Rest of the Story: The Lost House at 33rd and Fremont

Our recent post about the old gravel pit and landfill at NE 33rd and Fremont produced some interesting mail and conversation that helps complete the picture of the house that once stood at the southwest corner of that intersection.

First, a photo from frequent AH source and long-time neighborhood resident John Hamnett showing the house. John and his father were out in the neighborhood with a camera on the sunny day following the great Columbus Day Storm of Friday, October 12, 1962 documenting damage and downed trees. John remembers they came upon this toppled fence and wall on the south side of the house. The blue and white enclosure surrounded the swimming pool. The Oregon Encyclopedia entry about the storm reports wind speeds were clocked as high as 170 mph.

Looking north at the southwest corner of NE 33rd and Fremont, October 13, 1962. Photo courtesy of John Hamnett.

Next, we re-discovered this 1954 photo looking north up the hill toward Fremont from the corner with Klickitat. When you click into this image, you can see both the mid-century modern house that was eventually removed from the site, and the house behind it, which still stands. Looks like a vacant lot just downslope.

Photo Courtesy of City of Portland Archives, image A2005-001.955. Click to enlarge.

And last, this helpful comment from Judy Wathen, who used to own the house, and remembers it from its heyday of the 1950s.

My husband and I were the ones who bought the house with the swimming pool on the corner of 33rd and Fremont in the ’90’s. Before we bought it we had two different geological engineering firms test the soil and evaluate it’s stability. Both said that it was stable and leveling the house could easily be done. Both were wrong. The cost to stabilize the house was beyond our resources. Fortunately, a grade school classmate, Terry Emmert, offered to buy the house and move it to become the first remolded home on the Street of Dreams. We sold the lot with all the engineering studies to a builder who hopefully did what was required to stabilize the land before he build what is there today.

A little bit more history about the house. I grew up in Laurelhurst in the 50’s-60’s. Our family drove by that house regularly on the way to Riverside Country Club, where we were members. My father told us about the house. My father’s friend, who owned the well known Fox Furniture Co., built the house with the swimming pool  as a wedding gift to his daughter and her husband and that it was built and finished to the highest quality. That certainly was true, except for understanding the engineering of the foundation.

Gravel & Garbage: A history of NE 33rd and Fremont

Over the years, we’ve heard the notion that there was once a gravel pit and then a garbage dump at the corner of NE 33rd and Fremont. We remember in the 1990s when the house at the southwest corner—the one with the old swimming pool out back—was removed because of major foundation problems, which seems like reasonable evidence of the underlying problem.

But we wanted to know more, so we tracked down the details. Let’s start with a photo to put you in context.

Here is the area in a 1925 aerial photo, the earliest one we know of. There’s lots to look at here, but start at the large vacant lot in the lower right hand corner. The street running east-west is Fremont and the vacant lot just below it to the south is actually three blocks, between today’s NE 32nd Avenue on the left and “E 33rd” on the right. 32nd Place (then known as Glenn Avenue before the Great Renumbering) does not yet go through.

Detail from a 1925 aerial photo showing the intersection of Fremont and 33rd, two labels added for reference. Click to enlarge. Aerial photo courtesy of City of Portland Archives.

That’s a pretty steep slope to the south (just ask local kids with sleds hoping for snowfall) which is one reason it’s one of the few unbuilt pieces of ground you can see in this photo.

Back in the late 1890s and up until about 1910, that slope was heavily excavated for gravel, which makes sense. It’s right along the crest of the Alameda Ridge, which after all is one giant gravel deposit left over from the cataclysmic Lake Missoula Floods of 13,000-15,000 years ago. The Fremont gravel pit provided tons of rock for a young and growing Portland, which was busy building roads. In those early years, 33rd and Fremont even became known as Gravelly Hill, a name that stuck around for decades (we try to slip that name into a conversation whenever we can, you should try it just to keep it alive).

In the photo, you can see the disturbed area at the top of the slope all along the southern edge of Fremont. That was the top of the gravel pit. A few years later it was also the top of the garbage dump.

In 1910, Benjamin Lombard, who developed the Olmsted Park plat which you can see just up the hill in this photo (now considered part of the Alameda neighborhood), sued the city for violating its own ordinance that prohibited gravel pits within 100 feet of a public street. Fremont was a city-owned street, plus the city owned a good chunk (but not all) of that vacant lot to the south too. East 33rd had long been known simply as the County Road and was the county’s responsibility.

A letter to county commissioners in August 1910 reported “the roadway at Thirty-third and Fremont streets is in danger of caving in because of excavation in the Fremont gravel pit.” The county passed this complaint along to the city, which was also hearing from Lombard about the same time. Due to the undercutting of the slope required by the gravel mining operations, Fremont Street was just about ready to slide down the hill.

This 1910 kerfuffle ended the slope’s official function as a gravel pit, though other places—notably a nearby hollow on privately owned land at the corner of today’s NE 37th and Klickitat—stepped in to meet the gravel need.

Fast forward to the early 1920s. Portland was booming and rapidly running into a garbage disposal problem. The city’s Guilds Lake Incinerator, located in Northwest Portland at NW 25th and Nicolai, was operating at full capacity and the city needed to find another way to deal with garbage.

William G. Helber, Portland’s Superintendent of Garbage Disposal, had visited Seattle and seen a new technique called “sanitary fill,” whereby garbage was mixed with dirt and buried in layers on uneven ground. This had the double “benefit” of disposing of garbage and leveling off land that could then be used or sold for other uses.

When Helber looked out across the Portland landscape, he fixed on several locations he believed would function well as sanitary fills.

