We’re writing this month about Sullivan’s Gulch. Some readers have wondered what makes this geographic feature a gulch—which Webster’s defines as a deep or precipitous cleft, a ravine—and where exactly it is. Good questions.
A couple of maps of the area might help. Take a look first at 1897:
In this 1897 USGS quadrangle map (used here courtesy of City of Portland Archives) we see Sullivan Gulch called out specifically on Portland’s eastside, and you can follow the contour lines (each one represents about 25 feet in elevation change) showing the depression or ravine that begins on the east at about today’s NE 60th and runs west to the Willamette. We feel about 60th is probably the reasonable eastern edge of the gulch, which functioned as a sub-watershed funneling water downhill to the Willamette River.
By the way, while you’re looking at this neat old map (click to enlarge), have a good look around and see how many features and roads you can identify, and be sure to take a look at the extent of development in eastside neighborhoods: Woodlawn and part of Irvington are there. Concordia-Vernon-Sabin-Alameda and points east are not. Can you spot the Alameda Ridge? Don’t you wish you could explore the old Columbia Bayou along the top of the map?
Most early 20th Century Portland newspaper references identified the geographic boundary of Sullivan’s Gulch as the area between today’s MLK out to about today’s NE 33rd Avenue.
There used to be plenty of other gulches that opened up into the eastern banks of the Willamette, but most of them were filled in the early days. Read more about that here.
Here’s a look at a more recent shaded relief map from National Geographic that shows elevation change and the gully running along the bottom, supporting the case that NE 60th seems to be a reasonable eastern boundary.
It’s been a place of constant change, and as we’ve seen so far, has been used pretty hard over the years. But the biggest changes were still to come.
Continuing our four-part series on Sullivan’s Gulch. The first chapter examined homestead and early railroad history. In this chapter we explore how manufacturing shaped the area during the first half of the 20th Century.
In the early 1900s, the railroad came to define Sullivan’s Gulch, connecting Portland to points east and serving a growing manufacturing presence in the gulch proper and along its shoulders.
From The Oregonian, May 7, 1911.
Engineers had filled in the marshlands at the mouth of the gulch where it met the Willamette River in an attempt to keep seasonal flooding from damaging rail infrastructure. On frigid months, the ponds that formed there—about where today’s I-84 merges with Interstate 5—were used as ice skating rinks by residents of nearby eastside neighborhoods. Other nearby gulches were used as sewers and dumping grounds, some were filled in.
The rails up the gulch were necessary infrastructure for a growing Portland, and they were a major attraction, particularly for neighborhood kids. Here’s a memory from former resident Bob Frazier, shared in the January 27, 1952 edition of the Oregon Journal:
“The gulch was a terrible place for kids, but at the time it was wonderful. In a way, living by the gulch was something like living next to a roundhouse. The trains puffing through Sullivan Gulch never failed to attract us and stir our fiendish little imaginations. Whenever we could sneak away from home for a few minutes, our crowd of 4 and 5-year-olds would bee-line for the gulch to watch No. 17, which as I recall came through sometime between nap-time and supper-time. The whistle of No. 17, screeching toward the Willamette, will, I fear, become meaningless to the next generation.”
For Frazier and his gang—and several generations of kids as surrounding neighborhoods built up—the gulch was a land of forbidden adventure that included digging caves into the slopes, hunting pheasants, building rope swings, playing with fire, and playing in deep puddles.
The legendary Oregon Railway & Navigation Engine 17 passing under the NE 33rd Avenue viaduct, January 20, 1929. The Beaver State Furniture building to the left is today’s graffiti-covered former Gordon’s Fireplace Shop at NE 33rd and Broadway. Note how much narrower the gulch was than today: major widening in the 1950s made room for the Banfield Expressway, requiring replacement of the viaduct.
Heavy manufacturers quickly found the value and utility of locating their factories along the rail line in the bottom of the gulch and along its sides: cheap close-in property not suitable for residential development; easy trans-shipment of products to distant markets; good access to workers from eastside neighborhoods, including a handy link with the streetcar system.
