The scaffolds and fences have come down from around the former First Universalist Church of Good Tidings / Metropolitan Community Church at NE 24th and Broadway, and soon the doors will open on the restored and repurposed 112-year-old church building.
We wrote about the project here last November: neighborhood residents Brody Day and Dustin Harder have been adapting the old church into the new Steeplejack Brewing Company. The two acquired the building in April 2019 from the Metropolitan Community Church which was downsizing to a building in Southeast Portland following 42 years in the space. At the time, another offer was on the table from a local developer who wanted to demolish the church and build a five-story condominium on the site. After a meeting with the pastor and the congregation—and assurance that Harder and Day were planning to keep the building intact—they successfully closed the deal.
Steeplejack opens quietly to the public starting on Friday, July 23rd from 3:00-10:00 p.m. with a grand opening scheduled for Saturday, July 31st, when regular hours begin from 7:00 a.m.-10:00 p.m.
The old church has the distinction of being one of a few buildings in Portland dedicated by U.S. Presidents. William Howard Taft sealed up a small time capsule and set the cornerstone during the building’s opening on October 4, 1909. Day and Harder have the original box (it had been opened some years ago) and plan to set a new cornerstone, sealing in the old box, at 2:00 p.m. on Saturday, July 31st. Next week, they’ll be accepting very small time-travel items that might go into the box.
We had a chance to visit the newly-completed restoration as part of Steeplejack’s soft opening this week and offer these glimpses of the “new” old space:
We’ve learned tonight about the passing today at age 104 of beloved neighborhood author Beverly Cleary, whose stories about Klickitat Street, an adventurous girl named Ramona, and a bunch of creative kids bring our early neighborhood vividly to life. To celebrate her gifts, we’ve reprised below this post from 12 years ago. Thank you Beverly Cleary: your stories touched our own childhood, and connect us with our kids and with this place.
The Geography of Imagination: Exploring Neighborhood History With Henry, Ramona and Beezus
We’ve been re-reading some favorite books recently, and as it turns out, finding quite a few clues to the world of neighborhood history. Award winning children’s writer Beverly Cleary grew up in the neighborhood and if you read carefully, you’ll find real echoes of our past in her books.
Cleary imagined an entire universe in a few small blocks. Our favorite young residents—Ramona, Beezus, Henry, Ribsy—crisscrossed their kingdom on bikes and on foot walking to their beloved Glenwood School, delivering the evening Journal newspaper, and getting themselves into some memorable misadventures.
Ramona Rides downhill (is that Regents or maybe NE 37th?) in a drawing by Louis Darling.
The geography of that imagined place came from author Beverly Cleary’s own experience as a child growing up here in the 1920s and 1930s. She lived in a home on Northeast 37th Avenue, and attended the school now named for her: the Beverly Cleary School Fernwood Campus. The landmarks that define Henry and Ramona’s world—the churches, schools and houses, the hills and even the vacant lots—are drawn from places Cleary frequented as a young person.
It’s possible to find clues to Cleary’s own geography—and even a sense of Alameda neighborhood life in the 1950s—by exploring Henry and Ramona’s neighborhood as it unfolds on the pages of more than a dozen of her books.
A good place to begin looking for clues is Ramona Quimby’s house, just up the street from Henry Huggins on Klickitat Street. Cleary actually tells us in one of her books that Ramona lived with her mother, father and sister Beezus in a rented house near the corner of 28th and Klickitat. I remember reading that part of the story to my daughter one night and making a mental note that I needed to go look up that address on my next walk through the neighborhood.
As many astute readers will recognize, the corner of 28th and Klickitat is actually a “T” intersection adjacent to the playground at Alameda School. The day I walked past that spot and realized it was the setting for Ramona’s fictional house (a school playground), I laughed out loud and tipped my hat to Beverly Cleary.
All readers of the series know that Henry Huggins lives with his mother, his father and his dog Ribsy in a square white house on Klickitat Street. Cleary never really tells us exactly where on Klickitat that might be. But if it’s a square white house—let’s imagine an old Portland foursquare style house with a nice porch—chances are it’s west of Ramona’s house. In Henry And the Paper Route, Cleary hints that Henry’s square white house was slightly elevated above the sidewalk with a sloping lawn the kids rolled down. This sounds indeed like a four-square, built in the 19-teens. Now all we have to look for is Henry’s red bike and the barking Ribsy.
Ramona and Henry’s Glenwood School is an obvious stand in for Fernwood School (known today as Beverly Cleary School), where the young Cleary attended before moving on to Grant High School. Why didn’t she create a fictionalized role for Alameda School? We do know there was a certain rivalry between neighborhood schools. Kids from one school sometimes looked down their noses at kids from the other. Was omitting Alameda School a diss? Probably not. Just a little too complicated to explain why kids living in the playground of one school (wink) would be going to a different school a few blocks away.