 

From The Oregonian, January 16, 1923

Because the city didn’t own the downslope part of the hill, it took some creative deal making with the adjacent private owner to make it all work. Downslope owners Joe and Frances Brooks also owned the gravel pit at 37th and Klickitat. They agreed to let the city use the lower end of the Fremont pit for the garbage fill as long as the city would also fill up their old gravel pit on Klickitat with garbage. This site became known as the “Beaumont Fill.” The Brooks were then free to sell that as viable real estate to the developer who wanted to build houses there.

Not everyone was happy with the idea of burying garbage so close to existing homes. Alameda neighbors, who were always ready to protest (schools, camps, churches), were particularly skeptical. But Helber took them out on the ground to have a look at what he had in mind and the neighbors seemed satisfied to give it a try.

From The Oregonian, January 20, 1923

Starting in February 1923 through June 1924, all non-commercial trash from Portland’s eastside was hauled to Alameda to fill up the old Fremont gravel pit.

From The Oregonian, February 7, 1923

When the summer of 1923 rolled around, everyone held their breath (and their noses) wondering if the heat and the garbage would create a smelly problem. No news must have been good news, because there was no further coverage.

 

From The Oregonian, June 6, 1923

 

Here’s a great photo from the early 1930s that shows both of the completed sanitary fills (and so much else to look at). We love this photo.

Aerial oblique photo from the early 1930s shows both former fill sites and a lot more, including a very brushy Wilshire Park and the new Beaumont School. Click to enlarge this amazing photo.

In 1924, one year after opening when it became time to shut down the Fremont Sanitary Fill, the city realized it had trained all of east Portland to bring its trash to Alameda, and that it would probably take some retraining and even some enforcement to break the habit.

From The Oregonian, May 30, 1924

In a final accounting contained in his January 1926 report to City Commissioner Charles A. Bigelow, Garbage Disposal Bureau Director Helber summarized the following statistics for the Fremont Street Sanitary Fill:

  • Estimated number of loads of garbage received: 1,618
  • Average number of loads received per day: 62 ½
  • Average tons of garbage dumped each day: 136
  • Estimated tons of garbage dumped: 3,541 ½
  • Average yards of dirt received per day: 3 ½
  • Total salary of all dump workers per month: $442
  • Monthly installment on new tractor used on site: $121.25

That’s a lot of garbage. Sixty-two loads arriving at the top of the hill on Fremont Street each day for more than a year, dumped over the edge, spread by tractor down the slope and covered over with a little dirt.

The city continued to use the sanitary fill method in other areas as it planned a larger incinerator—a long drawn out process because no neighborhood wanted it in their backyard—which was ultimately built in 1932 in St. Johns and is known today as Chimney Park.

But in the meantime while incinerator planning and location were being fought about in City Hall, the fill method was gaining critics. Here’s news of neighbors at NE 37th and Alberta (today’s Alberta Court) complaining about the stench to City Council.

From The Oregonian, October 20, 1927

Back at the Fremont fill in the early 1940s, home construction was just getting underway. Here’s a photo from 1943.

Detail from a 1943 aerial photo, green outline added to show former gravel pit and fill area.

Three Mile History Walk | Follow the Broadway Streetcar

Here’s a neighborhood walk that makes a nice outing and puts you on the well-worn pathway of earlier years—a history-hunt of sorts to bridge past and present and imagine a time when Alameda was younger and connected to downtown courtesy of the clanky, drafty, dependable Broadway Streetcar.

Broadway Streetcar 568 at the end of the line, 29th and Mason. This photo was taken soon after the line was built in 1911, prior to construction of homes and infrastructure.

You can enter this walking loop just about anywhere on the course of the streetcar’s roundabout transit through the neighborhood, and you can head either north or south. But, just to be orderly about it, how about starting at the end of the line: NE 29th and Mason. That’s where the Broadway streetcar stopped, where the motorman would step outside for a smoke and a look at his watch.

Here’s the same view at NE 29th and Mason, about 1912-13. Note paved streets, absence of mud and brush, and presence of two buildings. The house to the left stands today and is 4206 NE 29th. The building on the right was the Alameda Land Company tract office (a temporary structure at the southeast corner of the intersection), where prospective buyers who exited the streetcar could meet with salesmen and look at subdivision maps. Check out this post which has other views of this intersection and more about the early Alameda Park neighborhood.

From the end of the line, walk south on 29th to Regents, where the streetcar passed through the “Bus and Bicycle Only” notch at Regents and Alameda. The streetcar turned right and went down the hill here, and you should too, following Regents to NE 24th Avenue where you’ll turn left (south). Continue south on 24th to Fremont and then turn right on Fremont to go west for a couple blocks, just like the old 809 shown below. See if you can orient yourself in just about the same place.

Broadway line car 809 rounds the corner at 24th and Fremont, looking east, 1940. Courtesy of Portland City Archives A2011-007.65. Click to enlarge for a better view. The Safeway building is today’s Union Bank. The sign for Alameda Drugs is hanging on the side of today’s Lucca restaurant. Here’s a link to more views of the intersection at NE 24th and Fremont.

At NE 22nd, turn left (south) and enter the long southbound leg of the circuit. Note just how wide the street is: a clue that you are on the streetcar route.

Detail from 1945 Portland Traction Company Map. The green + signs illustrate bus lines. The yellow lines are streetcars. By 1948 Portland’s streetcars had all been removed.

After a good, long straight stretch, when you hit Tillamook and 22nd, you’ll find a modest “S” curve, where the streetcar zigged and zagged on its way south to connect with Broadway. Follow along just for fun. But instead of turning west on Broadway (right) like the streetcar did on its way downtown, turn left (east) and walk back to NE 24th, where you turn left (north) and head back through the neighborhood. Now you’re back on the path of the Broadway Car—the northbound side of the circuit—and headed toward the end of the line.

