Benson Bubblers are Portland's iconic drinking fountains. The city currently boasts 52 of the fountains and 74 one-bowl variations. Though the single-bowl variations look like Benson Bubblers, they are not. In fact, in the 1970's, the Benson family asked that the installation of the four-bowl fountains be limited to certain downtown boundaries so as not to diminish the uniqueness of them.
And while most Benson Bubblers are, indeed, downtown, there are a couple of notable exceptions.
- In 1965, the City of Portland presented a bubbler to Yosaku Harada, mayor of Portland's sister city, Sapporo, Japan.
- Sam Hill, a friend to Simon Benson, asked to have a bubbler installed at his Maryhill Museum of Art.
Benson Bubblers are made of bronze, but years of weathering give them that eye-catching patina finish that makes them so beautiful and green. Patina is a thin layer of brown and greenish oxides that takes years to build up. Well meaning citizens have "cleaned" off the patina more than once over the years, but the Portland Water Bureau has always restored the patina finish, preferring it to the shiny copper.
- Drinking water is fresh and NOT recycled, fountains are cleaned routinely.
- The Bubblers flow freely from 6:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m., daily.
- The fountains run 365 days per year unless a cold snap or excessively windy weather forces the Water Bureau to temporarily shut them down.
- The fountains serve up Bull Run drinking water!
Benson Bubbler Legacy
In 1912, Simon Benson, a local businessman and philanthropist, donated $10,000 to the City of Portland to purchase and install 20 bronze drinking fountains, now known as Benson Bubblers.
Local folklore tells us that Simon Benson donated the 20 bronze drinking fountains as an effort to keep loggers out of the saloons at lunchtime. Others say that Benson was inspired after seeing a little girl crying at a 4th of July parade because she couldn't find a drink of water. Either way, the Benson Bubblers have become a historical and enduring legacy here in Portland.
Portland's first Benson Bubbler was installed at SW 5th & Washington. Another one of the original Bubblers was installed in front of Benson's home, where it remains today, to commemorate his generous gift to the city.
The remaining 18 original bubblers were installed by 1917. Currently, the Portland Water Bureau proudly maintains 52 of the four-bowl Benson Bubbler fountains throughout the city.
Construction & Design
A.E. Doyle designed the four-bowl Benson Bubbler. Doyle is the noted architect of the Multnomah County Library, Multnomah Falls Lodge and Multnomah Stadium (now known as Providence Park).
Although most bubblers were made by local foundries, two bubblers were made by students at Benson High School. In 1975, the cost to make a bubbler had skyrocketed and, in an effort to save money, the city asked the principal of Benson High whether his foundry students might want to take on the task. They were excited to try their hand at bubbler construction and eagerly agreed.
The first Benson High bubbler was installed in front of downtown Portland's Oregon Historical Society and the work is of the highest quality. Visitors can check this out for themselves at 1200 SW Park Avenue.
The Portland Water Bureau is committed to using water wisely, and has made significant changes in the design and operation of the bubblers over the years to improve their water efficiency. For example, when the state experienced an emergency drought in 1992, the Water Bureau retrofitted the bubblers with drinking faucets controlled by an on and off button. However, it was very difficult to design a retrofit on such an historical apparatus; the brass retrofits were often stolen from the fountains; and the faucets were less sanitary than the free-flowing bubblers.
But the Water Bureau continued to increase the efficiency of the treasured icons. In 1995, the bureau narrowed the feed lines to the bubblers. This cut water use almost in half. In 2000, the Portland Water Bureau installed timers which shut the fountains off during low-usage periods, generally in the late night and early morning hours.
In 2005, the Portland Water Bureau installed small, flow-restricting devices in the bubblers to further reduce the amount of water that each fountain uses. The devices do not affect the physical appearance of the fountains, but they do reduce the amount of water the fountains use by an additional 40 percent. As they run freely, it boosts the water quality in the rest of the distribution system, as the water in the pipes stays refreshed. Today, the bubblers now use less than a tenth of 1 percent of Portland’s daily water demand, yet they still stand proudly, as a defining, iconic element of our city's history.