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Benson's Bubblers

The following is an article from the book Uncle John's Canoramic Bathroom Reader.

(Image credit: Cacophony)

Simon Benson has been dead for more than 70 years, but if you ever get the chance to visit the Pacific Northwest, you can still have a drink on him.


Very few big cities have public drinking fountains. One that does is Portland, Oregon. If you’ve ever walked around the downtown area, you’ve probably seen the many unique fountains that dot the city’s sidewalks. There are two varieties: a four-bowled version and a single-bowled version. Each four-bowled fountain has a stout cast-bronze trunk, somewhat reminiscent of a fire hydrant. From the top of the trunk, four thick arms (also bronze) sprout like the arms of a candelabra. Each arm curves upward and ends in a shiny brass bowl about 11 inches in diameter. From the center of each bowl is a spout, from which water gently bubbles, allowing any passerby— and three of his friends— to get a drink. (The single-bowl version is very similar, but simply has one bowl, rather than four.) These are Portland’s “Benson Bubblers,” named for Simon Benson, the man who donated them to the city in 1912.


Benson was born in Norway in 1851, emigrated to Wisconsin with his family in 1867, worked a series of odd jobs across the country, finally ending up in the logging business in Portland, Oregon, in the 1880s. There, over the next three decades, he became one of the wealthiest “timber barons” in the Northwest. In 1912 Benson, by this time one of Portland’s best-known civic leaders, donated $10,000 to the city (about $240,000 today) for the installation of 20 drinking fountains, or bubblers, around the city. (Drinking fountains are still known as “bubblers” in some parts of the U.S., especially around the Great Lakes.)

Where did he get the idea to install public drinking fountains around the city? Nobody knows for sure, but several legends persist. One says Benson was inspired after seeing a young girl at a July 4th parade, crying because she couldn’t find a drink of water. Another is that Benson, a teetotaler, was tired of his loggers getting drunk in Portland’s saloons during lunchtime, so he had the fountains installed to give them a healthier drinking option. (That’s probably not true, but it is true that a drink from one of the fountains became known as a “Benson cocktail.”)

(Image credit: Another Believer)


The first of the unique four-bowled bubblers (designed by the renowned Portland architect A. E. Doyle, dozens of whose buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places) was installed at the busy downtown intersection of Southwest Fifth Avenue and Washington Street, on June 18, 1912. The remaining 19 soon followed. Quickly known as “Benson Bubblers,” they were a big hit, and according to a July 1913 Oregonian newspaper article, the crowds that formed around the fountains— especially during hot weather— weren’t typical urban crowds:

The fountains are whirlpools of democracy. Sometimes four distinct races may be seen drinking at the same time, and the “color line,” however well defined it may be at other places, recedes to the vanishing point on a hot afternoon at the corner of Sixth and Alder, Fifth and Washington, or any of the other 20 odd corners in the city where, night and day, the Benson fountains bubble their little song of welcome and generosity.


Over the decades, the Benson Bubblers were neglected, some having one or more of their arms broken off, others simply removed to make room for new roads or other structures. Then, in the 1950s, a Portland longshoreman named Francis Murnane began a campaign to get the city to preserve the old fountains. “It is my belief,” he wrote to the city council in 1952, “that the Benson fountains belong to all the city and should be restored to their beauty and usefulness.” It took six years, but Murnane persisted, and the city finally responded in 1958, when efforts to repair and preserve the damaged bubblers finally began. And in the years that followed, the city even installed more fountains. (Many of these new bubblers were the same four-bowl design as the original, but others were made with a single bowl, and some people therefore do not consider them true Benson Bubblers.)

(Image credit: Visitor7)

Today there are 52 Benson fountains, and an additional 74 of the single-bowl variety, bubbling away on sidewalks all over downtown Portland. The Portland Water Bureau, which maintains the fountains (they clean each one twice a week), even publishes a brochure about them for tourists, with a regularly updated map showing where each of the bubblers is located so that you can take your friends and family on a guided (and refreshing!) Benson Bubbler tour someday.


• Benson Bubblers run from 5:30 a.m. until 11:30 p.m. every day, 365 days a year, except during especially cold or dry spells— and also when it’s very windy (so pedestrians don’t get sprayed with water).

(Image credit: Steve Morgan)

• Where does Benson Bubbler water come from? It comes directly from the Bull Run watershed, located 26 miles from Portland in Mt. Hood National Forest.

• A Benson Bubbler sits on the grounds of the Maryhill Museum of Art— in Maryhill, Washington. Why there? According to the Portland Water Bureau, Sam Maryhill, the museum’s founder, was a friend of Simon Benson, and he simply asked Benson for one.

• Only one other Benson Bubbler can be found outside Portland. It’s in Sapporo, Japan. (Sapporo is Portland’s Japanese sister city, and the fountain was presented to the city as a gift in 1965.)

• All of the Benson Bubblers were cast at Portland foundries— except two, which were made in 1975 by engineering students at Benson Polytechnic High School (a Portland magnet school founded in 1915 with a $100,000 grant from Simon Benson). One of those bubblers still stands in front of the school.

• When new bubblers began to be installed in the 1960s, some were slightly outside of Portland’s downtown district. This led Simon Benson’s heirs to request that the city restrict the location of new Benson Bubblers to a specific downtown area, “so as to not dilute their uniqueness.” The city agreed.

The Simon Benson House in Portland. (Image credit: Visitor7)


The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Canoramic Bathroom Reader. The latest annual edition of Uncle John’s wildly successful series features fascinating history, silly science, and obscure origins, plus fads, blunders, wordplay, quotes, and a few surprises

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

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I've lived and worked in downtown Portland for over 25 years and the Bubblers are truly a welcome gift to the city. For the record, I've never seen a pigeon drinking from one, nor ever seen one with "pigeon poop" on it. They are also not running 365 days a year. They are shut off when the weather gets too cold or and during extremely rare periods of prolonged summer drought. It's hard to "waste" water when you have an excess of it (they don't call us Portlanders "webfoots" for nothing).

Cafe Unknown has more information on the Benson Bubblers.

The Simon Benson house is another miracle in preservation. It sat abandoned and vacant for decades before being moved to the PSU campus and restored.
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These things are disgusting. Since they cannot be shut off, pigeons love to sit on the bowls and get a drink, so there's lots of pigeon poop on them. And since they are always running, that's a lot of water that's wasted 365 days each year.
Portland is a wasteful city.
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