Believe it or not, this is looking southwest at the southwest corner of Broadway and 24th in the summer of 1929, before Broadway was widened. See the streetcar rails sweeping from west to north here in the lower right corner? This service station sits where Spin Laundry Lounge is in 2018. The man holding the number works for the city; the number designates that tract of property for further reference. Click to enlarge. Courtesy of City of Portland Archives, image A2209-009.3407.

Continue north on 24th, cross Fremont and turn right (east) on Regents, where you go back up the hill on your way to the end of the line. Here’s a cool view of NE 24th and Fremont looking north, taken in about 1921. Can you line up in the footsteps of the photographer?

NE 24th and Fremont looking north, taken in 1921. Courtesy of Portland City Archives, image A2009-009.1858

 

At the top of Regents, pass through the bus notch again and go a few more blocks to Mason, and you’ve arrived at the end of the line. Here’s a photo looking south on NE 29th, from the southeast corner of Mason. See if you can line up in the footsteps of history: pretty much everything but the streetcar and the rails are still visible today.

 

Turn-by-turn:

Start: 29th and Mason

  1. Walk south on 29th to Regents, turn right and go down the hill.
  2. At 24th, turn left (south off of Regents).
  3. Walk to Fremont and 24th, turn right on Fremont (west off of 24th).
  4. Walk two blocks on Fremont and turn left on 22nd (south off of Fremont).
  5. Keep walking south on 22nd to Tillamook.
  6. Navigate the zig-zag at Tillamook and stay south on 22nd to Broadway, turn left (east off of 22nd).
  7. Walk east on Broadway to 24th, turn left (north off of Broadway).
  8. Walk north on 24th, crossing Fremont, and turn right on Regents (east off of 24th).
  9. Walk up the hill on Regents to 29th, turn left through the notch (north off of Regents).
  10. Walk north on 29th to Mason and you have reached the end of the streetcar line.
  11. Tip your hat to the motorman and the generations of Alamedans who depended on this train.

 

Some things to look for on your walk…

Notice how 29th narrows on the north side of the intersection. The wider stretch of street to the south was necessary to accommodate the rails and the traffic. Have a good look at Northeast 22nd and you’ll notice how much wider it is than any of our north-south streets. There are other clues to be found in the alignment of power poles, and in the remnants of rail unearthed from time to time during street repairs.

 

A little more history about our streetcar…

Two generations of our neighbors grew up relying on the Broadway streetcar to take them where they needed to go. Ever-present, often noisy, sometimes too cold (or too hot), but always dependable, the Broadway car served Alameda loyally from 1910 to 1948.

Sensitive to the transport needs of its prospective customers, the Alameda Land Company financed construction of the rails and overhead electric lines that brought the car up Regents Hill to 29th and Mason. Developers all over the city knew access was one key to selling lots, particularly in the muddy and wild environs that Alameda represented in 1909.

In 1923, a trip downtown cost an adult 8 cents. Kids could buy a special packet of school tickets allowing 25 rides for $1. In 1932, a monthly pass for unlimited rides cost $1.25. Alamedans used the streetcar as a vital link to shopping, churchgoing, commuting to the office, trips to the doctor. Some even rode the line for entertainment. A few rode looking for trouble. And at least one elderly rider frequently took a nap in the front yard at the end of the line while waiting for the streetcar.

During the day, cars ran every 10 minutes, and Alamedans referred to them as “regular cars” or “trains.” During the morning and evening rush hours, additional cars called “trippers” were put into the circuit to handle additional riders. Trippers did not climb the hill to 29th and Mason, traveling only on the Fremont Loop to save time. At night, our line was one of the handful in Portland that featured an “owl car,” a single train that made the circuit once an hour between midnight and 5 a.m. Owl service was a special distinction. The downtown end of the line was Broadway and Jefferson.

The Broadway streetcar was replaced by bus on August 1, 1948. By 1950, all of Portland’s once ubiquitous streetcar lines were gone. In the early days of neighborhood life, our streetcar was indispensable. It was one catalyst that made development of Alameda possible. It linked us to downtown and to other neighborhoods near and far. To hear the stories of those who rode it frequently, it linked us to each other in a way too.

Here are a few other history walks you might enjoy.

Favorite views of NE 24th and Fremont

We love to find and collect old views that feed our curiosity and tell us something about the place we live. Today’s post assembles photos we’ve retrieved recently from a few archives that allow a look at changes at NE 24th and Fremont, which has always served as a kind of gateway to Alameda Park.

Here is the earliest view of this intersection that we’ve ever come across, taken in September 1921 from just north of Fremont, looking north along the Broadway Streetcar tracks toward Regents, with Ridgewood in the distance. It’s a good, sharp photo, so click into it and have a look around and we’ll take it apart in the way we usually do:

NE 24th and Fremont looking north, courtesy of Portland City Archives, image A2009-009.1858

This image is labeled “PRL&P tracks, September 1921.” Like so many of the images at City Archives, it was taken to document the engineering, in this case the road and track condition. Maybe it was those bricks adjacent to the track that look sunk and a hazard for car tires. Or maybe it was just documenting the street scene before other work began.

PRL&P was Portland Railway Light and Power: they ran the streetcar system and were in frequent cooperation and conflict with the city about infrastructure. The brickwork bordering the rails is a signature of the system. These days you can still see the rails during street maintenance or sewer construction, like just up the hill from here in 2014. Look carefully here and you can see the tracks round the corner at Regents and head east and up the hill.

Your first thought as you look at this might be that the down slope from Fremont north to Regents is not quite that steep. But go stand and look at it and you realize that it is. The focal length of the lens and the absence of houses along the street trick the eye.

An Alameda elder we interviewed a few years back told us that when he was a mischievous teenager in the mid 1940s, he once released the brake on a momentarily parked streetcar waiting at 24th and Fremont (the driver had gone into the pharmacy to use the facilities) and the streetcar absolutely knew there was a slope: it drifted driverless down from Fremont and made it most of the way around the corner on Regents before its gravity was spent.