Vacant lots…now there is a commodity of the 1950s that we just don’t have any more. By the late 1950s virtually every easily buildable lot in Alameda had been developed (many of the last ones by builder Ken Birkemeier). During Cleary’s growing up years—the 1920s and 1930s—there were plenty vacant lots to be found and they surely provided a refuge for everything from baseball to clubhouses. In Cleary’s 1955 Henry And the Paper Route, Henry watches as the ladies club sets up sawhorses and planks in a nearby vacant lot for the annual fundraising rummage sale. The vacant lot was a community commodity as well as landmark. Reading more closely between the lines, was the ladies club the fictional counterpart of our own Alameda Tuesday Club? Could be.
The business district of the fictional neighborhood bears some resemblance to places we all shop and frequent today. The movie theater, dime store, Rose City Barber Shop and even the “Colossal Market” are landmarks in today’s Hollywood neighborhood. The Colossal—where Henry’s mother bought everything from vegetables to hair clippers—was probably patterned after the original Fred Meyer store at 42nd and Sandy.
Al’s Thrifty Service Station, where Ribsy steals a policeman’s lunch, is today’s 76 station at 33rd and Broadway. Kids at Glenwood School watch from their classroom windows as a new supermarket is built: today’s QFC (formerly Kienows) just south of Fernwood. All the pieces line up.
In addition to the fun of hearing about these thinly disguised places we all know from our area’s past, there’s some wonderful imagery in these books that evokes an earlier time in the neighborhood, while also being timeless:
Ramona and Beezus playing outside on a summer’s evening until the street lights come on, when it’s time to go in.
The 11-year-old Henry riding his bicycle through the neighborhood in the late afternoon and early evening, delivering the afternoon newspapers hot off the press.
Kids jumping in puddles and playing in rivulets of muddy water on a rainy morning’s walk to school.
The Fuller Brush man in trenchcoat walking door-to-door selling his wares.
Henry crawling on all fours through Grant Park at night with flashlight in search of nightcrawlers for fishing.
And a timeless image that could have been borrowed from this winter: Ramona sledding down the 37th Street hill on her dad’s old sled. Now there’s a scene drawn from the author’s personal experience, just a few doors up from her own childhood home.
Which gets to what makes Beverly Cleary’s work so appealing and enduring (and even instructive, for us students of history who also like to read to our kids): she crafts a slice of universal life through the experiences of her likeable, believable characters, and all through the lens of a remembered Northeast Portland childhood.
Most posts here on AH focus on the period between 1890-1950 and are directly related to the development and early life of neighborhoods and their residential and commercial buildings. So much happened during those years to shape Portland’s eastside landscape. Much has happened since that time.
But our time here pales compared to the time before.
I’ve been on an exploration this winter to understand more fully and appreciate the deeper history of this landscape we think we know. And it’s changed the way I think about this place.
For thousands of years—since time immemorial—there were people here on these lands and nearby waters in extended communities and families, living within the seasonal round of the year: movements of fish, deer and elk; the growth and availability of plants for food and medicine; the season to put fire on the land to manage for future food sources.
The Columbia River near Warrior Point, February 2021. Doug Decker photo.
The Columbia River—which is probably out of mind on a day-to-day basis for most neighborhood residents today even though it flows less than two miles from our doors—was the source and backbone that made life possible for the families who lived all along its banks, from the mouth at the Pacific Ocean near Astoria, to far upriver.
Here in what is known as the Portland basin, the Chinookan people of the lower and upper Columbia met and traded with tribes arriving from the Willamette River and its tributaries, by land over the Coast Range, and from the tributaries to the north and east that drain today’s southwest Washington.
When the salmon were running, people were drawn upstream to the Cascades of the Columbia: impressive cataracts and fishing grounds in the vicinity of today’s Cascade Locks that disappeared with the advent of Bonneville Dam in 1938.
Salmon Fishing in the Cascades, Columbia River, 1867 by Carlton E. Watkins. Note man with dip net standing on scaffolding at river’s edge. Photo taken from the Washington side looking southeast toward current-day Cascade Locks. Courtesy of the Oregon Historical Society, OrgLot 93_B1_133r
After the fish runs and at different times of year, many of the people traveled downriver into the rich waters of the Portland basin. Food sources, family ties, language, traditions, and shared experience in known places made these people at home here at certain times of the year, and at home upriver at other times. This was their home for 10,000 years (our neighborhoods were platted 115 years ago).
