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!

In praise of alleys

Here’s something you probably have not spent much time thinking about: Northeast Portland alleys.

It’s OK that you haven’t been thinking about them—it’s hard to know exactly where they are, some neighborhoods have them and some don’t. And even where they do exist, they might be hidden behind a wall of blackberry bushes, or garbage cans, or yard debris.

But now it’s time to think about alleys and to go out of your way a bit to appreciate and understand their history, demise and possibility. Along the way, we should also examine the question of why one neighborhood has them and another doesn’t. Mull that over a bit while we explore this topic.

First, an important fact about Portland alleys: virtually all of them are on the eastside.

Downtown Portland, known for its small and walkable 200’ x 200’ blocks, has never had alleys, to the chagrin over time of some business owners and public works officials who have complained that our downtown grid makes deliveries and trash removal too complicated and public. If our city blocks had alleys, they’ve argued, those essential but less desirable functions could take place out of view, giving the front of the business more leeway and prominence.

Here’s a great map that shows the extent and location of Portland’s alleys. Have a good look at it then come back here and we’ll continue our exploration.

There is at least one common denominator in this map’s seemingly random purple grid segments: they exist in neighborhoods platted before 1909. In Portland, as in so many other US cities, alleys were a utilitarian feature designed before the age of automobiles. The barn out back that might have housed a horse or wagon also contained garbage and other chaos that you didn’t want to have out front. But when the car came along—a symbol of convenience, independence and even status—garages began their migration from out back to the front of the house.

After about 1910, land development companies platting Portland’s eastside neighborhoods responded to this shift by dropping alleys and back garages from their plans. Not incidentally, this allowed houses to be a bit larger and to shift back farther from the street allowing for front yards and landscaping, as well as driveways and garages.

Alameda and its neighborhoods immediately to the north are a perfect illustration. Vernon, Elberta (not a typo) and Lester Park—the subdivisions just to the north across Prescott—were platted between 1903 and 1908 and they have alleys and 40′ x 100′ lots. Here in Alameda, platted in 1909 and built starting in 1910, there are no alleys, but 50′ x 100′ lots. North of Prescott, smaller houses crowd the street and yards are small. South of Prescott in Alameda, houses are larger and set back farther. No alleys. (Check out our Maps page and scroll down to find the original plats for Vernon, Elberta, Lester Park and Alameda Park.)

Yes, there are other contributing factors at play: Alameda has the ridge, which breaks the rectangular grid pattern. Plus, Edward Zest Ferguson and his Alameda Land Company wanted Alameda to be an upscale addition of larger homes, as opposed to the more compact homes and lots in subdivisions to the north. Irvington, for instance, platted even earlier than all of us above the ridge, does not have alleys. This was a function of the size and siting of much larger and costly homes on relatively constrained lot sizes. It’s hard to have both large homes and alleys given our compact grid.

The presence or absence of alleys was central to the question of site and building design, real estate value, and marketing potential at the turn of the last century. Throw in the advent of automobiles and you’ve crossed a tipping point away from alleys in the minds of early property developers. Why bother with alleys anymore?

So, there’s our answer to why some eastside neighborhoods have them and some don’t: it’s largely related to timing (pre- and post-1909 as the key date), with the advent of the car looming large, and a few other considerations like targeted market sector and house size. Bottom line is that after 1909, no more new alleys were built on Portland’s eastside.

Here in Northeast Portland you’ll find two types of alleys: the obvious ones that are a long straight laneway right up the middle of the block adjacent to back yards and paralleling the length of the fronted street (typically the numbered street). You’ll find these between Prescott and Alberta, from 24th to 33rd. Another form you’ll find is the tee alley, on either side of Ainsworth between NE 23rd and NE 33rd. This form provides a shorter cross alley (like the top of a letter T) that bisects the long laneway. These are interesting to explore and are in pretty good shape.

