portland in 1897. (Credit: US Geological Survey)