Prior to contact with Europeans, the Portland basin likely held the greatest concentration of indigenous people in the region. Estimates suggest as many as 10,000 people lived in 29 villages stretching from the Sandy River Delta on the east to the confluence with the Lewis River on the west, a distance of about 34 river miles.
People were here because this stretch of the Columbia River that passes along our northern edge was unbelievably rich. The braided channels, ponds, islands and backwaters of what was referred to as the Columbia Bayou—today’s Columbia Slough—harbored and produced an amazing variety of plants, fish and wildlife. These were a canoe people, and these waters meant life. The Portland basin was principally a canoe place.
Fishing in the Columbia Slough, early 1900s.
When Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery passed downriver in early November 1805 and returned upriver in March 1806, they witnessed and reported on the diversity of indigenous people and languages here, and the richness of the river and upland environments. Of particular note to them was the potato-like aquatic tuber known as wapato, which was a staple food. Wapato grew in abundance in this 34-mile stretch and attracted people from across the region.
Because of its prominence in these waterways and in peoples’ lives, Lewis and Clark referred to this reach of river as the Wappato Valley.
The fur trade that boomed after Lewis and Clark’s early explorations brought disease. A malaria epidemic in the early 1830s devastated the people in these villages, killing 90 percent of the entire population. Waves of Euro-Americans began arriving from the east in the 1840s and the few remaining indigenous people were removed from the places they knew. Their lands were taken through a variety of means and distributed among the new arrivals, who set the landscape on a pathway into farming, resource removal and eventually development to house the rapidly growing population of newcomers.
Their lands became our neighborhoods. And their 10,000 years disappeared from view.
Which is why it’s so important for us to learn and to help remember.
The tragedy and rupture of how the indigenous way of life ended reverberates today. The descendants of these people remain and have dedicated themselves to remembering their ancestors, their language and ways of living they knew, and their lands and waters.
The more I’ve learned about this stretch of river, the more I’ve come to think differently about Portland’s northern edge, about Sauvie Island, the Multnomah Channel, the Columbia Slough, Broughton Beach and the stretch of shore near the airport and Blue Lake, and Cathlepotle, a bit farther downriver. These were busy places. Dramatically changed from their earlier forms, they persist nonetheless.
Less than two miles from my house, along the braided waterways of the Columbia Bayou, was Ne-er-cho-ki-oo, A Chinook village and plankhouse home to generations of families living in that seasonal round of upriver fishing at the Cascades and wapato gathering here in the valley. The waters they knew have been altered beyond recognition. But learning the story of that place, being able to look back at historic maps of the Columbia Bayou and imagine that landscape, are all part of remembering.
Here’s a thought exercise for you the next time you travel north on any of the main thoroughfares that intersect where Portland meets the Columbia River. As you begin to descend toward Columbia Boulevard (or Sandy Boulevard east of I-205), recognize that you are transitioning out of what were wooded uplands into what was the swampy, marshy storehouse of life along the river. Water’s edge didn’t stay mostly in one place as we know it today, it ebbed and flowed with the river and the season. The Columbia Slough we know today was alive with people: women and their canoes gathering wapato; men hunting and gathering fish. Watch for those waters and think about that as you zip across a bridge.
Columbia Slough, 1905. By Lily E. White. Courtesy of Oregon Historical Society Org.Lot 662, Folder 1, Plate 4.
Next time you visit Sauvie Island, think of the many villages there—home to an estimated 2,000 people—that were important centers of trade. Following the malaria epidemics of the 1830s which killed the vast majority of those people, employees of the nearby Hudson Bay Company post at Fort Vancouver burned the remains of the emptied villages and turned the island into a dairy.
Consider a 30-minute drive north to Ridgefield to visit the Cathlapotle long house and the refuge trails which bring into focus how the river connected people with villages and resources on Sauvie Island just across the water, with tributaries and other villages all up and down the river and beyond.
These days whenever I’m out and about, I still “see” the old streetcars, the muddy roads, vacant lots and the builders we’ve met here on AH, busy building these neighborhoods in the early 1900s.
But there’s a much deeper landscape we can orient to that contains it all, defined by rivers and the generations of people who have come before.
A few recommended sources for learning:
Chinookan Peoples of the Lower Columbia, edited by Robert Boyd, Kenneth Ames and Tony A. Johnson, University of Washington Press, 2013.
Cathlapotle and its Inhabitants, 1792-1860, by Robert Boyd, US Fish and Wildlife Service, 2011.