Once you start walking our alleys, you begin to see clues to the past and to future potential, and you can see how different neighborhoods have responded to their alleys. While we haven’t walked every Portland alley, we’ve explored a lot of them, and offer these observations as an enticement.

This alley is just off Alberta between NE 29th and NE 30th. Looking a bit like a gallery, the pools of light here illuminate boards that advertise the adjacent T.C. O’Leary’s Irish Pub. It’s an enticing sight.

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Most of the alleys between Prescott and Alberta from NE 24th to NE 33rd look something like this one: muddy ruts, grass, brush ready to grow over.

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Here’s one just north of Alberta between NE 27th and NE 28th. The entrance is crowded with garbage cans and recycling bins but adventure up a bit and you see a kind of graffiti gallery.

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Here’s one that has grown over. Looks like that laurel bush has eaten the garage too.

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The Piedmont neighborhood has great alleys that run south from Rosa Parks to Killingsworth between MLK and N. Commercial. Lots going on here: powerline corridor, pavement and some interesting ADUs.

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We came across quite a few alleys that had an entry threshold like this one with the gridded pattern scored into the sidewalk. This signaled the alley opening to passing pedestrians.

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Some alleys like this one in Portsmouth have become debris dumping zones for neighbors, with piles of clippings, dirt and other debris forming impassable mounds. No more cars up this alley.

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This Portsmouth alley is so well used and traffic-friendly that residents have built a driveway off the alley that seems like a primary entrance to their house. No need for a front yard here.

In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in alleys as public spaces that connect neighbors and neighborhoods. In many ways they are a hidden resource, public spaces in out of the way places. A few years back a consortium of city planners and urban design professionals launched the Portland Alley Project, which led to several alley maintenance and recovery projects. Here’s another great blog by San Francisco urban designer David Winslow with passages from his book Living Alleys: A new view of small streets.

Check these out, look at the map and then go for a walk. Get out there into this ready-made local trail system where you can slow things down and experience a completely different neighborhood than the one you think you know.

A Concordia alley

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.

NE 3rd and Broadway as you’ve never seen it

One of the great joys of our research is finding the unknown—more properly the long forgotten—in the midst of the known. Photos, memories, documents and stories from the past add new understanding to places we know (or think we know), and often bring a hint of the familiar: the profile of the ridgeline on the horizon, the curve of a street, the form of a building we recognize.

Sometimes these clues from the past are unreconcilable with the landscape we know today. In the world of Northeast Portland neighborhoods, pretty much anything after 1910 will carry a hint of the familiar. Turn back the clock a bit further and those hints are harder to detect.

Case in point: this Sanborn fire insurance underwriting map from 1909 of the Eliot neighborhood, showing the vicinity of the busy intersection at Grand and Broadway that we all know. Or think we know. Have a good look and pay attention to the location and extent of the gully shown as Deep Gulch, the wooden bridges, the buildings up on posts, the row of houses with their bay windows all to the side. Check out the State Laundry Company building too, and the note about the night watchman. (If you don’t know about Sanborn maps—which were used for fire insurance underwriting—be sure to check out our post on the topic).

1-16-16 Sanborn 289 Detail

Detail from plate 289, Sanborn Fire Insurance Map, 1909

Everything in this frame from 1909 is absolutely gone today—the gully, the buildings even the streets which have been widened—and most of us speed through here (being careful about the red-light cameras) on our way somewhere else. Below is a modern view of that intersection.

1-16-16 Detail from Google Earth

Thanks to Google Maps. Click the thumbnail above for the full photo.

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Ready for an even closer look? This is the fun part where we get to try to imagine the landscape that once was, and how different it is today. As you study this photo, be sure to check out the detail: the awning style shutters; the orderly clapboard and fish-scale siding; the beautiful shingle roof; the decorative round gable end ornaments; the family members at each level; the gulch out back. The picket fence in the left foreground is running north-south along the edge of NE 3rd. The double gable end faces NE 3rd, so this view is looking off to the south/southwest at the corner of NE 3rd and Broadway.

