We’ve come across another clue that helps us visualize the area on the east bank of the Willamette River opposite the northern end of Ross Island, home to the most popular swimming hole in early Portland. This spring we’ve been writing and thinking about Bundy’s Baths, which we discovered following a thread of interest spun by an album we received of 100-year-old photos of canoeing the Willamette in downtown Portland.
From the 1890s until the mid 19-teens, Bundy’s was an important eastside portal to the river, regularly hosting more than 1,000 swimmers on a hot summer day. Changing facilities, a snack bar, diving platforms, docks to hang out with friends and an enclosed swimming area made up the “bath house” and were afloat along the bank, anchored to piers that held them in place.
Here’s a detail from the Sanborn Fire Insurance Company map of this area from 1901. In these early days, Sanborn mapped 12,000 U.S. communities to help fire insurance underwriters evaluate risk by showing the location and type of structures, water mains and hydrants that were present. Today, we love them because they are a snapshot in time and allow us to visualize places in that era. Have a good look at this one and then we’ll discuss.
Detail from Plate 127, Sanborn Map Company, 1901. Click to enlarge. This and other Sanborn maps of the vicinity can be accessed here through the Library of Congress.
Remember that construction of the Ross Island Bridge in 1925-1926 completely remade this landscape: the bridge essentially follows the path of Ellsworth Street, which was renamed Woodward in 1910.
Interesting to note the contour lines and the steepness between the upper line of bank and the lower line of bank, a slope angle that remains today in that area. Back then, people used a stairway to get up and down from the river.
Advertisements to Bundy’s—and later to the mid-river swimming platform and dance floor known as Windemuth—directed visitors to take the Brooklyn streetcar to the foot of Ellsworth Street where they could proceed to the water…presumably down those stairs.
Note that the structures were afloat. This makes sense. Periodic news stories about spring high water reported on Bundy’s buildings and other floating residences periodically being washed away downstream. It was a temporary community, of necessity.
The structures to the north were old then, holding disused machinery from the Inman-Poulsen Mill. The main portion of the mill was located downstream farther north along the bank, where the river was deeper and ocean-going freighters could tie up to take on lumber from the mill. Note how Sanborn observed the roof of one old building was corrugated iron roofing…always thinking fire risk.
The large house in the upper right is still standing today: the Poulsen House, built for Johan Poulsen, partner with Robert D. Inman, who had a very similar house nearby at SE 6th and Woodward that was demolished in 1958 to make room for a parking lot. The presence of the Poulsen house in relation to where the swimming took place helps us locate ourselves today.
If we could zoom out a bit on this Sanborn plate and look to the north, you would see all of the other east-west streets in the area—Grant, Sherman, Caruthers—essentially ended at the top of the bank (or ran into the Inman-Poulsen sawmill) where it dropped off to the river. We’d also see Stephens Slough (fed by Brooklyn Creek) which filled almost as far east as SE 10th Avenue that would flood whenever the river rose, where nothing was built, even though there were lot lines and streets.
There are more clues yet to find about this place, and maybe photos. We’ll keep looking.
There was a lot going on on the East Bank, south of Stephens Slough/Brooklyn Creek. The escarpment was mined by OWP in 1902/1903 and the spoils were used to fill parts of the slough , Water Avenue and the railroad embankment that cut off Oaks Bottom from the Willamette. The Sanborns are great but unfortunately don’t include topographic lines.
Thanks Jim! I’d love to learn more about this stretch of the Willamette. I’ll edit the post to name the slough appropriately. For anyone interested in reading more about Stephens Slough and Brooklyn Creek–and seeing an overlay of today’s map on 1901–check out this link to the Brooklyn Neighborhood Association: https://brooklyn-neighborhood.org/2020/07/08/what-happened-to-brooklyn-creek/