City Spotlight: Portland, OR

Brief History

Portland, Oregon lies with the Columbia River to its East, while the Willamette River runs through it. It is Oregon’s largest city, and perhaps most iconic. Known as “The City of Roses”, Portland derives its nickname from the 1905 expedition of Lewis and Clark, in which it was observed that Portland maintained the perfect climate for growing roses.

Once known as “The Clearing”, Portland was established after two men beached their canoe on the banks of the Willamette River, and having been struck by the natural beauty of the area, decided it would make the perfect setting for a new town. William Overton and his companion, Asa Lovejoy, promptly filed a land claim on the site.

Story has it that Portland earned its name by a coin toss. Overton, having grown bored of clearing trees and developing infrastructure for the new town, sold his share to Francis W. Pettygrove. After a debate about what to name the new town, Pettygrove and Lovejoy decided it should be after the winner’s hometown. Winning, Pettygrove won two out of three tosses, thus the town was named after his hometown of Portland, Maine. Had Lovejoy won, Portland would likely have been named after his Massachusetts hometown, Boston.

Following the Oregon Donation Land Claim of 1850, settling the town and surrounding area became easier, and speculators and pioneers alike flocked to Oregon. In that same year, Portland’s population alone had grown to 800 residents. They also had a steam sawmill, a log cabin hotel, and a newspaper, called the Weekly Oregonian. When Portland was later incorporated in 1851, the city measured 2.1 square miles.

Though serene and profitable Portland may have been to live in those early years, from its incorporation until 1941, it was known as the “Unheavenly City” for some of the seedier occurrences which took place. Numerous acts of shanghaiing occurred, wherein innocent bystanders and passersby were whisked away via trap doors or “deadfalls”, which led to an extensive underground tunnel system. This system was used to traffic the captives and later sell them as slaves.

Unfortunately, this was not the only case where scenic Portland displayed a seedy underbelly. During the 1860s, railroad magnates recruited countless Chinese immigrants to provide cheap labor. While they were admired for their work ethic, most whites looked down upon them as laborers. With the creation of unions in subsequent decades, the socioeconomic and racial divides deepened.

Such racial inequality continues to this day, which should come as no surprise, as Portland is recognized as the whitest big city in America, with a population that is 72.2% white and only 6.3% African-American, while the remaining is split across various ethnicities. In fact, in 1994, an African-American employee of the Daimler Trucks North America plant reported numerous experiences that seem straight from another time. Incidents including challenges to fights by white co-workers, mounted “hangman’s nooses” around the factory, and racial slurs and symbols written in walls in the building.

Despite the sordid history of Portland, it’s still a place of beauty. It’s home to the largest wilderness park found within any city limits in the country, Forest Park. Funnily enough, it’s also home to the world’s smallest park, Mills End Park, which is contained within a two-foot diameter circle. The Oregon Zoo resides within Washington Park, along with the Portland Japanese Garden, and the International Rose Test Garden.

Beyond the flora and fauna, Portland boasts a colorful history of creating Northwest-style beer, spirits, and wine. In fact, among beer aficionados, Portland’s newest nickname is “Beervana”. If sports are more your style, Portland is host to both professional and minor league teams, as well as several fine golf courses. Be sure to add Portland, OR to your to-visit list. 

Historic Photos of Portland, Oregon

This photograph dating from between 1958 and 1970 shows an intact, symmetrical Mount St. Helens in the upper left and the top of Mount Adams in the upper right, both in the Cascade Mountains of southwest Washington. The tallest building in the left portion of the view is the Pacific Power building on Southwest Sixth Avenue. While the Pacific Power building remains, the large sign atop the building was removed in 1972. The lower building immediately to the south of the Pacific Power building is the Congress Hotel, which was torn down in 1977. Toward the right between Front Avenue and Harbor Drive are two white towers rising above the large Oregon Journal building, which was acquired by the city and demolished in 1970. Harbor Drive skirted the west bank of the Willamette River, until a planned expansion of Harbor Drive was redirected to remove the highway. Tom McCall Waterfront Park replaced Harbor Drive and the Oregon Journal building. This is a small sample of the many changes that have obscured much of the Portland that was once known. (Courtesy authors.)
Reprinted from 'Vanishing Portland' by Ray and Jeanna Bottenberg (Pg. 1, Arcadia Publishing, 2008.)

Portland Rose Festival Parade

This Rose Festival Parade scene shows Portland's Kress department store. The chain of five-and-dime stores was founded by S. H. Kress in Nanticoke, Pennsylvania, in 1896 and grew nationwide. In 1964, ownership of the chain passed to Genesco, Inc., and by 1980 or 1981, the chain was liquidated. (Courtesy authors.)
Reprinted from 'Vanishing Portland' by Ray and Jeanna Bottenberg (Pg. 17, Arcadia Publishing, 2008.)