1-16-16 Soden Home 3rd and Broadway

Home of B.T. and Cora Soden, NE 3rd and Broadway. Photo courtesy of Bob Elston.

And an approximate view today:

Site of Soden Home, NE 3rd and Broadway, northwest corner

237 NE Broadway in January 2016.

We’re able to feed this imagination thanks to fourth-generation Northeast Portland resident Bob Elston, great-grandson of Bartholomew and Cora Soden, who recently shared these and other family photos that got us to wondering about this part of the neighborhood, and to haunting these blocks ourselves in order to take a good look. Thanks Bob.

Fast forward a few years and a slightly different angle at the Soden place, this time looking west/northwest showing the barn out back, which is depicted in the 1905 Sanborn map. Note the same wooden bridge on Northeast 3rd over Deep Gulch, which keys the building into the northwest corner of that intersection. The dip of the gulch is still visible off to the left.

1-16-16 Soden Home 3rd and Broadway 1905

NE 3rd and Broadway, looking west in the late 1890s. Photo courtesy of Bob Elston.

 

Mildred, Willard, Frances, Raymond in front of the house on NE 3rd.

Frances, Willard, Mildred and Lester Soden, in front of the house on NE 3rd, 1898. This view is looking north on 3rd. Photo courtesy of Bob Elston.

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Bart Soden was owner and proprietor of B.T. Soden Hay, Grain, Coal and Plaster, provisioner of vital goods for the eastside at the turn of the last century. His warehouse and business was located just a block east from the family home at the southeast corner of Union and Schuyler (today’s MLK and Schuyler). Scroll back up to the Sanborn map and look at it there in the upper right corner, labeled “Hay, Grain and Cement Ware HO.” Here’s a picture of Bart and a helper, probably from about 1905, showing the delivery wagon heading out on a run:

1-16-16 BT Soden Business

The southeast corner of NE 3rd and Union, about 1905. Photo courtesy of Bob Elston.

Here’s the same view today:

Site of Soden Business, MLK and Schulyer, southeast corner

Bart was born in Australia in 1849, came to Oregon as a young boy, and grew up in rural Polk County. He earned a degree from the Oregon Agricultural College in 1879, tried his hand at teaching for a while, and eventually moved to Portland in the 1880s where he married Cora Wells, 16 years his junior. The couple built the house and business we’ve been looking at here, raised a family of two sons and two daughters, and were active in Portland society. Bart died in 1926. Cora lived until 1950. Both parents and several of the children are buried in the family plot at Portland’s historic Lone Fir Cemetery.

We’ve recently come across a memoir by a Portlander who grew up a couple streets over about the same time as the young Sodens. Stay tuned for his observations, which will continue to help us bring this long lost landscape back to life.

Portland’s Great Renumbering, 1931-1933: Bringing order out of chaos

Throw together a couple dozen scattered and growing neighborhoods, at least five incorporated towns with their own municipal governments, a public transportation system owned and operated by a handful of different authorities and private companies, a real estate market on fire, and an expanding network of streets and main arterials running across the whole complicated map. Sounds like an administrative headache, doesn’t it?

That was the challenge facing local leaders in 1931 when Portland decided it needed a new addressing system. The old way just wasn’t working: letters, visitors, homebuyers and even deliverymen were getting lost.

By the mid 1920s, Portland’s east side neighborhoods were booming. Research we’ve done into building permit history shows Alameda’s heyday of construction was 1922. In those early years, some homes started out with one address, but had to be renumbered—some several times—as lots were developed and new homes built.

A remnant of Portland's early addressing system

If you look carefully when out walking, you might find clues to our old address system. This artifact was cast into a neighbor’s front steps when the street was East 30th Street North.

