Is There a Secret Lake on Mount Tabor?

Investigating the extinct volcano’s mysterious springs.

By Aaron Gilbreath November 14, 2016 Published in the December 2016 issue of Portland Monthly

Pomo 1216 mt tabor spring illustration fedtvk

Image: Patrick Hruby

It’s incredible what you’ll find on the cyber: a Google satellite image of what looked like a natural lake in the backyard of a house on Mount Tabor, with what appeared to be its own boat house. One anonymous commenter said the secret lake was fed from an underground river called “Crystal Springs.”

Of course, you can’t believe everything you read on the Internet. But the possibility of a lake—hidden on Portland’s dormant volcano, even less accessible than the privately guarded Lake Oswego and not on any known map of the city—was too enticing to ignore. It seemed just plausible enough to justify knocking on a few doors.

At a 19th-century farmhouse perched on a bluff above the “secret lake,” I found Dave, a longtime resident who declined to give his last name but has seen the feature in question. “It’s not a natural lake,” Dave said, 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. Dave described the pond as a dressed-up catchment.

I needed a second opinion. Many streams once ran through wet, swampy Portland before being buried or rerouted. Tanner Creek now runs under Providence Park and the Pearl. Paradise Springs once flowed from Tabor down past what’s now Belmont Station. In the early 20th century, this area was home to “Crystal Springs Sanitarium.” Maybe Dave had it wrong.

“It’s definitely a spring,” says Jan Caplener, 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 Tabor resident for over 60 years, Caplener 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 says 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.”

When I knocked on the lake house’s dusty front door, no one answered. In an e-mail, the owner explained that they’ve had troubles with trespassers—even rogue campers—in the past, and requested privacy. It was indeed a natural lake, he wrote, fed from an underground aquifer called Crystal Springs. In the early 1900s, he continued, this lake was one of many on Tabor to supply East Portland with water.  Eventually, the city closed the clay pipes connecting it to the system. Today, the lake stands 50 feet wide, and overflow feeds into the sewer system.

A secret lake. From a hidden spring. It’s comforting to know wonders exist out there in our laser-mapped world, waiting to be discovered. The Internet doesn’t always lie.

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