In 1899, the Doernbecher Manufacturing Company acquired five acres of property in the gulch at NE 28th on the north side of the tracks, where they built what TheOregon Journal referred to as “The biggest furniture factory under one roof in the world.”
From The Oregon Journal, December 25, 1904.
With thousands of factory workers reporting to this area each day, access and transportation became crucial. In 1902, a viaduct at 28th carried the 28th Street Streetcar on a spur north from the Montavilla line across the gulch where it stopped at Halsey. Two large stairways led down the north side of the gulch to the factory below. Today, it might be hard to imagine all of the activity in this area, but up until the 1940s (and the booming shipyards associated with the war effort), the Doernbecher factory had the largest industrial payroll in the Portland area.
A view of the Doernbecher Furniture Factory, looking toward the northwest, from The Oregonian, February 25, 1912. The bluff of Sullivan’s Gulch is visible behind.
By the early 1930s, residential development had completely surrounded the Doernbecher factory and while the neighbors appreciated the employment opportunities, they were having a hard time breathing and were tired of cleaning up the soot that came out of the Doernbecher chimneys.
The factory generated its own power from wood-fired boilers that belched thick smoke and ash. In August 1933, neighbors lined up to protest at city hall, including a demonstration that left an impression on at least one newspaper reporter from the Oregon Journal, writing on August 26, 1933:
“The protestants, in virtually every talk that was made, urged that they did not desire the factory removed or shut down, that they are in full sympathy with the undertaking to give more employment but that they do feel that they have submitted to the smoke nuisance as long as it can be endured and are entitled to relief.”
“A spectacular feature of the hearing was the marching up to the council desk, where the committee sat, of groups of housewives and their depositing on the desks of bags and packages of soot and cinders they had swept up in their homes.”
Company president Harry A. Green was actually arrested on October 15,1935 for continuing to ignore a city ordinance about nuisance smoke. In a hearing that week before Municipal Judge Donald E. Long, Green threatened to close and liquidate the company.
From The Oregon Journal, October 16, 1935 (left) and The Oregonian, March 21, 1936
Here’s another look at the factory—this one taken in 1947—showing that the company didn’t actually close, but continued with its operations, and with heavy smoke. In fact, the factory continued to operate until 1955 when it closed, according to Harry Green, due to unfavorable union negotiations. Today, the area functions as a giant public storage facility and in a fitting twist of history, hosts several small craft furniture studios.
Looking northwest, NE 28th and Sandy crossing at a diagonal left to right, 1947. The NE 28th Avenue viaduct spans the gulch, and a portion of the roof of the Doernbecher plant. Note the smoke plume. Source: City of Portland Archives A2005-001-577.
The street that today leads down into the gulch, under the Banfield, across the tracks and into the old factory building? It’s NE Sullivan Street.
The former Doernbecher Furniture Factory today, Google Streetview.
Just up-gulch to the east, where the ravine bends to the north, was more heavy industry and manufacturing. First a foundry, then a machine shop and other metal manufacturing, the site of today’s Hollywood West Fred Meyer eventually became the sprawling industrial campus of Willamette Hyster, later known simply as Hyster, where the company made forklifts and other heavy equipment. Hyster operations in the gulch began in the 1940s and took over parts of the surrounding neighborhood. Over the years, Hyster acquired and demolished an estimated 17 nearby homes on the flats above the gulch north and west of the factory to make room for its operations
Detail of a 1960 aerial photo that shows the location of Hyster and its neighbors. The red outline is the approximate location of today’s Hollywood West Fred Meyer. Note that the NE 33rd exit off the Banfield was east of 33rd. Photo courtesy of University of Oregon Map and Aerial Photography Library.
Hyster’s immediate gulch neighbor to the northeast was Albina Fuel, a storage yard for all things combustible: wood, sawdust, coal and heating oil. And all surrounded by a growing neighborhood that was closing in on both sides of the gulch (and within two blocks of a busy elementary school).
