Where We Live: Salem’s historic Eco-Earth Globe

Human Interest

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — It’s impossible to miss the giant sphere while strolling through Salem’s Riverfront Park. 

The structure sits at the south end of the park and is known as the Eco-Earth Globe. Covering its surface are 86,000 ceramic tiles representing Earth’s oceans and continents.

An undated photo of the Eco-Earth Globe in Salem's Riverfront Park. (City of Salem)

But the ball, which measures 84.5 feet in circumference, hasn’t always been a replica of our planet. In fact, it didn’t even begin as a piece of art at all. 

The globe was what was known as an “acid ball.” Built of metal, it once held liquid and chemical gases used in the paper-making process at the Boise Cascade Mill. 

In the 1960s, it was towed by a boat from the Portland shipyards to the mill site (which is now Riverfront Park) by way of the Willamette River. 

And there it remained, even after the mill closed in 1982. 

Former Salem Mayor Roger Gertenrich decided to turn the structure — which was, at the time, quite the eyesore — into a local landmark. 

As the land around it was being developed into a park, art director Mary Heintzman recruited local high school students and artists to help transform the old acid ball into the Eco-Earth Globe.

The students made more than 200 clay icons depicting wildlife, flags and international culture. Community members purchased the icons to help finance the project and geographer Jule Youngren directed the placement of all 86,000 tiles. 

By the time it was unveiled in 2003, more than $1 million had been poured into the project, along with thousands of volunteer hours and the cooperation of local businesses, civic groups and lawmakers. 

The passage of time has started to take a toll on the Eco-Earth Globe. Tiles have fallen off, water has found its way inside and asbestos has become a concern. 

But there’s hope for the repurposed acid ball’s future. 

The Salem Public Art Commission is committed to restoring the Eco-Earth Globe to its former glory and making it a centerpiece of the park’s planned expansion. 

Learn more about the group’s restoration efforts and how to help

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