The AH blog has been quiet lately because it’s been a very busy winter on many research fronts: specific homes and their builders and people; intersections that are undergoing significant change; the incredible story of three very specific long-lost panels of ornamental glass and the wonder of window restoration and sash making; puzzling questions about everything from street alignments (why is that bend there?), to front porches (what happened to my front porch?). Some interesting things to share in the weeks ahead.
Meanwhile, here are four fresh photos to wake things up a bit, echoing through from our recent series on Sullivan’s Gulch and the arrival of the Banfield Expressway.
You’ve driven past these buildings a million times: part of today’s big U-Store complex on the north side of the Banfield (I-84) at NE 28th, just west of the Hollywood West Fred Meyer.
Here’s a link to the installment from our Sullivan’s Gulch series that references the Doernbecher Furniture Company buildings, which you can still find today if you turn east off of NE 28th at Sullivan Street, just south of the Banfield. Go down that hill, through the tunnel, cross the tracks and take a look. The crossing is in the same place as it appears in this 19-teens photo above, courtesy of the Oregon Historical Society.
Here’s an even earlier westward view of the Gulch that we’ve come across, taken in the early 1900s just below where the State of Oregon office building is today on Lloyd Boulevard. The photo was taken to document progress on the trunk sewer that was constructed down the gulch (you can see it there in the bottom…the man is walking along the top of it). By triangulating the photo with old Sanborn Fire Insurance maps, our hunch is the houses on the brow of the gulch are at the corner of 7th and Irving. Look carefully, you can see the two towers of the Steel Bridge through the haze to the west.
The trunk sewer–and what went in it–was the source of legal wrangling between the various new subdivisions upstream that all wanted to dump their waste into it (but didn’t want to pay for it). The contents were still headed for open water in the Willamette River (not good), but the trunk sewer was an improvement over earlier more primitive ways of sewage disposal.
And our last gem below shows a 1930s view of the clubhouse at the old Lloyd Golf Course. This graceful building, now gone, sat near NE Irving at about 13th (across from Benson High School) and was the gateway to the old golf course.
Here’s more about the Lloyd Golf Course era, and one last photo below from AH reader Steve Goodman showing the building’s later days after the golf course was gone (and when Steve was learning to wash dishes in the dishroom of this very building).
During the Great Depression and the war years of the 1940s, Portlanders had more pressing things to think about than the future of Sullivan’s Gulch. If they thought about the gulch at all, it might have been about their jobs at Doernbecher’s furniture factory, or an escape to Lloyd’s golf course, or the sprawling Hooverville-shantytown at the mouth of the gulch.
Before the speedway: looking west down Sullivan’s Gulch through the Lloyd Golf Course, just west of the NE 21st Avenue viaduct, December 1947. The driving range fence and a corner of Benson High School are visible in upper left. Photo courtesy of Oregon Historical Society, OrHi 91595.
Through those tough years, many families and small businesses struggled just to make ends meet. A quick look at the census shows how many homes on the eastside took in a boarder or two, or had extended family living under the same roof. And if you were a citizen of color or an immigrant, the Portland establishment was more about keeping you down than helping you up.
An influx of workers associated with shipyards and the World War 2 effort brought continued growth particularly on the eastside, and further industrialization along the Willamette and Columbia rivers. Between 1920-1950, our population increased by more than 115,000 people.
Many of those people had cars.
Completion of the Ross Island and Burnside bridges in the mid 1920s allowed direct access to downtown from the eastside. The Ross Island Bridge, completed in 1926, was the first major Willamette crossing that did not include a streetcar route, an important choice and signal of things to come.
By the late 1920s, automobile use had outpaced streetcar ridership and east-west arterials were increasingly clogged with car commuters morning and night. Between 1913 when the Broadway Bridge opened and 1928, the total number of automobile registrations in Oregon increased from 10,165 to 256,527. A powerful force had been unleashed that was going to re-make the landscape.
Another indication of our early car-related growing pains: in 1927 voters approved a street widening levy that literally remade Burnside Street by removing entire portions of buildings and adding street lanes to cope with increased traffic. Similar work took place on Northeast Broadway in the early 1930s.
Looking west at NW 6th and Burnside during the widening project. Buildings on both sides of the street were cut back to make way for more lanes and more traffic. This was not a popular move as Portland struggled with growing pains. Photo courtesy City of Portland Archives, image a2001-062-2
Despite these changes—or perhaps because of them—City Council received an increasing number of complaints about traffic on Fremont, Broadway, Burnside, Stark and Hawthorne. The writing was on the wall for a bigger traffic congestion “fix.”