An early 1940s view looking south (Broadway in the foreground) at Albina Fuel at Broadway and 33rd. The viaduct over the gulch is visible in the background, with neighborhood houses just beyond. Photo courtesy of Albina Fuel.
It wasn’t just heavy manufacturing at this big bend in the gulch: A factory built in 1911 by the Oregon Home Builders at the southeast corner of 33rd and Broadway—which many of us probably remember as Gordon’s Fireplace Shop and Tarlow’s Furniture before that—was a huge cabinet and carpentry shop for its first few years.
Oregon Home Builders constructed its built-ins and kitchen cabinetry here until charismatic company president and budding pilot Oliver K. Jeffery transformed it—briefly in 1917 until funding reality caught up—into a place where spruce aircraft parts were built.
From The Oregonian, January 1, 1918. Top photo looks east on NE Broadway just east of NE 33rd.
In an August 5, 1917 story in The Oregon Journal, Jeffrey was quoted as saying his workers were cutting 25,000 board feet of spruce parts daily for airplane stock and that the product would be shipped to eastern finishing plants. He told reporters: “Large orders for finished material have been secured by my company and the present force of 26 men will soon be doubled.” The plant closed a few months later.
Many different products have been manufactured in this building over the years: excelsior, pasta, furniture. It even hosted street-facing retail including barber shops and diners in the 1940s and 1950s. From the 1960s into the late 1970s, the building was Tarlow Furniture. Today, it’s become a canvas for graffiti artists and vandals while its current owners go through the permit process for redevelopment, which will include ground floor retail and a preschool, with apartments on the second and third floors.
One little-known early Sullivan’s Gulch product was the movie business. The American Lifeograph Film Company started in 1911 as this new industry was just taking hold…for a brief time Portland could have become Hollywood. From its headquarters on the south edge of the gulch at NE 33rd and Wasco, the company made dozens of silent films. But a major fire in March 1923 wiped them out and competition from Hollywood pulled that energy and talent south.
The American Lifeograph Company had a large movie studio building at NE 33rd and Wasco, just a few blocks south of the Oregon Home Builders workshop. This photo shows the studio in a story from the Oregon Journal on February 4, 1914. The studio burned in 1923 ending the company’s presence in Portland.
Aside from all this teeming industry down in the ravine, just getting across the gulch has been a challenge for the ages, and received constant newspaper attention in the early 1900s as the city strategized about bridge construction and how to pay for it. Here’s a look to the south in the teens at the Grand Avenue bridge over the gulch.
Completion of the 21st street viaduct in October 1912 cost $70,000 and at the time was one of the most modern structures of its kind. The grand opening on October 21, 1912 featured a parade of “loaded auto-trucks, followed by a number of giant steamrollers” as if to make the point that it was sturdy.
Looking east toward the brand new 21st Street Viaduct, 1912 Source: Oregon Historical Society.
We’ve had an opportunity in the last few months to take a deep dive into the history of the Sullivan’s Gulch neighborhood, which technically runs from NE Broadway to NE Holladay between NE 11th and NE 37th, sandwiched between the Holladay Park and Irvington neighborhoods to the north, and the Kerns neighborhood to the south. There are so many interesting chapters and stories to share about the Gulch, so we thought we’d capture some of them into a few posts.
A scene from the Gulch in the 1920s, looking southeast directly toward the old Sullivan homestead on the south slopes, from about NE 16th. Click to enlarge. Note the gentle swale, and the older homes near the top of the ravine. People on the far slope are haying their land, and in the foreground, maybe drilling a well. You can see the 21st Street Viaduct at far left. Photo courtesy of Oregon Historical Society, OrHi 53652.
This week we’ll look at the original Sullivan homestead and the coming of the railroad in 1882.
Future posts will focus on the Doernbecher Furniture Manufacturing plant at NE 28th, which was one of the largest employers in Portland (and as we’ll see one of the heaviest air polluters of the early 20th Century); the golf course and Hooverville that occupied the lower gulch in the 1930s-1940s; and construction of the Banfield Expressway (which, by the way, was uniformly opposed two-to-one by Portland voters in 1946).