Both houses pictured here are still place, the one on the right is 3808 NE 24th built in June 1921. On the left, 3803 NE 24th, which was still under construction in the fall of 1921 (is that a for sale sign out front?).

The cutbank you see at the end of the street is where Ridgewood, running east-west, cuts along the Alameda ridge.

In the foreground to the left you can see planks placed over the curb that allow a tractor or wheeled vehicle to turn into the farmyard, which looks like it includes a small orchard. This open stretch of land was pasture for cows and orchards, as we learned recently about the adjacent Homedale plat.

Here’s another favorite shot, from not too far away from our first photo, looking to the southwest, today’s Lucca and Garden Fever. We wrote about the life of this building a few years back. Check it out.

Looking southwest at the corner of NE 24th and Fremont, early 1920s. Note delivery bike visible behind power pole. OrHi 49061.

These next two are pretty amazing. They’re from City Archives and our guess is they accompanied the building permit request associated with construction of the building that now houses Alameda Dental and Union Bank, which was originally a Safeway. You can read more about that in the post we mentioned earlier, which includes a drawing of that building from its grand opening.

Check out the view from the air on this rainy winter day in 1935:

1935 Aerial of NE 24th and Fremont A2205-05.1421.2. Courtesy of Portland City Archives. Click to enlarge.

 

There’s so much here to observe and wonder about, it’s hard to know where to start. This is 14 years after the first image in this post, and you can see both houses on NE 24th pictured earlier, and clearly locate the path of the Broadway Streetcar. In fact, look close and you can see the actual streetcar stopped there at 24th and Fremont.

Check out the notable empty lots, and how about that forest where the Madeleine soccer field is today? A billboard put up on the corner at 25th probably advertises property for sale. The filling station at 24th and Fremont. A few people out walking. A sharp eye will locate the Eastman House on NE Stuart Drive. What jumps out at you?

Down on the ground, still contemplating the coming changes at the intersection, we have this view, from January 28, 1938, another killer tack-sharp photo from a 5 x 7 negative you’re going to want to explore:

Looking west on Fremont between NE 24th and NE 25th. Courtesy Portland City Archives, A2009-009.107

 

The same view in December 2018.

This 1938 image looks like it was taken from about where the front door of Alameda Dental is today. The elevation of the vacant lot to the left and its brushy slope is amazing. The building that today is Lucca—Alameda Drugs—sports the signs for Sunfreze Ice Cream and a pay phone, and the delivery bike is still there. Down the line is the shoe repair shop of John Rumpakis, a barber shop, and the stairs that lead up to the dentist on the second floor.

Across the street we have the Standard Oil service station that operated up into the 1970s and some people waiting for the Broadway streetcar.

Speaking of the streetcar, here’s another image we found, taken at this intersection in 1940.

Broadway line car 809 rounds the corner at 24th and Fremont, looking east, 1940. Courtesy of Portland City Archives A2011-007.65.

In this shot we can see the corner of the Standard Oil station in the far left; a new building in the lot on the northeast corner—partially hidden by the streetcar—where Childroots Daycare is today (which was a Hancock Gasoline station up until the mid 1970s); the new Safeway building that had just been built; and the sign mounted to corner of Alameda Drugs. No telling if the delivery bike is still there.

Do you have a photo of this intersection or memory you’d like to share? We’re always on the lookout.

Dairy & Orchards in the heart of Alameda | The Homedale Tract

Homedale is the name of the property plat—once part of an orchard and dairy—that occupies the landscape bounded roughly by Fremont and Ridgewood, between NE 19th and NE 24th. Today, it’s considered part of the Alameda neighborhood. Here’s a look at the geography.

Detail from the Homedale Plat, filed in 1921. Click to enlarge.

Think of a plat as a road map filed by developers for organizing property into individual lots and streets (read more about the relationship between plats and neighborhoods here). We all live somewhere in a plat and each has its own unique story, players and moment in history. We’ve created a category here on the blog (The Plats) to hold our ongoing exploration of these stories.

While today it’s an orderly grid of streets and homes dating from 1922, less than 100 years ago the sloping landscape just below Alameda ridge that you see here was an important part of Portland’s eastside agriculture. We’ve come across several interesting descriptions that will feed your curiosity and the way you think about this landscape. Read on, from local resident Rod Paulson written in January 1976:

“Before 1921 and 1922 when city lots were staked out, much of this was an apple orchard, the remnants of which can still be seen in some back yards. The trees grew right down to the edge of the Fremont Street [side]walk and there were several old buildings on the place, residential and otherwise, including a large farmhouse painted light brown which was located close to Fremont in the vicinity of 21st Avenue. This house dated back to the 1890s or before and people lived there in apparent comfort in a rural setting, yet in the midst of modern houses that [were being built] in all directions.”

“There was another farmhouse set back a considerable distance from the street more or less in the eastern part of the orchard, and a barn was situated opposite the end of 23rd Avenue.”

We’ve wondered about this: are isolated apple trees from the early orchard days still out there scattered across this part of the neighborhood? Can any readers confirm? In a happy coincidence, the Sabin Community Association has planted a small orchard of young trees near NE 19th and Mason, on ground that probably once was part of the old orchard:

The once and future orchard, near NE 19th and Mason, December 2018.

Owners Michael G. Munley and James T. Barron bought the future Homedale property in 1905 for $6,500 and kept it in agricultural use with an eye to eventual development, but market conditions didn’t make that worthwhile until the 1920s. Not coincidentally, Munley was son-in-law of E.Z. Ferguson, president of the Alameda Land Company which owned land just up the hill. Barron was a Ferguson business partner.