In 1944, City Commissioner William Bowes brought up C.A. McClure’s earlier Planning Commission speedway vision. The State Highway Commission—chaired by T. Harry Banfield—was on board and suggested the city not grant any more building permits along the Sullivan’s Gulch right of way. If the speedway vision was going to come to pass, it was time to stop allowing development along the edges of the gulch. By agreeing, Portland inched closer to endorsing the project.
As the war years ended, the topic rose to the top of Portland civic life and news coverage.
From The Oregonian, February 24, 1946
City Council placed a money measure for the expressway on the May 21, 1948 ballot asking if Portland voters were ready to pass a $2.4 million tax levy for the city’s share of a $10.5 million project to build a gulch expressway that would theoretically ease traffic problems. Interestingly, also on the ballot that day was a city ordinance requiring the leashing of all dogs…council didn’t want to be alone with just its fingerprints on that explosive decision either.
The resulting public dialog and advertising campaign about the expressway levy produced fireworks as people and businesses chose sides:
From The Oregonian, May 20, 1948
From The Oregonian, May 19, 1948
Portland City Club added its voice and recommendation with a report considering the pros and cons of the expressway, including an awareness for Portlanders that construction would require demolition of more than 110 homes along the right-of-way.
The results of the vote were an unequivocal no: Portland was not interested. (Results of the dog leashing ordinance were far less clear: it was defeated by a mere 4 percent margin).
From The Oregonian, May 24, 1948
But the establishment was strong and within a week, the Oregon Transportation Commission went ahead anyway with survey and planning work to prepare for major right-of-way acquisition. Spurned by Portland voters, T. Harry Banfield and the commission decided to look elsewhere to fund the speedway vision.
During the week after the landslide vote, The Oregonian editorial board expressed its surprise about the Highway Commission’s decision to go ahead anyway, but endorsed the new highway as necessary for progress:
From The Oregonian, May 27, 1948
Soon, things began to happen, with tangible progress beginning to show on the eastern end of the project and then proceeding west toward downtown. Portions of neighborhoods were bought and houses moved or demolished:
From the Oregon Journal, August 21, 1949
Later in 1949, the Highway Commission had to revise right-of-way acquisition costs upward from $2.4 million to $4.8 million. In August 1950, T. Harry Banfield died while on a fishing trip in Gold Beach, but the vision was well on its way into implementation. By early 1952, the first construction contract for grading at the far eastern end of the highway in the Fairview area had been let for $400,000. In March of 1955, the Doernbecher factory in the gulch at NE 28th Avenue closed and its furniture-making machinery sold at auction. In January of 1956, seven of the Lloyd Golf Course putting greens were sold to Riverside Golf and Country Club for an undisclosed price.
Photos from the 1950s make it clear just how much gulch-widening and dirt moving would be required, particularly in the big bends between NE 21st and NE 37th.
On October 1, 1955, the highway opened between NE 42nd and Troutdale. Two years later, with funds from the major highway infrastructure bill signed into law by President Eisenhower, the final two miles were completed. By 1960, the Banfield Freeway was fully operational and a century of transformation in the gulch was complete, from natural area to homestead to manufacturing hub, golf course and shantytown.
Despite all the changes brought about by the speedway vision, some weren’t quite ready to embrace the gulch’s new identity. A grass-roots campaign that began (and ended) in Parkrose attempted to claim local history, reminding us once again about the importance of places and their names.
Today, it remains the Banfield. But some of us know it’s still Sullivan’s Gulch.
We’ve come across a digitized collection of photos from 1905—thanks to the Oregon Historical Society (OHS)—that offers a tantalizing glimpse of homes and street scenes on Portland’s eastside, including one we’ve been able to identify and a bunch of others we’re still working on.
The collection which resides at OHS includes 88 individual glass plate negatives taken by an unknown photographer that were left behind in a Northeast Portland boarding house.
Many of the photos depict the Woodlawn neighborhood. The one we sleuthed out is a tidy one-story hip-roofed bungalow not far from Woodlawn School that looks a lot today like it did back in 1905. See for yourself:
This particular photo was not too difficult to identify because the home’s pre-address-change address is visible on the front porch column. With a little detective work we were able to identify this as a home in the 7000 block of NE 11th Avenue.
We’re confident there are other distinguishing details in these photos that will be tantalizing to many of us photo detectives. But even if you just enjoy a little time travel, it’s so interesting to have a close up look at these houses as brand-new buildings, to see the family moments and groups, the dirt streets and background views.