By 1926, the city engineer recognized the need to change our address system. Except for the alphabet district in northwest Portland, where streets were (and still are) alphabetical, there was no numerical or organizational logic about how we told each other where we lived or worked. No baseline starting point for address numbers like today’s use of the Willamette River and Burnside. No predictable and sequential set of numbers that go with each block (i.e. the 2400 block of any particular street being 24 blocks north or south of anywhere else). No primary districts (northeast, northwest, north, southwest and southeast). Just cardinal directions and a pack of numbers. By the late 1920s, Portland Postmaster John M. Jones reported that 2,000 pieces of mail were going astray each day because of the confusing and random addressing system.

After all, the fraying system in place had been cobbled together in the early 1890s when the cities of Portland, East Portland and Albina merged. In the intervening years, both the population and the territory of the city more than doubled.

Reflecting on our system’s need for help, one reporter for The Oregonian wrote: “Many a city planner and civic engineer had thrown up his hands or uttered oracular warnings at the antiquated way in which our city was numbered.”

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More evidence of Portland’s early addressing system when all east side streets had two cardinal directions. Most of these early cast-in-place curb identifiers have been lost to modernizing curb cuts. Another name frequently cast into our sidewalks is builder Elwood Wiles. Click here for a photo and short biography of Mr. Wiles.

City Commissioner Asbury Lincoln (A.L.) Barbur recognized the problem and assembled a group to look at other cities for examples and to assemble a system that fit Portland’s needs. Barbur, whose name you will recognize from the southwest Portland boulevard named to honor him, was one of Portland’s most civic-minded early leaders. Elected five times to two-year terms as city auditor between 1907-1917, Barbur ran successfully in 1920 for commissioner (his election slogan was “Let the People Rule”). Read the reporting from the day and you’ll find him a pragmatic, smart, get-it-done elected leader who was almost single-handedly responsible for the business model that resulted in the paving of Portland streets, as well as the push to change the address system. Barbur’s street paving model is worthy of its own story: with so many new gravel streets in need of work, Barbur led the city to buy and operate its own paving plant rather than contract it all out, which saved the city millions of dollars, got the job done, and attracted the ire of local contractors who branded him a socialist.

In early 1930, Barbur’s addressing committee looked first at the system in Philadelphia, and then at Milwaukee, Wisconsin for ideas. As they did their scoping work, they also held public meetings in Portland neighborhoods to hear ideas and build support. By December 1930, Barbur’s committee had crafted a plan and received unanimous support from 18 different community organizations.

The essential framework was the system we know today: Divide the city into five sectors: NE, NW, SE, SW and North (owing to the bend in the river). Burnside was to be the new baseline north and south; the river was already an effective east-west baseline. Blocks would be divided into sets of 100 numbers. And some substantial renaming would add continuity and order. Here’s an editorial from The Oregonian on May 13, 1931 that endorses specifics of the plan and makes the case for change.

5-13-1931 Editorial

 

On September 2, 1931, city council unanimously and enthusiastically passed the plan, including $10,000 to pay for ceramic number tiles for every house and building, and it created a workforce of unemployed men to get the job done. Here in Alameda, renumbering and renaming resulted in a numeric transformation, and the changing of at least two street names, Glenn became NE 32nd Place; Laura Avenue became Edgehill.

Work is done photo

From the July 16, 1933 edition of The Oregonian. Click on the image to read the full story.

From the fall of 1931 through the summer of 1933, crews of workers fanned out across 66 square miles of Portland pulling wheeled carts filled with ceramic numbers, aluminum trays to hold the numbers, and hammers and nails to anchor them to every Portland house or business. It took 23 months. Not everyone was happy: some were superstitious if assigned anything with a 13 in it. Others who operated certain established and illegal businesses out of their homes took down the new numbers so as to not confuse their loyal customers. But most Portlanders embraced the new system and caught on to its logic quickly.

