While there is no evidence that Elwood Wiles built any homes in the Alameda Park neighborhood, as the primary contractor responsible for building sidewalks and curbs here and across Portland’s eastside, he had a major influence on preparing the setting for neighborhood life. The telltale sign of his company’s work is stamped into sidewalks across the city. And he lived here in Alameda at the peak of his business success in the late teens.
Elwood Wiles was born in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada on August 4, 1874 and came to Portland in 1886. In 1896, after graduating high school, the ambitious young Wiles started with the John P. Sharkey Co., a local harness maker, working first as a clerk, then traveling salesman, and ultimately becoming general manager. About the time that business was sold, Portland was experiencing a major building boom, and Wiles saw an opportunity. With new subdivisions, streets and neighborhoods popping up all over, he went into the concrete sidewalk business. In the early 19-teens, Wiles spawned the Portland Glazed Cement Sewer Pipe Company and gradually expanded his business beyond sidewalks and curbs, to encompass all types of engineering and construction related to streets, water and sewer mains, etc. He was active across the river in Vancouver, Wash. as well, and built sidewalks and curbs throughout that city during the same years.
The Polk City Directory of 1917 lists Wiles as President of Pacific Timber Cruising. At that point, Wiles and his wife Grace Humphrey Wiles and their son Elwood Wiles, Jr., lived in a very comfortable home (one of my favorites) on Northeast Bryce Street in the Olmsted Park addition (today considered part of the Alameda neighborhood). In 1918, his occupation is listed as partner in a stocks and bonds business, but references also show that he was serving as a “concrete expert” advising the start-up Paquet Concrete Shipbuilding Company. And he was active in social activities as a Mason, a member of the Multnomah Club, and a member of the Irvington Club. Apparently all that concrete helped him make a fortune.
In the election of May 1918, Wiles ran unsuccessfully for State Representative. In a series of candidate sketches before the election, the Oregon Journal expressed its distaste:
“He has never held public office nor does his record suggest any particular qualifications for the legislature. The city has had much difficulty in compelling Wiles to live up to his agreements for the maintenance of pavements which he laid in Kenton and Irvington and the city attorney was recently ordered to bring suit against his bondsmen.”
The sketch also indicated that he held municipal contracts beginning in 1903 for street paving and other work, and was at one time active in city and county politics.
In those days, there were 12 representatives elected for the 18th Representative District. And Wiles was one of 37 candidates vying for the 12 positions. After the votes were counted, Wiles had come in a distant 28th.
Even though he was not elected to the legislature, Wiles continued to be successful in business. But fortunes made in the teens and early 20s were lost in the 1930s, and Wiles career followed the same arc. The 1930 Census shows him and Grace living in a rented apartment in Northwest Portland; his occupation listed as “salesman.”
Wiles’ obituary (Oregon Journal, Wednesday, December 5, 1956, page 6) was titled “Sign Man Succumbs.” The article notes that he built many of the sidewalks on Portland’s east side. But his major identity in his final years was the sign business. For the last 15 years of his life, Elwood and Grace ran the Elwood Wiles Co., a business in illuminated traffic signs and fixtures, from their small apartment in southwest Portland. He retired and sold the business at age 80.
Wiles died December 3, 1956 and is buried in Portland . Grace died December 14, 1967 and is buried in Salt Lake City. Their son Elwood Wiles Jr. died in California in 1983, at age 82.