The Irvington Dairy operated from a barn situated at the northeast corner of NE 21st and Fremont from the 1890s until 1916 when a catastrophic fire destroyed much of the herd and the barn.

From the Oregon Journal, January 11, 1916. The address given–725 Fremont–is from Portland’s old addressing system and translates into the NE corner of 21st and Fremont. We did not find a follow-up news story about the fire investigation. The house remembered by Rod Paulson was home to dairy manager Grimm and his family.

Location of the former Irvington Dairy barn at NE 21st and Fremont, looking northeast, December 2018.

Between the terrible fire and an early 1920s resurgence in Portland’s real estate values, the time was nearing when Munley and Barron would execute the land use change and end the property’s agricultural past. In 1919, the Grimms and dairyman E.J. Bruns were selling off the last of the Munley herd:

From The Oregonian, March 30, 1919

A nearby dairy existed just to the east as well: the Pearson Place, the cow pasture where Alameda School was eventually built. The Pearson family operated their dairy there during this same time period and it too was subdivided into residential lots about the same time. You can read more about the Pearson Dairy and its time-traveling tree here (and we recommend putting on your walking shoes and your imagination to walk the perimeter of the farm).

Six years after the big fire at NE 21st and Fremont, Munley and Barron were underway with their plan to develop the property:

From The Oregonian, March 12, 1922

By the fall of 1922, the streets of Homedale had been carved into the south-facing slopes and the first homes had been built. Real estate ads even mentioned without explaining why that most lots had a fruit tree (but no mention of cows).

Interesting to note that prior to 1922, Regents Drive did not go all the way through to NE 21st because the orchard and open fields were in the way. Regents came down the hill and tee’d into NE 24th before heading south. Think of that next time you drive down Regents headed for NE 21st: the former orchard and pasture land you’re driving through.

If you’ve read this far, you deserve the reward of one of our all-time favorite news stories from that time illustrating the consequence of this early day change of land use from agriculture to residential (a subject that bears exploration in future posts). Dixon Place is the next subdivision to the west just a few blocks over, between Fremont to Shaver and from NE 15th to NE 19th, part of today’s Sabin neighborhood. What a great headline:

From The Oregonian, May 3, 1923

Dairies like the one at NE 21st and Fremont–and many more small dairies around town–occupied a unique niche in time as Portland grew between 1890 and the 19-teens. As population and growth exploded and property became more valuable for housing, the departure of the dairies was a bellwether of change. More from the front lines of subdivision-dairy conflict here. It’s a fascinating story.

Light Atop Mt. Hood

105 years ago tonight, Portland craned its neck and squinted to the east for a glimpse of a light atop Mt. Hood. Light rain fell in some places. But across Portland’s eastside at 10 o’clock p.m. many eyes were intently looking east.

During the previous week, an adventurous climbing party from the Portland YMCA had been making its way east first by interurban trolley car to Boring (along today’s Springwater Corridor) and then on foot and by automobile to Government Camp. It was no small task 105 years ago to reach the base of Mt. Hood—something we take for granted today—and the climbing party’s progress was noted in front page news coverage in The Oregonian.

The culmination of the group’s two weeks of hiking, camping and climbing, was to be a planned night-time ignition of 50 pounds of red flare powder atop Mt. Hood to signal all in Portland that the party had achieved its objective. The group carried bags of what reporters referred to as “redfire,” which was probably strontium nitrate powder, known to burn bright red: the same material as in modern road flares.

You have to read the build-up to this big event to appreciate the imaginativeness and chutzpah of this group, and the confusion and dueling stories that followed. Let’s start on July 15, before the group left for the mountain, as they were deciding that they would dig bunks atop the summit for a good night’s sleep.

From The Oregonian, July 15, 1913

 

The Oregon Journal sent reporters out across the eastside to talk to those who were watching. The next day, here’s what they reported, including eyewitness testimony from people who saw the redfire plainly.

From the Oregon Journal, July 22, 1913

But the real story of what happened, finally reported six days later when the group made it back to Portland, is a little more complicated, real and wonderful. Read on:

From The Oregonian, July 26, 1913 (click to enlarge)

With all the build up, neighbors were ready to see what they wanted to see, despite the sleet and the YMCA group’s turning back that night from the summit. Was it that people wanted to be part of something bigger than themselves, to close the distance between what was wild and the city? Or was it just the moon on a misty summer night?

Tonight at exactly 10 o’clock we’ll be watching.

Backstory of one street’s renaming: From Laura to Edgehill

In the joyful and serendipitous way so much research happens—bumping into one thing while looking for something else—we’ve run into a short article from April 1920 that sparked our curiosity about the renaming of a short street here in Alameda. Take a look:

From The Oregonian, April 7, 1920

Elsewhere here on AH you’ll find a piece we’ve written about the naming of Alameda’s streets. It seems all of the names in the Alameda Park plat have a connection with the founders of the Alameda Land Company: Hamblet, Dunckley, Bryce and Gile were either investors, family members or business partners of company president Edward Zest Ferguson. A bit self-important maybe, but not so unusual back in the day.

But Laura has always been a mystery. Glenn Avenue is a head-scratcher too, but that street—today known as NE 32nd Place—starts and ends in subdivisions well away from Alameda. Laura is a local name on an 800-foot long street that begins and ends descending the Alameda Ridge from Regents to Fremont.

Before we could get to the question of why her street was renamed, we first had to address the question of Laura: who was she? We’d looked before, but not hard enough. This time, equipped with a hunch and some genealogy tools, we found her.

Our namesake Laura was Laura Hamblet, daughter of Harry Hamblet, the money man behind the Alameda Land Company. Born in Astoria on February 22, 1895 to Harry L. and Mary A. Hamblet, the young Miss Hamblet was 14 years old when her family moved to Portland and her dad and his partners named a street after her. The Hamblets never lived in Alameda, though Laura must have always felt unusually connected to a place featuring streets with her own first and last names. The Hamblets lived in a fine large house on SE Harrison Street at 7th Avenue, which is now a parking lot.