The Coming of the Spirit of Pestilence, by Robert Boyd, University of Washington Press, 1999
We’ve been focused lately on a property in Southeast Portland’s Woodstock neighborhood, which has provided some fresh perspectives on aspects of Portland history we haven’t bumped into directly while working in the central eastside. Things like the dynamics of annexation, lots of different privately-owned infrastructure, and multiple waves of readdressing.
AH readers already know all about the major readdressing initiative in the early 1930s that literally re-made the Portland map. The Great Renumbering clarified things for most Portlanders (particularly postal employees), but not everyone was thrilled. One feature of the readdressing ordinance required all north-south streets be numbered, not named. That’s how we lost Glenn, Marguerite, Vernon and others, though the names can still be seen set into many curbs.
We’ve always been impressed with the residents of NE Vernon Avenue who continued to use the name of their street for more than a decade after the city changed it officially to NE 14th Place. Many living on that six-block stretch between Prescott and Killingsworth didn’t want to lose their local identity and continued to tell the world they lived on NE Vernon well into the 1940s. Place names are important, after all.
But we digress. Out in Woodstock, some of their streets have known three different names:
The one that came with the plat, and in Woodstock they all had names out of Sir Walter Scott’s romance fiction set in 17th Century Oxfordshire (Waverly, Kenilworth, Ivanhoe, Everard, Wildrake);
Those that came after Woodstock’s annexation in 1909, which randomly replaced some of the Oxfordshire repertoire and turned all the east-west streets to numbers (yes, you read that right…we’ll come back to this with a map in a moment);
And then the ones that came along as a result of the wider readdressing wave of the early 1930s.
We were delving into a property on today’s SE Ramona, which started out as High Street on the 1889 plat, became 58th Avenue Southeast by 1915, and then became the Ramona we know in 1932.
Today, most Portlanders take their numbered north-south streets for granted and can quickly orient themselves to the Willamette knowing that on NE 24th Avenue they are 24 blocks east of the river (plus or minus).
But by 1915, all of southeast Portland’s east-west streets south of Division were assigned numbers as names and called “avenues,” counting south from Ankeny (north-south roads were called “streets”). Also of note, most of the east-west streets north of Division stuck with their names because they had an established named counterpart on the west side of the river.
So today’s SE Ramona was Fifty-eighth Avenue Southeast (that was the nomenclature, with the ordinal direction written out at the end of the phrase).
Here, have a look at the 1915 Pittmon’s Guide map to Portland. We’ve detailed a chunk of Southeast that illustrates this east-west avenue phenomenon.
1915 Pittmon’s Guide to Portland, detail showing SE Portland from Powell Valley Road to Duke. Click to enlarge.
Just when folks were getting used to the New York-style of numbered streets and avenues, the Great Renumbering came along and put an end to all of that. Readdressing took place through several city ordinances passed over time in the early 1930s, each one cleaning up a few details missed from the last one.
Here’s a story from the Oregon Journal in 1932: take note there were 66 changes to be made in southeast Portland, but Alameda and Beaumont had some clean up to do as well. It’s an interesting idea that addressing systems could be in vogue or out of vogue.
From the Daily Oregon Journal, December 11, 1932.
That’s a little piece of Portland’s addressing history we didn’t know before our deep dive in the southeast: east-west avenues with the directional at the end of the address once gridded that part of town.
We’ll save other insights for future posts:
How before annexation a myriad of privately-owned water systems were elbowing each other for business and access to Bull Run water (Woodstock was on a private well for many years).
Same for Portland’s streetcar system, which really wasn’t a single system but a collection of competing fiefdoms for many years until consolidation began in 1904.
And annexation, those neighborhood politics were as polarized as possible: some public meetings devolved into shouting matches, the rhetoric related to taxes and the role of government. In Woodstock, even after the November 1908 61-percent victory for annexation, the anti-annexers challenged the vote all the way to the Oregon Supreme Court where it was affirmed and Woodstock became part of Portland on July 1, 1909.
2-13-2021 Post Script: We’ve posted a link to the full 1915 Pittmon map, which is now on our Maps page. Embedded in that map is a statement that highlights the challenges presented by the pre-1930s address system. This official map advice relates to getting around in North Portland:
Extreme care must be exercised in this district as the streets having E. and W. prefixes are more nearly north and south. While streets having “N” and “S” prefixes are more nearly east and west.
For more than a century, the old church at the southeast corner of NE 24th and Broadway has been one of our neighborhood’s most visible landmarks, its distinctive Arts and Crafts steeple and bracketed gables signaling “turn here” to generations of neighbors heading home to Irvington, Alameda and points north.
Looking east on Broadway at the corner with NE 24th Avenue, about 1930. Courtesy of Portland City Archives, image 1999-004.319
Built at a time when much of the surrounding land was in transition from agriculture to residential and all the surrounding streets were gravel, this time traveler has witnessed generations of change.
