Filling the eastside gulches: “The last stand of the frontier in Portland”

Yes, we’re diverging a bit from old houses, but our recent foray into Portland’s lower northeast side has been interesting, plus at least a couple of our readers asked a good question: so when did that happen?

We know from our recent look at the 1909 Sanborn maps that the western edge of Portland’s eastside represented a major challenge to turn-of-the-last-century developers and engineers. Everywhere the land met the waters of the Willamette and its tributaries–and in the upslope transition to the relative plateau we consider today’s eastside–the land was marked by gulches, gullies, ridgelines, swamps, seeps and seasonal creeks.

Sanborn maps from 1909 referred to these areas simply as “deep gulch” which was less a geographic place name than a kind of short-hand for you’re gonna have some work to do if you want to build here. Sanborn didn’t show topographic lines, locate waterways or note other natural features. Just white space implying terra incognita. Interesting that for a fire insurance map, they didn’t consider the fire hazard coming up out of the gulch: lots of summer news stories from those early days of gulches on fire and nearby homes being threatened.

So if you’re like us, you want to know a little more about the extent and location of these places. Click around in the Sanborns below to look at some of the deep gulches in Eliot and Lower Albina. You’ll recognize the street names: some of them still don’t go through today because of old fashioned topography, and of course there are two major sports arenas, a hospital and a major interstate highway that have reshaped the landscape too. Still, have a look to set the table for the story of development that follows and the memories of a little boy who grew up playing in the gulches. And if you’re interested in learning more about Portland’s “hidden hydrology,” take a look at this cool set of maps we came across while looking around.

 

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Here’s the area around today’s Portland Public Schools building off Dixon in Sanborn Plate 287 from Volume 3 in 1909. If you venture around this vicinity today as we did recently, you’ll see the line of bank hasn’t moved a whole lot, but the bottom of the gulch has clearly been filled. For a comprehensive discussion of the development of this area, check out Roy Roos’s excellent book The History of Albina.

 

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In Plate 297 above, you see a channel toward the bottom of the map at the “intersection” (we use this term loosely because these were little more than gravel traces, not engineered roads at the time) of Wheeler and Broadway, and an east-west hollow up toward the top all along Weidler, where Sanborn notes that either the street or future buildings, or both, were planned to be built on posts. Bring on the engineers!

Let’s hear from Edward W. Coles, who grew up on Hancock Street, one block from this terra incognita, at today’s 77 NE Hancock. Coles was an adventurous schoolboy at the turn of the last century. His explorations and memories are collected in a self-published volume called These Were My Days. In just over 90 pages, he brings Portland day-to-day life of the 1900s into very clear focus. It’s great reading: a time capsule, really, that we’ll draw on again down the line. Here he introduces us to one of the most memorable afternoons of his entire life, which happened in Montgomery Gulch at the foot of Hancock Street.

One of my most unusual experiences happened when I was in my early teens. Ecology was not a concern in those days. They threw most anything down the hill into Montgomery Gulch. [My friend] Orlo and I would go down after school looking for anything we could use. Once, there was a piece of galvanized pipe 2 feet in diameter and 15 feet long which was lying on the side of the hill. He dared me to slide down the inside.

I put both arms against my sides and slid down. The only trouble was that the lower end had dug in the dirt and I couldn’t get out. I hollered and Orlo tried to move the pipe but it was too heavy. Then he got frightened and left, leaving me stuck in the pipe. I thought he was going for help. I wondered what would happen to me: maybe I would starve or maybe the rats would crawl into the pipe when they saw I was helpless. I screamed but my voice only echoed against the pipe. I was frantic, and I was sure that my days were numbered.

In the meantime, Orlo went to his home. Eventually my mother called me for dinner. No Edward. She had all the neighbors hunting, but no luck. Orlo had never said anything to anybody; he was too frightened. They called the police, but no luck. Then, one lady said that she saw me with Orlo early in the afternoon and that Orlo must know something. Finally the policeman frightened Orlo so badly that he confessed where I was. By that time it was getting dusk, and four or five men went down to the Gulch and pulled me out. I had been in the pipe for over two hours; I was almost out of my mind. I never thought I would get out of there alive. I was in bed for two days and had nightmares for months.