Laura and her younger siblings Edwin and Mary (and their domestic helper, a young woman from Sweden named Anna Shalin) lived a comfortable life in their Harrison Street house. Based on the number of references to the Hamblets in the social pages of The Oregonian, Harry and Mary were successful and influential. While trying to get a sense of these people, we even ran into a photo of Laura Hamblet on the first day of riding season at the Portland Hunt Club, February 20, 1916. She was 21.

Miss Laura Hamblet. From The Oregonian, February 16, 1920.

With the first mystery solved—a question we bet hasn’t had a living answer for many years—we could move on to reading between the lines of the April 7, 1920 news story to figure out who, and why someone would want to rename Laura.

That trail led us to the City of Portland Archives and Record Center, which is a good place to find yourself if you’re out of living answers. The Oregonian reported that a petition had been raised in protest by residents of Laura Avenue, so we launched into microfilm of Public Works Department records from March and April 1920, and sure enough, there it was: a letter from Dr. Thomas Wynne Watts, resident of 874 Laura Avenue, today’s 2840 Edgehill Place (remember, Portland’s streets were renumbered in the early 1930s).

In 1920, just 10 years after Alameda was platted and before the homebuilding boom of the 1920s, Thomas and Helen Watts and their family of five were the only residents with a Laura Avenue address. Read his letter carefully:

Letter from Thomas Wynne Watts to Portland City Council, March 5, 1920. Courtesy City of Portland Archives.

So, did you catch that? Watts and his family had been ordering their groceries by phone, some of which were probably delivered by bike from Anderson’s Grocery at 24th and Fremont, which was the done thing in those days.

That fact alone got our attention, a pre-Amazon moment of local delivery. Imagine the delivery person either on a bike or in a “machine” as autos were called then, mistakenly heading off to Laurel Avenue, wondering why someone almost all the way to the top of the hill on Southwest Vista, or on a short two-block street just south of Johnson Creek near SE 60th, would be ordering groceries to be delivered from the Alameda neighborhood.

Or maybe that was just Watts’s cover story for not liking having to explain to his colleagues that he lived on Laura. Who knows. The piece in The Oregonian implies they just didn’t like the name. Did the Watts know Laura Hamblet? Possibly.

Watts was a well-known Portland dermatologist who moved to Laura Avenue in 1919, just one year before filing the petition, and moved away to southwest Portland in the early 1930s. His children—son Holbrook and daughter Hannahsue—were elementary school age at that time and must have ranged free across the empty sloping lots of Laura Avenue before houses began popping up in the mid-1920s. In a sub-current of personal tragedy that surely eclipsed the petition and renaming, the Watts four-year-old daughter Sara Margaret died in the home on March 9, 1920, four days after her father submitted the petition letter, following a short bout of influenza. A younger son, Thomas Jr., who also became a doctor, was born in the house in 1921.

Four weeks after receiving the petition from Dr. Watts, Commissioner of Public Works Asbury L. Barbur responded with this recommendation to City Council:

Courtesy City of Portland Archives

City Council agreed and on April 21, 1920 unanimously passed Ordinance 37170. Laura was out and Edgehill was in.

City Ordinance 37170, Courtesy City of Portland Archives

No explanation remains of how Watts came up with Edgehill, or other possibilities he may have considered (did he think of Holbrook, or Hannahsue, or Sara?). The topography of the street seems self-explanatory enough.

Nor is there record of how Miss Hamblet felt about the renaming. Later that year she married Fred Breske and they began their family—welcoming her own daughter Laura—and lived out their lives here in Portland. Laura Hamblet Breske died in October 1963. Did she ever come back to visit her namesake street?

Evidence of Laura Avenue is still around, stamped clearly into the curbs of Edgehill Place, reminding us of another time and a different reality.

And lest you think we planned to write about two young women whose names are cast in concrete all in the same week: nope, just an unusual confluence of research and observation.

Long live Josie and Laura.

Long live the ghost of Crane Street

Regular readers will remember our recent post about the mystery of Crane Street, that interesting short and narrow road that disappears weirdly into a fence along the eastern curb line of NE 21st Avenue, and then re-emerges briefly in vestigial pieces a few blocks east on NE 24th. It’s a fascinating story of dueling subdivision plats, activist neighbors and the redrawing of maps.

Recently, we heard from neighbors along the street who knew something interesting must have happened, but weren’t quite sure what. Here’s a note from Joel Schipper on NE 24th:

We were thrilled to see your story on Crane Street — that’s our driveway/curb in the two pictures in the blog.  We’ve seen the writing in the concrete before, and in the four years we’ve lived in this house, we’ve discovered the remaining bit of Crane street over between 19th and 21st.  But we never knew the whole story — so thank you!

As a bit of ‘extra info,’ when we moved in, we found that this driveway shared with our neighbor, was essentially useless in that neither of could drive an SUV, sedan, or truck up it without scraping on the bottom, unless we essentially went up at a 45 degree ‘sideways’ angle.  So the ‘newish’ looking concrete in the picture is our collaborative hiring of a contractor to re-contour the driveway — after how many years?  Since 1924, which would be soon after this portion of Crane Street disappeared?  Both of us then had to rebuild our side walls — ours is pictured, and we hope this Spring to cover it from the bottom up with a climbing ‘native’ plant (Yarrow?), and with a spilling native — Kinickinick is already planted.

One last tidbit … two years ago on “National Night Out” in August, we hosted a block gathering on what was billed as the “Ghost of Crane Street,” a BBQ in the wide driveway.  We had neighbors who had lived on the block nearly 30 years and had never met each other!  And most were unaware of the Crane Street “driveway.”