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.
We’ve come across another outstanding early 1900s vantage point from Williams Avenue that you’re going to want to see (thanks Norm). This one is a nice southward-looking companion to the northward shot we featured a few months back. Be sure to study both and to take a good look at the Sanborn we assembled to get a feel for this long-gone place that was once a hub of activity for this part of Portland.
First, have a good look at the south view; then check out the north view that we’ve seen before. Then let’s discuss.
Looking south on Williams Avenue from Graham. Photo courtesy of Norm Gholston.
Looking north on Williams Avenue from Russell. Photo courtesy of Norm Gholston.
What do you see?
Let’s start by looking at the northward image, where you can just about see where this southward view was taken. See the picket fence that appears below the steeple of the Immaculate Heart Church and the bushy tree? Nearby, check out the utility pole that is leaning toward the street.
Now, look at the southward view: there’s the picket fence and the bushy tree behind our man in the hat scratching his face (and the leaning utility pole). That should help put things in perspective and establishes the photo was taken from the corner of Graham and Williams.
The crank on the pole (you can see others like it in the northward photo) allows for periodic maintenance of the carbon arc streetlight hanging overheard.
Look how fresh and clean those curbs and sidewalks look. Chances are they were built by Elwood Wiles, a household name you can still see today stamped into sidewalks all over the eastside.
The Willliams Avenue streetcar tracks owned the middle of the street, with streetcars headed north/south to St. Johns, which were shifted over to Union Avenue about 1911. No automobiles to be seen.
Look at all the awnings: in the southward photo shading the west side of the street from morning sunlight (and it might still be somewhat early judging on the length of the shadows that spill out into the street).
Check out the onion-shaped dome from the old Hill Block building at the corner of NE Russell and Williams, which can be seen today in Dawson Park. That intersection was the center of the universe for early Albina and a crucial part of the African-American cultural landscape well up until when it was torn down in 1969. That block has been vacant ever since, but planning conversations are underway.
Photo friend Norm Gholston has shared another view of a favorite corner, this one shows something important that’s missing, which gives us a good clue about when it was taken. Do you see it (or rather not see it)? Have a good look.
NE 41st and Fremont Avenue, looking southeast, about 1929. Photo courtesy of Norm Gholston Collection.
What’s missing is the Beaumont Market, which exists today immediately adjacent to the far left of this building. Here’s a post we wrote last year that includes a similar but slightly later photo, and beautiful color-pencil renderings of the market building (which came along seven years after the pharmacy), submitted to the city in 1935 by architect Charles Ertz.
Other things to note in this photograph include the absence of the McMarr Stores sign, which was present in the 1929 photo. Our hunch is that this photo was taken soon after construction–late 1928 or very early 1929–and used by J. Benjamin Lowe, Proprietor to get the word out about his new pharmacy, and his phone number. Note the Beaumont exchange was GA (someone trying to phone Proprietor Lowe would pick up the phone and say to the operator, “please ring Garfield 1614”). Do you know about old phone exchanges? Read more here.
The hinged box sitting on the curb: in more snowy climates, a box like this might hold gravel or sand for when the crosswalk and intersection become hard-packed and slippery, but Portland? Maybe. A drop box to keep the bundle of early-morning newspapers dry until the owner opened up? Other ideas?
The reality, of course, is that research is never really done. That’s what makes it fun. Sometimes after you think you’ve found enough to be able to understand a thing, you come across another nugget that adds perspective.
Such is the case today: It’s a photo from the summer of 1920 showing construction of the concrete base for the one-million gallon Vernon tank that replaced the old standpipe, which is looming over the whole scene at NE 19th and Prescott. Have a good look:
Courtesy of City of Portland Archives, A2008-009
This was undoubtedly a big day on the job:
The concrete forms for the new tower foundation have been intricately prepared;
The engineers are there in their coats and ties with their instrument and tripod to keep everything on the level and in the right place;
The steam donkey is belching dark smoke, meaning it’s working hard to turn the mixer;
The men on the far left are shoveling from a pile of rock into the mixer to make the concrete;
The men with the two-wheeled wheelbarrows (called Jersey buckets) are wheeling the fresh concrete across the plank ramps as the pour begins;
Sections of the new tank are carefully stacked in readiness at the edge of the site;
This view looks north; the houses in the center and on the right are still there on the north side of Prescott. If you know these neighbors, pass along this photo…they might enjoy seeing their houses 100 years ago.
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.