Today, the old church is in the middle of its own significant change, having narrowly avoided being torn down and replaced by a five-story condominium. The Metropolitan Community Church sold the building in April 2019 to two northeast Portland business partners who are now adapting the old church into a brewery.
If you’ve recently passed by in the evenings and seen the stained glass windows all lighted up, you might have wondered what was happening. Neighborhood residents Brody Day and Dustin Harder have been busy taking things apart inside to see exactly what they have to work with and to coordinate with architects, engineers and designers as they develop the concept for the Steeplejack Brewing Company, which they hope to open in the summer of 2021.
The main sanctuary with pews (left), and recently with flooring material removed revealing floor joists. Photo courtesy Harder-Day.
Harder and Day are old college roommates from UC Santa Cruz who shared their first beer together in Austria way back when during a memorable study abroad term. That experience ignited a passion for brewing in Day who went on to become an accomplished home brewer and nationally recognized judge for brewing competitions. Over the years, Day has traveled across North America judging beers (and visiting breweries) and has always thought about how he’d like to start a commercial brewery of his own.
Following a move to Portland, Day connected with Harder and the two started planning a brewing business. In 2018 they began looking at properties and found the old church for sale, then owned by the Metropolitan Community Church of Portland. The congregation had been in the building since 1977 and had made the difficult decision to downsize to a building in Southeast Portland, putting the old church on the market for just over $1 million.
Day and Harder were one of two bids for the building: the other was from a local developer who wanted to demolish the church and build a five-story condo on the site. In April 2019, following a meeting with the pastor and the congregation—and assurance that Harder and Day wanted to keep the building intact—they successfully closed the deal.
Since then, it’s been a flurry of design activity, permitting meetings with the city and explorations of the old building to discover what they were working with structurally, and with the building’s fascinating history.
Opened in October 1909 as the First Universalist Church of Good Tidings, the building has been home to four separate church congregations over the years: First Universalist Church from 1909-1917; Grace English Lutheran Church 1919-1963; First Church of Divine Science, 1963-1977; and Metropolitan Community Church of Portland from 1977-2019.
The church cornerstone was laid by U.S. President William Howard Taft on October 3, 1909 in front of a crowd of 15,000 onlookers who crammed the streets in all directions to watch and listen as Taft set the stone and told the crowd he hoped the church would thrive.
From The Oregonian, October 4, 1909. Taft is pictured here during the cornerstone ceremony. Note church construction still underway in the background(click to enlarge).
A time capsule set by Taft in the cornerstone has since been opened by earlier church congregations. But the building remains one of few in Portland with the distinction of having been dedicated by a U.S. President. Day hopes to re-establish a time capsule in the same location when the business opens in the summer of 2021.
Over the years, the church has been a source of community and a venue for so many rites of passage: baptisms and christenings, weddings, funerals and the day-to-day offering of hopes and prayers. Day recognizes and affirms the sacred aspects of the building’s former life and wants to honor the space and the stories in a respectful way. His hope is that the building can once again be a community gathering spot, a comfortable place where neighbors of all ages—including families—just want to be.
One key element of the interior will be the brewing deck, which will be front and center at eye level in the bar, allowing visitors a close look at the brewing process.
Rendering of the brewing deck area above, and bar below. Courtesy Harder-Day and Open Concept Architecture.
Steeplejack will serve its own beers brewed on site and will feature guest taps as well. In his years as judge and beer connoisseur, Day has found there aren’t enough breweries who make great tasting low-alcohol content beers. Steeplejack intends to have the finest selection of excellent “sessionable” beers (which means you can have a few without being over the limit for the drive home).
The food menu is still in development, but Day says he’s thinking about a simple and affordable menu of a few excellent dishes that will make people want to come back.
He’s also thinking about how adaptive re-use of the building can carry through to other aspects of the new brewery. All of the tables, chairs and furniture, for instance, will be built from wood salvaged during the interior remodel.
One of the spaces Day is most excited about is the bell tower and steeple itself, which will be opened up from the inside so visitors can look up and admire the matrix of full-dimension structural wood—all cut and placed by hand in a time before power tools.
“The biggest surprise in all of this for me is how extremely well this building was built,” says Day. “So much of what we’re doing in the design is to showcase the quality of the craftsmanship and the pride they took in their work.”
And the name? A steeplejack was the most daring and accomplished worker on a job willing and able to climb to the highest and most precarious perch. To take a risk, to climb with confidence, to get a job done that most others couldn’t or wouldn’t want to do.