We think it’s so cool how history has brought these neighbors together like never before, and that the ghost of Crane Street is alive in imaginations.

Right now we’re working on the mystery of Laura Avenue, the street that disappeared from use after Elwood Wiles and Company had already set the name in stone in the grid of Alameda street names. What was all that about? Who was Laura? Who suggested Edgehill?

Inquiring minds want to know.

The mystery of Crane Street

On a recent walk, we encountered some buried Northeast Portland history that demanded investigation and made us think of a scene from an old movie.

Do you remember that last shot at the end of the original 1968 Planet of the Apes when a distraught, time-traveling Charlton Heston collapses to the beach as the camera pans back and in the distance we see the top of the Statue of Liberty, half-buried, sticking up through the sand revealing the beachy landscape he was riding across was actually the middle of New York Harbor? Kind of like that, but not really. We did not fall to the ground.

In this case, sticking out of the pavement and sidewalk in an otherwise normal neighborhood block were remnant clues to a stretch of street that no longer exists: NE Crane Street where it once passed through the southwest corner of the Alameda Park subdivision. It was called East Crane Street before Portland’s Great Renumbering created the four quarters of the city we’re familiar with today. Take a look at what we found:

Clues to what once was. Curb corners mid-block on NE 24th Avenue where Crane Street used to pass through. Today, the former street is occupied by houses, garages and driveways like the one shown here. Looking north on the west side of the street.

 

Cast into the this corner curb now marooned mid-block is a barely visible “CRANE ST.” Today, the nearest part of Crane Street is three blocks west.

Today, Crane Street makes a short run from NE 19th to NE 21st, but it used to go all the way through to 24th. It’s always been a narrow street, a bit wider than an alley, but not much. Go check it out, and then walk NE 22nd, 23rd and 24th and look hard along the alignment of where Crane used to go, you can see clues to its past: fully formed curb corners that are now driveways. CRANE ST. stamped into the abandoned curb at mid-block. Even the crown of now-gone Crane Street—the gentle sloping away from centerline—can be seen on NE 24th where Crane used to intersect.

When we found those clues, we had to know more, so we visited our favorite source of official documents: City of Portland Archives. From official records—ordinances about renaming and street abandonment (a process called “vacation”), and petitions from neighbors—we were able to piece together an understanding of Crane Street.

First, let’s remember—from our earlier exploration of what we’ve dubbed the Prescott Jog—how strange things can happen when adjacent development plats filed at different times by different developers bump into each other. This unique little stretch of Crane Street exists at the junction of four plats, each filed by a different developer at a different time: Hillside, 1894; Vernon 1903; Alameda Park, 1909; George Place, 1910. (Check out our collection of local plats that might be of interest.)

It’s probably also worth noting the topography here: this is the edge of Alameda Ridge where other streets have a hard time getting off the hill: NE 21st zigs and zags and feels like an alley as it tries to find the crest of the ridge before becoming a real street and heading downhill to the south. Mason doesn’t even bother going through: it turns into a footpath through the former orchard on the slope of the ridge. And NE 19th is impassable: it gets stuck in a cul-de-sac where it gives up and becomes a flight of stairs.

This detail of the Vernon plat shows it all. Crane Street (once named Mason) appears at the bottom of the map, with detailed notations of a name change and two “vacations” or street closures and abandonments. Click to enlarge. Yes, this is part of the Vernon plat, though the city thinks of this area as Alameda. Read more about the difference between plat names and neighborhood names.

The Hillside plat of 1894 locked a single slice of Mason Street onto the map that other developers tried to line up with in the following years. In 1903 when the Vernon subdivision was carved from the surrounding forests and fields, Crane Street first appeared as Mason Street, trying hard to line up with the short stretch of existing Mason Street in Hillside and the Mason Street further west in an existing plat called Irvington Heights. Because the new Mason and the old Mason were so far out of alignment, local residents at this very south edge of Vernon petitioned the city in 1909 to just change the name of the street (which was still gravel) from Mason to Crane in an attempt to reduce confusion. When Alameda Park came along a few months later, the newly re-christened Mason became the chosen alignment for the Mason Street we know today.

Eugene Snyder, Portland’s leading authority on street naming, suggests the Crane namesake may have been either George Crane, an agent for Equitable Life Assurance Co., or Samuel Crane, agent for New York Life Insurance Co. We couldn’t find any logical connection to the area for these two Cranes, or any other Crane for that matter.

In 1921, a majority of property owners along East Crane asked City Council to vacate the stretch of Crane between NE 22nd and NE 24th. Along with the citizen voices was a strong letter of recommendation from Commissioner of Public Works A.L. Barbur, explaining: “this portion of Crane street is slightly less than 28 feet in width and does not in any manner form a ‘through’ street which can be rendered useful for general traffic.” Council unanimously approved the request on August 31, 1921. Soon after, the property formerly known as Crane Street between 22nd and 24th was purchased from the city, added to the Vernon plat as new lots, and homes were built. The left-over stretch of Crane between 19th and 22nd was still gravel.

In July 1930 another group of neighbors brought a petition to vacate their own stretch of Crane between NE 21st and NE 22nd, and another recommendation letter from Commissioner Barbur: “This portion is not improved and its vacation will in no wise affect the remaining area of the street, which connects with East 21st street on the east, thus affording a connection to the streets to the south. The property in this vicinity is all in residential usage and the proposed vacation will not be detrimental to the value of the surrounding property.”

A page from the petition signed by neighbors in 1930 to vacate East Crane Street between 21st and 22nd. Courtesy City of Portland Archives.

Council unanimously approved the request on October 15, 1930, and that property was purchased, replatted and built.