Swetland & Son Candy Shop

This undated early photograph shows the front of Swetland and Son, a well-advertised candy shop that was located at 292½ Washington Street. The Swetland candy shop was operated by W. K. Rayl in 1927 and Edward Savan in 1928 and apparently went out of business after 1928. (Courtesy Mark Moore.)
Reprinted from 'Vanishing Portland' by Ray and Jeanna Bottenberg (Pg. 28, Arcadia Publishing, 2008.)

Portland's Slabtown Pg. 19

This 1890s image shows a Chinese man fishing in Guild’s Lake. Many Chinese vegetable gardens were next to the lake. Nearby Johnson Creek Gulch was home to Native American encampments and, for approximately two decades starting in the 1880s, was also home to Chinese vegetable farmers. An intriguing June 25, 1898, Oregonian story gives a glimpse into how those two communities lived side-by-side—telling of Native Americans camping near Raleigh to sell baskets and “the daily appearance in front of the tent of a Chinese gardener, from whom they buy the vegetables to last them through the day.” Sanborn maps from 1889 show that the gulch was partially infilled by 1889. Several bridges crossed the gulch. “Bluffs” are shown on Twenty-first and Northrup Streets and on Eighteenth Street from M to O Streets. Many buildings are described as “on leased ground and of a poor character” and the land as “low ground—pond in winter.” A Chinese laundry is on Raleigh Street and a Chinese shanty at Thirteenth and Pettygrove Streets. (OHS-bb016278.)

Reprinted from 'Portland's Slabtown' by Mike Ryerson, Norm Gholston, and Tracy J. Prince, foreword by Tim Hills (Pg. 19, Arcadia Publishing, 2013.)

Portland's Slabtown, Pg. 21

Chinese men had limited opportunities and were restricted from many jobs. They found land
that was prone to seasonal flooding from swelling creeks or lakes—land not likely to be farmed
by white residents—and established vegetable gardens all over town. Evidence from numerous
Oregonian articles reveals that Chinese farmers lived in and farmed Tanner Creek Gulch, Sylvan,
Albina, Mount Tabor, and all around Slabtown (in Johnson Creek Gulch, Balch Creek Gulch, and
around Guild’s Lake). These 1899 photographs (above and below) show the “shanties” of Chinese farmers. Chinese gardeners supplied produce to Portland’s residents for at least four decades. However, anti-Chinese
sentiment was strong. On March 12, 1886, the Ku Klux Klan destroyed many Chinese farms around
Guild’s Lake, stole money, destroyed crops, and burned buildings. The Oregonian speculated that
the destruction was the work of Slabtown or Albina “curs.” (OHS-bb010045; bb010046.)

Reprinted from 'Portland's Slabtown' by Mike Ryerson, Norm Gholston, and Tracy J. Prince, foreword by Tim Hills (Pg. 21, Arcadia Publishing, 2013.)

Chinese Huts

(See note above.)

Ben Holladay's Portland Street Railway of 1872

Portland’s first streetcar line was Ben Holladay’s Portland Street Railway of 1872, a horsecar operation, which ran on single trackage along First Avenue in downtown. In what may well be the oldest extant photograph of a Portland streetcar, No. 1 runs on an unpaved First Avenue. The street was decorated in commemoration of the completion of the Northern Pacific Railroad in September 1883. Eight new double-ended cars had just been added to the system, along withpassing tracks like the ones in this photograph.

Reprinted from 'Portland's Streetcars' by Richard Thompson (Pg. 9, Arcadia Publishing, 2006.)

Rose Festival 1913

Several parades were scheduled again for the 1913 Rose Festival. Among the entries in the Grand Parade of Decorated Horse and Vehicles on Thursday, June 12 was this car owned by a Mrs. Staples. But it was not the Electric Parade providing the fireworks this year. A fire broke out in the top stories of the J.G. Mack & Co.’s furniture store on Fifth and Stark Streets. Roaring tongues of fire were seen. Some viewers were drenched, not by rain, but by a hose that split in midair, sending torrents of water on the people below and some of the floats passing beneath. (Courtesy Portland Rose Festival Foundation.)

Reprinted from 'Portland Rose Festival' by George R. Miller and the Portland Rose Festival Foundation
(Pg. 15, Arcadia Publishing, 2013.)

Portland Rose Festival

One of the mysterious figures from early festivals was Rex Oregonus. This Carnival King was selected from the business community by the Rose Festival president and general manager. His identity was kept secret behind a beard and a mask. He was revealed in different ways, including on a float in the Electric Parade, such as the one shown, or at a Grand Rex Ball. He sometimes arrived at the Rose Festival via a horse-drawn carriage or riding on a barge on the Willamette River. (Courtesy Portland Rose Festival Foundation.)

Reprinted from 'Portland Rose Festival' by George R. Miller and the Portland Rose Festival Foundation
(Pg. 12, Arcadia Publishing, 2013.)

For more historic photos of Portland, click here.