The pandemic has slowed things down, without a doubt, but Day is philosophical and feels the unanticipated interruption has actually allowed time to work out the details of their designs and plans, and to prepare the permitting pathway with the city. Watch for construction to begin in earnest soon with significant maintenance and upkeep on the exterior walls, windows and roof, and interior construction to create a tap room, brewing area and other interior brewery and restaurant spaces.
With a high-capacity pipeline laid in by hand in 1915 between the Mt. Tabor reservoirs and the new 1-million-gallon tank at NE 19th and Prescott replacing the old standpipe in 1920-1921, neighbors could water their lawns to their hearts’ content.
The old hand-me-down Vernon Standpipe was shuffled off to Willamette Bluff and the only conversation about the tank site for the next generation had to do with Water Board allowing students at the Vernon Practice House and Vernon School to plant gardens on the site. In 1922, a load of bricks from the old Palatine Hill pumping station, which was being demolished, was sent over to help beautify the site.
In July 1945—in the years before air traffic control and computer-aided navigation—a pilot for United Airlines suggested the city install a red beacon light atop the tank to serve as a guide for passenger airplanes trying to find Portland Airport.
But mostly, water needs were met. Until the long, hot summer of 1959.
Lots of lawn sprinkling and a lot more users completely drained the Vernon Tank. And public attention once again turned to the need for water and what the city was going to do about it. Fortunately, plans were already afoot to upgrade Vernon’s storage capacity by creating the largest storage tank of its kind in the nation: 5.5 million gallons.
From The Oregonian, August 1, 1959
Due to a steel strike, and local opposition from neighbors who were initially opposed to the size of the tank, it took a few years, but in February 1961 the Water Bureau selected Chicago Bridge and Tank to build the new tank for $469,000. And thankfully, once again, a city photographer chronicled progress in this great series of photos, all courtesy of Portland City Archives, series A2012-005. Be sure to check out the view from the top. All of these are worth a double click to see the detail. These guys were proud of their work.
The tank construction crew posed for a photo, June 11, 1962.
Using one of the on-site cranes, the photographer captured this aerial view looking northwest from the tank, NE Prescott crossing in the foreground, March 12, 1962.
Looking southeast from the corner of NE 18th and Prescott, March 12, 1962.
Looking up inside the tank, March 12, 1962.
Workers inside the tank, March 12, 1962.
Looking southeast from NE 18th and Prescott, May 4, 1962.
Looking west on Prescott at NE 20th, June 11, 1962.
Workers atop the tank during final stages of construction, June 11, 1962
Water Bureau Engineer Palmer North (left) and Commissioner Mark A. “Buck” Grayson (right) turn the valve filling the new tank, October 5, 1962.
Portland was proud of its crowning distinction of having the largest water tank in the country. On its Golden Anniversary celebration in December 1963, the American Society of Civil Engineers added the Vernon Tank—along with Bonneville Dam, the St. Johns Bridge and Timberline Lodge—to its engineering hall of fame.
In an interesting post script to history (and with thanks to attentive reader Grant), we’ve confirmed with the Portland Water Bureau that the 1 million gallon tank–the one built in 1920 atop the tower–has not held water for more than 40 years due to being made obsolete in the late 1970s or early 1980s due the construction of other storage facilities.
We’ve been thinking these days about the history of the big green giants that anchor the block at NE 19th and Prescott. In our last post we learned about the “Vernon Standpipe” as it was called, and the challenge in the 19-teens of keeping it filled with enough water to supply the neighborhood that grew up around it. That is, until this tank came along almost exactly 100 years ago.
The senior of the two tanks at NE 19th and Prescott, constructed in the fall and winter of 1920-1921 for $100,000 by the Chicago Bridge and Iron Company, holding 1 million gallons. Photographed April 21, 2020.
In our first installment, we left our expectant City Commissioners at the corner of NE 57th and Fremont with a shovel in their hands ready to dig a 14,280-foot long trench for a big new pipeline that would push more water from the Mt. Tabor reservoirs into our thirsty neighborhoods.
From The Daily Oregon Journal, August 8, 1915. This wooded street scene is likely somewhere along NE Skidmore before the residential neighborhood we know today had taken shape.
The pipeline dig began on April 16, 1915 powered by 59 unemployed men hired from the city’s standing civil service list. By May, workers at both ends of the project were working toward each other. Promises had been made to alleviate the water shortage by summer, so momentum was important and the newspapers took note.
By July 1915, crews had met in the middle and the golden spike moment seemed close at hand:
From The Oregonian, July 20, 1915.
