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

Aaron Gilbreath
4 min readJan 4, 2020

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…

Aaron Gilbreath

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