Today, five houses sit at least partially in the middle of those two vacated stretches of the former East Crane Street between 21st and 24th, made possible by the involvement of neighbors trying hard over 20 years to enforce order on a jumbled and frankly bumbled set of plats symptomatic of Portland’s chaotic early planning history (read about the weird Prescott Jog near NE 33rd).

Makes us wonder if maybe today’s Crane Street neighbors between 19th and 21st ought to get together for a block party to have a chat. Someone send for Commissioner Barbur…

P.S. It looks the neighbors have indeed wondered about this mystery and given the street stub its own appropriate name: check out the Ghost of Crane Street.

Alameda sewer geek-out

We’ve been spending some time at the City of Portland Archives lately, which is something we recommend. The staff there are always helpful, knowledgeable, patient and friendly too. One of the nice things about visiting is that you might run into something you didn’t know you needed to know, and that might just amaze you when you really think about it. Like this:

Courtesy City of Portland Archives file AP/25016, January 5, 1934.

The same view, looking north on NE 24th at Alameda, in December 2017.

On a recent visit, we bumped into some old city documents and photographs that provide a major archival document and engineering geek-out for us and possibly for one or two AH other readers: 110-year-old sewer plans for Alameda and repair photos from the 1930s.

OK, we know this isn’t going to interest everyone, but the drawings below pertain to the very earliest construction activity in our neighborhood. When you really look at them—and realize this universe of sloping interconnected pipes was carefully thought up and then dug deep into the ground and placed by hand—you have to appreciate the early planners and builders. Have a look (click to enlarge) and then we’ll analyze what we see.

Courtesy City of Portland Archives, record number M/13197.

What we’re looking at here are elevation drawings that show a cross-section of Alameda streets and slopes and how the sewer system relates to the grid above the surface. The measurement between the dashed line (which is ground level shown as feet above sea level, 243′ at the top of the ridge) and pipe placement shows how deep these pipes are. Pretty deep in some places. The red numbers indicate the number of feet between the indicated junctions. The percentage numbers indicate the slope of each line (up to 22 percent slope coming off the ridge). The whole idea here is to have positive drainage through the entire system (thank you, gravity). The label “SP” indicates the diameter of the pipe used. Pipe dimensions start smaller to the north and get larger as the sewers run south, a function of the growing number of connections into the main line as the sewers head for the main trunk collector sewer which is under Sullivan’s Gulch. There are many nuances to be seen here. Interested in learning more about the history of sewers (not a question that gets asked very often, I’d say)? I’ve probably lost you by here, but just in case, check this out.

This sewer system was one of the first construction items completed when Alameda was built. Grading for the streets, curbs and sidewalk construction followed. If you’ve seen the ubiquitous “Elwood Wiles” stamp on our sidewalks and wondered who he was, check out this earlier post. Among many other things, Wiles was a former Alameda resident (maybe you’ve walked by his house on Bryce just east of Regents).

Evidently, aside from the engineering challenge of getting sewage safely and predictably down from Alameda Ridge, construction of that first sewer system posed financial and legal challenges as well. The Alameda Land Company wanted to be able to hook its sewer system into the existing Irvington sewer system, which made sense since it was all downhill on its way to Sullivan’s Gulch (where today’s I-84 runs) which was home to the major sewer line that drained into the Willamette River. (Read more about how the eastside gulches drained sewage directly into the Willamette River and were eventually filled in. But that’s a different topic…let’s stay on track here).

Irvington and Alameda were in competition for real estate sales and there was no love lost between the two development companies. Irvington was not about to foot the bill for construction of a sewer system just to have it be used for free by neighbors up the hill. A restraining order was filed by Irvington against the Alameda Land Company in 1910 and eventually the city had to step in and referee exactly how system development charges were going to be apportioned. Ultimately, Alamedans paid for construction of their own sewer system, a portion of the costs for their sewer that drained into Irvington, and their share of the costs when the city constructed the main collector sewer in Sullivan’s Gulch in 1911. Interesting to note that over the years the usually friendly Irvington-Alameda rivalry took on a life of its own beyond sewer lawsuits, which you can read more about here and here.

During our recent visit to City Archives we also learned that Alameda’s sewer system did not stand the test of time. Things started falling apart in the 1930s. We came across photos and an engineering report from 1934 that details the very expensive reconstruction of more than 1,700 feet of sewer all along NE 24th from north of Prescott to south of Alameda. Here’s another view of that work, looking north on 24th. The house near the center of the frame is on the northwest corner of 24th and Prescott.

Courtesy City of Portland Archives, file AP/20614, January 5, 1934.

Similar view in December 2017

This was a costly job: $13,622.57 which employed a small army of 48 laborers for two months and required trenching in some places 30 feet below the surface of the street. The construction report placed blame for the work squarely on methods used by the Alameda Land Company when they were hurrying their system into the ground back in 1911:

City of Portland Civil Works Administration Report 35-26W-76, March 20, 1934.

Back in 1911, using the drawings referenced here, workers dug deep trenches under what would become Alameda’s streets. At the bottom of these trenches, they used heavy wooden timbers to build long three-sided “box tunnels” without tops. Into these continuous long narrow boxes they placed fill dirt and sewer pipe. Using this common method, they were supposed to completely fill around the pipe with sand and dirt then close off the top of the box with a heavy wood cover before filling the trenches back in to street level. But that didn’t happen.

Eventually the unsupported weight of sand and gravel settling in from above crushed the box and the sewer pipe. The surface of NE 24th also dropped as all the soil below street level began to work its way lower and lower into the collapsed box tunnel. The result: a cave-in at the surface of the street, crushed sewer pipes below and one heck of an expensive mess.

Fortunately, for City Engineer L.G. Apperson, the city had the original drawings on hand and knew where to start looking to solve the problem.

Never underestimate the value of a good archive!

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