A ringing endorsement from The Oregonian on July 16, 1933, coinciding with completion of the renumbering, summed up how the community responded to the transformation:

“To the business man, the hundred and one small tradesmen and to the ordinary citizen, this new and uniform numbering system meant a logical and simple way out of a puzzling network of miscellaneous addresses.”

 

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Painting a new address on the curb in Portland’s Eliot neighborhood following the Great Renumbering. Photo courtesy of City of Portland Archives.

Neighborhood Boundary vs. Subdivision Plat

A reader has asked about how the name of a neighborhood relates to the name of an addition, plat or subdivision.

The short answer is that there isn’t necessarily a relationship at all.

Neighborhood names are administratively determined by the Portland Bureau of Planning in collaboration with the Office of Neighborhood Involvement: the Alameda Neighborhood boundaries were last plotted on a map in June 2001.

Plat or subdivision names are filed on the date of platting with the Multnomah County Surveyor and are boundaries of surveyed property tied to the legal description of the land. The original Alameda Park Addition plat was filed with Multnomah County in February 1909.

Here’s a good example of a plat that has nothing to do with the name of any neighborhood. It’s Homedale, and it spans today’s Sabin and Alameda neighborhoods. Try telling someone you live in Homedale (or any of the other 21 named plats in our neighborhood) and you’re likely to get a blank stare.

Here’s a good example of a plat that has nothing to do with the name of any neighborhood. It’s Homedale, and it spans today’s Sabin and Alameda neighborhoods. Try telling someone you live in Homedale (or any of the other 21 named plats in our neighborhood) and you’re likely to get a blank stare.

Within the confines of what the city thinks of as today’s Alameda Neighborhood are at least 21 plats of all sizes, from the Alameda Park plat, to the Homedale plat (1922), to the Town of Wayne plat (1882). Probably the only one that will ring a bell for most residents is Alameda Park, the namesake for what is today’s larger Alameda Neighborhood.

And just to make life a little more confusing, the Alameda Park plat  (historic survey boundary) exists within both the Alameda Neighborhood and the Sabin Neighborhood (late 20th century neighborhood administrative boundaries).

Here’s the full list of plats inside today’s Alameda neighborhood boundaries: Alameda Park, Homedale, Olmsted Park, Irvington, Edgemont, Pearson’s Addition, Town of Wayne, Town of Wayne Replat, Waynewood, Irvingwood, Meadow Park, Dunsmeade, Irvindale, Hillside, George Place, Bowering Donation Land Claim Tract, Norton’s Subdivision, Stanton Street Addition, Gleneyrie, Hudson’s Addition and Meadow Park.

With 21 plats in just one “neighborhood” alone, no wonder the city has chosen to lump geographical areas into single neighborhood names. No plats were moved, changed or amended to coincide with our neighborhood’s name. Rather, the place name we all know today — and it’s corresponding map — was determined decades after the ink was dry on the subdivision (plat) names.

Here’s a link to plat maps for Alameda and several surrounding areas.

Just for fun, dig out the thick pack of papers you signed at closing, or look at your property tax statement: you’ll find the name of the plat that includes the block and lot where you live. Just remember: this name exists separate from the name of our neighborhood.

Remember Manitou?

It’s OK if you’ve not heard of the Manitou Addition, a small chunk of neighborhood that once had its own identity, now lost to time. In my research on Alameda-Beaumont-Wilshire, I’ve kept running into references to Manitou-this and Manitou-that and wondered where it was. While reviewing plat maps recently, I found it: the long block between 33rd and 35th that includes the north side of Fremont and both sides of Alameda.

