Is There a Secret Spring in Portland, Oregon’s Mt. Tabor Neighborhood?

One nosey resident sniffed around to find the truth about Crystal Springs.

Mt. Tabor, facing west.

There it was, clear as day: A satellite photo of what looked like a natural lake in the backyard of a house on Mount Tabor, posted on Reddit back in March 2014. The anonymous user claimed that the secret lake was fed from water flowing from an underground river called “Crystal Springs.”

“It even has a boat house!” the post said. “Cannot be seen from the street.”

Of course you can’t Yes, yes. Don’t believe everything you read on the internet. Although the photo did show what could be a boat house, the lake’s shores didn’t seem natural — the photo showed some sort of brick edges. But the possibility of a fenced-off natural lake hidden on Portland’s dormant volcano, even less accessible than the privately guarded Lake Oswego, and not on any known Portland map, seemed too enticing to ignore.

At a 19th-century farmhouse perched on a bluff above the “secret lake” since 1990, I found Dave, a longtime resident who declined to give his last name but who has seen the feature in question. “It’s not a natural lake,” Dave told me, persuasively explaining that when the water from streets high on Tabor drains through gutters and soil, it simply collects in the backyard below, so the homeowners built a pond to collect runoff. When the pond fills, a grate empties water into a city storm drain, where it then flows into Willamette River downtown. Dave described the pond as a dressed-up catchment basin.

I needed a second opinion. Many historic streams once ran through wet, swampy Portland before being buried or rerouted. Tanner Creek now runs under Providence Park and the dense, tony Pearl District. Paradise Springs once flowed from Mtount Tabor down past what’s now the Belmont Station beer joint. In the early 20th century, this area on Mount Tabor was the site of “Crystal Springs Sanitarium” — an asylum during a more primitive medical era.

It seemed to justify my knocking on a few more doors. I’m curious, or nosy.

I knocked. Only one neighbor answered. “It’s definitely a spring,” says Jan Caplaner, a real estate agent who sold the house adjoining the pond to a doctor in the 1980s. “I don’t buy the catchment theory at all. The word I’ve always heard is that that’s where Crystal Springs starts. I don’t know where else it would come from.”

A resident of the neighborhood for over 60 years, Caplaner says the doctor’s wife wanted a water feature, so the couple sold their house with a pool to get this pond. Numerous underground streams thread Tabor’s west side, he says, resulting in a lot of leaky basements.

Portland State University geomorphologist Martin Lafrenz has never heard of Crystal Springs emerging on Tabor, but adds that there hasn’t been enough mapping of Tabor’s hydrology for him to definitively say whether Crystal Springs is real. “It’s highly likely that there could be springs up there,” he says. “Or it could be a true spring that’s there most months of the year, and dries up in the summer.”

Portland State University geologist Randy Morris says civilians frequently alert scientists to unknown local phenomenon. Although he hasn’t conducted research on Tabor, volcanic substrates like it readily transport subterranean water from aquifers or rainfall. “One potential source might even be the standing water reservoirs and ponds on Mt. Tabor, as these bodies are never completely sealed,” he said. Some springs surface then disappear underground again, too. “This might explain the discrepancy in origination points for Crystal Springs, or others, over the years.”

When I knocked on the lake house’s door, no one answered. The dusty front door suggested residents rarely visited, or they entered through the garage, so I peered over the back fence, assessed the situation and left. But in an email, the owner told me more. It was indeed a natural lake, he said, fed from an underground aquifer called Crystal Springs. In the early 1900s, this lake was one of many on Tabor to supply East Portland with its water supply. Eventually the city closed the clay pipes connecting it to the water supply. Today, the lake stands 50 feet wide, with the overflow simply feeding into the sewer system. They’ve had troubles with trespassers in the past, he said, and requested that I not identify the exact house. I was happy to oblige. I only wanted to know the truth.

A secret lake from a hidden spring in well-trodden city. It’s comforting to know that wonders still exist out there in our laser-mapped world, waiting to be discovered.

Essayist, Journalist, Burritoist. Longreads Editor. Writing: Harper’s, NYT, Slate, Paris Review, VQR, Oxford American, Kenyon Review. 3 nonfiction books.

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