The Medford Water Commission created Willow Lake in 1952 by damming water from the Big Butte Springs. - Bill Miller

Medford's million-dollar water

Gone are the days when Medford's water was stinky and about as appetizing as a bowl full of moldy pears.

"Forget Bear Creek as a water supply," said Ed Andrews of the Andrews Opera Company in 1905. "It will make a fine terminal for all our sewers."

It was a valid complaint. Although Medford sewage was dumped downstream, the city's upstream water intake came from a polluted creek, filled with raw sewage dumped by Ashland, Talent and Phoenix.

"I lived under the old water system through my boyhood days," Robert Duff, former Medford city manager, told an interviewer in 1982. "I can tell you it wasn't very appetizing."

Crusading Mail Tribune editor George Putnam was more direct.

"It is a serious question whether to sell such stuff as water is not a violation of the Pure Food Law," he said.

By 1908, there just wasn't enough water, smelly or not, to support the town's needs. Voters overwhelmingly approved construction of a 22-mile wooden pipeline and canal system to bring water to town from Fish Lake, near Butte Falls.

"The system has cost Medford nearly $500,000," wrote Putnam, "truly an ambitious sum for a city of 9,000 souls."

It is unfortunate that the water joy couldn't last. Just a few years after the system was complete, a new dam was constructed at Fish Lake without clearing trees and other vegetation from the newly flooded area. Quality quickly deteriorated and even heavy chlorination couldn't mask the smell.

By 1922, the Medford City Council created an independent water commission to look into the growing city's inadequate water supply.

They decided to abandon the Fish Lake system and tap into the abundant waters of Big Butte Springs in the shadow of Mount McLoughlin.

Voters were again asked to approve a bond issue, this time for $975,000.

Construction of the new 32-mile long pipeline, including replacement of the wooden Fish Lake pipe, began in 1926. For the first time, mountain spring water would not see the light of day until it flowed from a Medford faucet.

The Mail Tribune noted the clarity of the Big Butte water in the fish tank at the chamber of commerce.

"The present water is clear as crystal, whereas formerly it took effort to peer into the water of the large container."

Fish and people were delighted. A covered drinking fountain was erected on Front Street complete with a sign boasting, "Medford's Million Dollar Water System — A Mountain Spring in Every Home."

Pure, untreated water flowed for more than 30 years, until trace amounts of bacteria were found in 1962, requiring chlorination for the first time.

As demand for water grew, new sources were added to the system. A second pipeline was added in 1952 and in 1968 the Rogue River was added as a supplemental source during the summer.

Last year, based on clarity, flavor, scent and aftertaste, Medford's water supply was judged "best-tasting tap water in the Northwest" by the American Water Works Association.

Guess we can all drink to that.

A postscript on last week's column about Jacksonville Veterans Park: A relative has shed some light on Justus Lewis, one of three men whose names are on a plaque in the park. A Jacksonville resident, Lewis enlisted in the Army in 1939, but died of appendicitis one year later at the Army hospital in Vancouver, Wash. He was 19 years old.

Writer Bill Miller lives in Shady Cove. Reach him at

Share This Story