These were the headlines everyone wanted to see and even though the big pipeline job was done, Water Board engineers knew volume and supply were only part of the equation. The hand-me-down Vernon Standpipe just didn’t have sufficient storage capacity to keep up with the growing need here and on the Peninsula. But the new main bought time for more thinking and engineering.
Water officials must have been relieved that the most pressing problem over the next few years seemed to be finding someone to paint the 100-foot-tall, 25-foot-diameter Vernon Standpipe, expressed in this September 19, 1917 headline: LOFTY PAINTING JOB GOES BEGGING. No bidders, so the standpipe’s bare panels became its trademark.
By August 1920, the city announced plans for construction of a new 1 million gallon storage tank for the site that would replace the 350,000 gallon Vernon Standpipe. And fortunately for us, a city photographer documented the progress, which went like this (double click into any of these for a closer look…there’s lots to see):
By late summer 1920, workers were busy on the plumbing for the new tank and establishing a concrete foundation that would support the tower and the million-gallon tank above. The water alone weighed 8.3 million pounds. This view is looking north from the tank site; the houses are on the north side of Prescott.
By the fall of 1920, the round base had been poured (foreground) and was ready for tower construction. This view is looking north showing the standpipe behind (nice stairway and railing, eh?), and the T intersection of NE 19th and Prescott.
By late 1920 or early 1921 the new tower and tank are taking shape. This view looks north with the standpipe behind and snow on the ground.
In this view looking north in early summer of 1921, workers are in their shirtsleeves and the tank is done.
In August 1921 the city paid Portland-based Le Doux and Le Doux Construction $10,477 to dismantle the former Vernon Standpipe (underway in this photo) now that the new tank was in place, and to relocate the pipe to a new venue in St. Johns at the corner of N. Princeton Street and N. Oswego Avenue, where it stands to this day (below), still in service at more than 120 years old:
Next up: The 1920 tank is eventually dwarfed by the biggest tank in the nation.
The thing about the Vernon tanks is that we see them so often they’ve somehow slipped from view.
Like wallpaper, we take their faded green bulk for granted. But when we pay attention, they loom large, visible from all corners of the neighborhood. Even arriving by air into the Portland area—remember flying on airplanes?—the tanks jump up out of the grid to announce the presence of the Vernon-Sabin-Alameda neighborhood, the start of the Alameda Ridge.
What if we looked at them in a new way with fresh eyes? Can you do that?
The Vernon Tanks, NE 19th and Prescott, April 21, 2020
The story of these tanks is a neighborhood story about water. A lot of water. Because it involves so much water and so much time, we should break it into a few parts:
In this first part we’ll describe the early days of Portland’s amazing water system and how it arrived in our neighborhood.
In the second part, we’ll describe the pivotal role this area played as a kind of water waypoint: how the city was able to get a lot more water here where it could pause for a bit before being moved farther out the line to other thirsty neighborhoods.
In the third part, we’ll focus on the water tank building effort that produced the green behemoth we know today.
In a post-script, we’ll have a look at a great photo from the big day the guys poured concrete in 1920.
To help tell these stories, we’ll share a bunch of 100-year-old photos that haven’t seen the light of day for decades, some 50-year-old negatives that don’t even have prints for them, and lots of news clippings that help us piece it all together. So, grab a glass of water and let’s go.
Watering the Grid
Fortunately for all of us in Portland, water runs downhill. Our abundant clean water starts in Bull Run on the forested slopes of Mt. Hood and through an engineering miracle beyond your wildest imagination courses through pipes and headgates, valves and meters all the way to your kitchen.
Back at the turn of the last century as eastside neighborhoods were just taking off, one of the many challenges of carving out the grid of streets had to do with getting city services in here. We’ve already written about the sewer system, which was available to most of our homes by 1914. But water was first.
Here’s a look at the neighborhood in 1909, thanks to Sanborn Fire Insurance maps. It’s an index of the many individual map pages (each big black number represents a more detailed map). Double click for a closer look.
Note the city limits boundary just east of NE 33rd. Also note the open fields that were soon to be filled in by Alameda and Beaumont. When this map was drawn, this part of our city had been Portland for less than 20 years. Imagine the biggest subdivision you’ve ever seen rolling off east through the fields to the horizon.
Look carefully at the corner of NE 19th and Prescott (we’ve circled it in red). That’s the Vernon Standpipe, the earliest predecessor of the tanks standing there today, built and plumbed in 1906. Here’s what the Vernon Standpipe looked like in August 1920, courtesy of City of Portland Archives, A2008-009.
Looking southwest from Prescott and NE 20th.
A standpipe is basically a fancy name for a tank that is taller than it is wide and is used to create pressure down the line in the system, which is exactly what the neighborhood needed in its earliest days. Think of it as a miniature above-ground version of the Mt. Tabor Reservoirs, where water could be stored waiting for you to turn on your tap.