Manitou Plat Detail, March 3, 1910

Manitou Plat Detail, March 3, 1910

The plat for Manitou was incorporated by Fred and Gussie Jacobs, who were partners in the Jacobs-Stine Company, which platted many Portland subdivisions with fancy sounding names, only two of which are in circulation today-Errol Heights and Argyle. Fred Jacobs told a reporter in April 1910 that Manitou was named for Manitou Springs, a picturesque mountain community about 65 miles south of Denver. (Incidentally, Fred Jacobs was the Portland real estate man who died in the crash on Stuart Drive that resulted in it being known as “Deadman’s Hill.“)

Of course, when I found Manitou, it begged another question because that plat is a subdivision of the Spring Valley Addition. Now there’s another name that has fallen out of use. Spring Valley is easily one of the oldest plats in the area, filed on November 6, 1882 by one “Clara L. Files, Spinster,” and encompassing the area east-west between 33rd and 37th and north-south between The Alameda and Skidmore (including Wilshire Park). Interesting to note that until 1941 (when development really came to that part of the neighborhood) the Spring Valley plat showed a major planned north-south thoroughfare called Broadway, located about where NE 35th is today.

The cumulative mushroom effect of historical research guarantees that you can’t look into the history of the Spring Valley Addition (or Manitou) without bumping into other nearby mysteries, including plats for Maplehurst (south of Fremont), Irene Heights, Fullerton, Whiterose, Rossdale, Rosyln, Calman, Wilshire and Railroad Heights (nope, no railroads ever ran up here, but you might have been able to hear a train or two).

Memory Map

I’ve been in touch with Dick Taylor, who grew up in Alameda during the 1930s. He’s one of the men whose brain I’ve been picking for details on the “old man” who I’ve heard stories about. Dick grew up on Shaver between NE 34th and NE 35th.

A few weeks back I sent him a copy of the Sanborn map of that vicinity from 1924. He kindly added some detail showing who lived where in the 1930s, and where the “old man” lived. Check out the annotated version of the map he sent me back, drawn from memory.

A couple of observations here: Note that the property on the south side of Shaver Street was a victory garden during the 1940s. Interesting too to point out there was an old brick house in the far southeast corner of Wilshire Park that Dick says was torn down. Have a look at his annotated map:

 

Click on the map for a larger image.

Here’s what Dick says about the “old man:”

He was the neighborhood character and had a reputation for starting fires. Almost everytime we would hear a fire engine, we knew the old man was up to starting a fire. He would always help extinguish it with a large gunny sack he always carried draped over his shoulder. As kids we used to play a game he taught us called “duck on the rock.”

Interesting to ponder the many interesting souls who have walked these streets…

Olmstead Park

olmstead-park-plat-1909.jpg

 

Here’s the cadastral map from 1909 showing the Olmstead Park plat. This roughly five-block square area is north of the Alameda Ridge and tucks in under the southeast corner of Alameda Park. Today this part of the neighborhood is clearly considered part of the Alameda District. Out on the ground even in 1911, these two brand new districts were indistinguishable, interwoven by the same streets, the same water, gas and sewer mains, and many of the same architects and builders who were beginning to populate this area with homes.

The Olmsted in “Olmstead Park” was probably John Charles Olmsted, stepson and nephew of the legendary landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted (this is not a typo…someone added an “a” into the plat name over the years). John Charles Olmsted and his brother Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. helped design Portland’s park system and were busy with other commissions here in Portland — including one for the Alameda Land Company — in the years after the 1905 Lewis and Clark Exposition (which they also designed).

By 1909, the neighborhoods to our north and south were already established, and the Portland Railway, Light and Power Company was opening its Broadway Streetcar line with a connection to the heart of Alameda Park and Olmstead Park.

In 1910, before home construction was underway, much of the property in Olmstead Park was owned by one man: B.M. Lombard, a real estate developer who owned large tracts in north and northeast Portland, and whose name is memorialized by North Portland’s Lombard Street. In fact if you look at the plat, you can see that today’s Dunckley Avenue was originally platted as Lombard. Other properties were owned by construction companies, investment banks and real estate developers, including Oregon Home Builders Inc., Colonial Construction Co., Hibernian Investment Bank, Provident Trust Company and Clodfelter Real Estate.

I’ll keep a copy of this in “The Maps” for future reference…

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