About that time they decided to put Montgomery Gulch to some good use, for valuable industrial property. They used hydraulic mining equipment: a giant hose and nozzle and lots of water at high pressure. A drain was made to the Willamette River, but after several weeks they had dead carp. The odor was awful. However, they eventually got it all washed down and smooth, all near the railroad and the river.”

Montgomery Gulch was a geographic place–you can see it there in Sanborn 287–and it was perceived as a major impediment to development. Named for James B. Montgomery (1832-1900), a railroad and real estate business leader and Oregon legislator who was a force behind the development of Lower Albina. Here’s a story from The Oregonian on November 13, 1914 describing ongoing challenges with filling Montgomery Gulch (note the salute to young Coles and his playmates down in the third paragraph):

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While these rough places on the bluffs may have meant adventure (and a scary afternoon) for young Coles, real estate developers had bigger issues. For them, the transportation and infrastructure challenges meant property with less value, and obstacles for higher value properties they were trying to sell. Gulches elsewhere in Portland were being converted to sewers draining directly into the Willamette. Some were open garbage dumps. Others were bridged by long trestles for roadways or rails. Whatever the strategy, a growing Portland needed more flat land and was ready to do whatever it took to solve the gulch problem. Here’s a quote from The Oregonian on March 3, 1905 that summed up the sentiment of the day:

“Around Vancouver Avenue and Weidler and Victoria streets is a deep gulch that runs down from Irvington. Into the gulch is dumped debris of all kinds. A row of buildings backing upon the gulch are said to be without proper sewerage. Complaints and remonstrances to the authorities have availed naught, say the neighbors.”

And a letter to the editor from November 6, 1912:

“Why could not all the refuse be dumped in some deep gulch and then have a crew of men grading on the mountain side closeby and dumping their earth on the garbage? Earth will purify any putrefaction it comes in contact with. Signed, O. Hempstead”

To the question of differential property values of gulch vs. non-gulch—and who pays the cost of improving infrastructure—some developers wanted to put the entire cost only on those owners whose sloped property was in need of improvement. Many on the eastside argued to spread the cost across all owners who would benefit.

Ultimately, as Portland’s population grew and property values increased, the city figured out how to contract the substantial grading and fill work. Fill was brought in from elsewhere on the eastside, and the city undertook a major project of widening and lighting Northeast Broadway to coincide with opening of the Broadway Bridge on April 22, 1913. Here’s an article from June 30, 1912 about big changes to the gulches, the streetcar line, and to Broadway itself:

6-30-1912 Fills Planned

By the time the Broadway Bridge opened, most of the curbs and streets were in place up here in Alameda. Sewer lines were in and streetcar lines and local businesses were starting to bloom. The grid was in place, the gulches filled, and the first steps were taken on the uncertain path to the future.

2 responses

  1. Dear Doug, Here is Robert Frost’s poem “A Brook in the City”, so appropriate to your writing.

    A Brook in the City

    The farmhouse lingers, though averse to square With the new city street it has to wear A number in. But what about the brook That held the house as in an elbow-crook? I ask as one who knew the brook, its strength And impulse, having dipped a finger length And made it leap my knuckle, having tossed A flower to try its currents where they crossed. The meadow grass could be cemented down From growing under pavements of a town; The apple trees be sent to hearth-stone flame. Is water wood to serve a brook the same? How else dispose of an immortal force No longer needed? Staunch it at its source With cinder loads dumped down? The brook was thrown Deep in a sewer dungeon under stone In fetid darkness still to live and run — And all for nothing it had ever done Except forget to go in fear perhaps. No one would know except for ancient maps That such a brook ran water. But I wonder If from its being kept forever under, The thoughts may not have risen that so keep This new-built city from both work and sleep.

    Leslie

    On Sun, Jan 17, 2016 at 10:15 PM, Alameda Old House History wrote:

    > Doug posted: “Yes, we’re diverging a bit from old houses, but our recent > foray into Portland’s lower northeast side has been interesting, plus at > least a couple of our readers asked a good question: so when did that > happen? We know from our recent look at the 1909 S” >

  2. Very interesting. So the question is, when the earthquake occurs, what will happen to those streets and buildings that are on the fill material? I wonder if the emergency services planning folks know the history of the big gulches.

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