Water in the standpipe came from Mt. Tabor in an elaborate system of pipes. The problem was—as the grid spread out and more houses were built—the pipes were too small to carry enough water, the standpipe wasn’t big enough and couldn’t exert enough pressure, and people were running out of water.
That first standpipe was installed at NE 19th and Prescott because of its elevation on the ridge. It used to stand at the corner of NE 13th and Schuyler, but was shifted uphill in 1906 (at a cost of about $10,000) to get the extra pressure. Interestingly, it took the city nine more years to eventually sell the empty 100 x 100 lot on Schuyler for $4,500 after neighbors complained it had become an unsightly dumping ground.
By 1910, water engineers knew they needed to increase capacity to north and northeast Portland and by 1912 the Water Board had acquired adjacent property at 19th and Prescott for a more elaborate storage facility.
A water crisis in July 1914 created political pressure: the standpipe went dry when all the new homeowners in the area decided to water their new lawns at the same time (seriously). On July 14, 1914, a rationing program was put in place allowing odd-numbered houses to use the hose on odd-numbered dates and even-numbered houses on even-numbered dates. Neighbors glared at offending neighbors. Tickets were written. And the Water Board quickly reminded an unhappy public that no cut in water rates was planned even though homeowners were rationing.
The hubbub of the July water crisis focused public attention on water and led to reporting on plans already underway by the Water Board. From The Oregonian on July 21, 1914:
“At present, the 30-inch trunk main for the district extends only one mile from the [Mt. Tabor] reservoirs. It is proposed to extend this to the Vernon standpipe, a distance of two and one-half miles, so that the supply at that point will be more than ample even on the hottest days.”
By September 1914, the city had completed plans to extend a much larger 30-inch water main from the intersection of NE 57th and Fremont north to Skidmore and then straight west all the way to the Vernon Standpipe, a distance of 14,280 feet. The job would cost $113,000.
Months before the work would even begin (and in light of consternation about running dry and rationing), city commissioners were celebrating what this would mean: “This will treble our capacity,” said Commissioner Will Daly. “We expect to have the new work completed by next summer. As all the property in this locality is unplatted, we do not expect difficulty in obtaining the rights of way.”
Open fields and a straight shot down Skidmore all the way to the Standpipe.
In our continuing quest to learn more about the people who designed and built homes here on Portland’s eastside, we’ve just published two new profiles: Edward R. McLean, who was an active and prolific homebuilder between 1922-1970; and Earl A. Roberts, who ran a residential design-build company with his dad and brother from 1908-1910 before his break-out success as an architect of high-end westside homes that vaulted him into a successful commercial architectural practice in Seattle between 1918 until his death in 1939. He also designed several prominent buildings in the Roseburg, Oregon area.
A listing of homes designed and built by the two men appears at the end of each biography. If you live in Beaumont, you better check out the list of McLean’s homes because you might live in one: he built quite a few in Beaumont. If you know something about a McLean house or the McLean family, drop us a line.
Interested in the story of who built your home or commercial property? Research Services.
The loss and complete transformation of what was once a vital Albina main street will always haunt this North Portland neighborhood, in so many different ways. Important chapters of Portland history have played out here, from the early days of being its own city before becoming part of Portland, through waves of immigration, to Civil Rights protests and the vibrancy of African-American owned business, life and culture.
Today, if you don’t know this history, you might drive north on Williams past Emanuel Hospital and not know you are traveling through a kind of sacred ground.
To help us imagine this lost place, here’s a pretty amazing photo from AH photo friend Norm Gholston, and a then-and-now shot we matched up during a recent outing. Norm shared this great old pic recently: it’s the image side of a “real photo” postard, popular in this era. Click to enlarge and take a good look.
Taken from just north of the intersection with Russell Street, the 1909 photo features a look at the Kennard and Adams department store on the left, which carried a little bit of everything. The first intersection in the distance is Knott Street. That’s the Immaculate Heart Church steeple at Williams and Stanton you can see in the distance, the only common denominator that really jumps out at you from the two photos (known back in the day as St. Mary’s Church, not St. Mark’s as the Sanborn implies).
Here’s a composite of several Sanborn maps we put together to be able to visualize where Norm’s 1909 photo was taken. The red box indicates the approximate photo point. Click to enlarge.
Details from Sanborn plates 268, 273 and 274, from 1909.
If you ride, walk or drive this way—or if you didn’t know the history of this amazing stretch of street—take a moment to check out the following multiple sources of insight about what this neighborhood meant during its heyday, and how its loss has affected the people who knew it: