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The Observer Paper 12/22/14

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This is a portion of the Riverside Park'rock wall gateway. It was built before 1920. (Observer photos/DICK MASON).
This is a portion of the Riverside Park'rock wall gateway. It was built before 1920. (Observer photos/DICK MASON).

- Dick Mason

- The Observer

Riverside Park has an icy and tumultuous past.

It's a past that Linda Watts, a 2006 graduate of Eastern Oregon University, is bringing to life.

Watts recently completed a 29-page booklet on Riverside Park and its 97-year history. Copies of the illustrated booklet, written for Watts' EOU capstone project, will soon be available to the public.

Readers of Watts' booklet will learn about things such as a dam once located just east of Riverside Park along the Grande Ronde River. Water froze behind the dam in the winter, and people would then cut out blocks of ice to be stored at a local ice plant.

The frozen water behind the dam also attracted ice skaters, Watts said. In the summer, people swam behind the dam, changing in a nearby bathhouse. The bathhouse later was used as a farm's woodshed.

Riverside Park itself once had its own body of water, a pond near Spruce Street used by ice skaters, Watts said.

The park has two bridges today. Once it had four, including one that spanned an old irrigation ditch. People used to take paddle boats up and down the irrigation ditch.

The irrigation ditch is one of a number of things at the park that have vanished with time. Long ago the park also had a gazebo east of its pavilion and a caretaker's house. Watts' booklet contains a photograph taken between 1920 and 1923 of the gazebo. The caretaker's house, shown on an old map, was near the park pavilion.

The Riverside Park pavilion, today one of La Grande's most popular meeting sites, was built between 1913 and 1914,Watts said.

She found during her research that the Chautauqua Association was a major player in Riverside Park's founding and early history. Watts writes that the city obtained the land for the park in a trade on the condition that the Chautauqua Association could use it 10 days a year.

The Chautauqua Association brought educational speakers each summer to La Grande. Subjects addressed ranged from world affairs to ancient history.

The Chautauqua programs lasted for days and drew hundreds and possibly thousands of people. Many of the people camped at Riverside Park. Several photos in Watts' booklet show large masses of white tents set up for the programs.

Watts' booklet also addresses perhaps the most dramatic event in the park's history, the flood of 1965. On Jan. 29, the Grande Ronde River swelled so dramatically that the Spruce Street bridge adjacent to Riverside Park was picked up by flood waters and carried 75 yards downstream.

The flood eroded the riverbank, but did not take any other soils from within the park. The extent of the riverbed erosion can be seen by looking at the remains of the old dam that was at the east edge of the park.

"(The riverbed) is about eight feet below the bottom,'' said Watts, who graduated from EOU this summer with a degree in liberal studies.

The booklet also has a lot of current information and photos. The booklet includes photographs of the park's new playground equipment added in 2004 by community volunteers. Hundreds of people helped install the equipment during one weekend.

Watts, who lives in the small town of Princeton in Harney County, took on her project after learning that little is known about Riverside Park's history. She credits EOU geography professor Mirian Mustoe with inspiring her to write the booklet.

The booklet will be available at the Mitre's Touch Gallery.

La Grande's other parks

The City of La Grande has added 10 parks since its first, Riverside, was created in 1909.

Following is a list of

La Grande's other parks, their size and the year they were created.

• Benton Park, 1.42 acres, 1969.

• Candy Cane Park, 1.77 acres, 1927.

• Gangloff Park, 2.5 acres, 1924.

• Garden Club Park, 0.5 acres, date of formation not listed.

• George S. Birnie Park, 2.2 acres, 1972.

• Island Avenue Greenway, acreage not listed, 1985.

• Pioneer Park, 30 acres, 1939.

• Reynolds Park, 0.01 acres, 1986.

• Sunnyhill Park, 1 acre, 1993.

• Morgan Lake Park, 204.5 acres, date of formation not listed.

Source: "Riverside Park,

La Grande, Oregon," by

Linda K. Watts


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