First, let’s get our definitions straight.
Regular AH readers know we have a fondness for Portland’s plat maps. Within Sullivan’s Gulch alone are at least eight underlying plats filed by developers, beginning with the earliest in about 1870. Plats are essentially subdivision plans for lots and streets, filed with Multnomah County. Sometimes called additions—plat boundaries are different from neighborhoods. Today’s neighborhood names are essentially social-political boundaries; plats are engineering plans. Here’s the Sullivan’s Gulch neighborhood today, according to Portland’s Office of Community and Civic Life:
More than 900 plats make up today’s City of Portland, most of them filed during the early years, by developers trying to make a favorable impression by choosing an attractive sounding name. As it turns out, what things are named is a big deal.
Something notable about plats in today’s Sullivan’s Gulch is that they were some of the earliest on Portland’s eastside, dating to the 1870s at a time when Portland was actually three towns: Portland, which was basically just the westside; East Portland, where these plats are located; and Albina to the north and east. In 1891 these three separate towns combined to create the City of Portland.
For the record, there is an actual plat called Sullivan’s Gulch, but it was filed just five years ago and relates only to about a block and a half near the corner of NE 21st and Multnomah. And of course there is the Sullivan’s addition of 1870, platted by John J. Sullivan, son of the original homesteaders Timothy and Margaret Sullivan. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Turning the clock way back, we know the Gulch was shaped by the cataclysmic floods that coursed across the region associated with the breaching of ancient Lake Missoula.
We also know and acknowledge that these lands (and all lands that make up Portland today) were taken from the Multnomah and Clackamas bands of Chinook, the Tualatin bands of the Kalapuya, the Molalla, and many other family bands and tribes, who were then forcibly removed from the home their ancestors knew for 500 generations.
The first people—who lived here and knew these lands for 10,000 years before Portland became Portland—traveled the length of the gulch and other routes between the Willamette and Sandy rivers.
Here’s the first map produced by the U.S. Government Land Office and the Surveyor General showing the surrounding area, including the Timothy and Margaret Sullivan Homestead. There’s lots to look at here, and we’ve added a few pointers in red for context.
Government Land Office Survey Map, 1852. Note that Boise-King-Sabin-Alameda-Beaumont-Wilshire was a wide swath of “burnt timber” and that Swan Island really was an island. The “Road from Portland to Tualatin Plains” roughly aligns with parts of today’s Canyon Road and the Sunset Highway. Portland was just a small grid of streets on the west side of the river (where the waters were deep enough to anchor ships).
Homesteader Timothy Sullivan left his native Ireland before the famine struck in 1847 and came to Portland about 1850 after a short time in Australia, where he met and married wife Margaret. They both became US citizens in 1855 and received title to the property from the U.S. Government in the early 1860s.
About that time, the Sullivans sold a portion of their new homestead to the Archdiocese of Portland, directly north across the street from Lone Fir Cemetery at SE Stark and 24th. Catholics could not be buried at Lone Fir Cemetery in those days, so the Diocese created a cemetery of its own—St. Mary’s Cemetery—which operated from 1858 until 1930 when the remains were relocated to the new Mt. Calvary Cemetery in southwest Portland. The site of the old St. Mary’s Cemetery is today’s Central Catholic High School.
Location of the former St. Mary’s Catholic Cemetery (indicated by arrow) on lands that were originally part of the Timothy and Margaret Sullivan homestead. The site of today’s Central Catholic High School. Map source: City of Portland 18982 Renaming Map by Stengele & Schiffers, Courtesy of City of Portland Archives.
Thomas Sullivan died in the 1860s and widow Margaret in the 1880s. Yes, their remains were buried at St. Mary’s Cemetery and later exhumed and relocated to Mt. Calvary Cemetery.
Here’s one of the few visible clues to the Sullivans today, this one-block long stretch of “Sullivan Street,” which is actually more like an alley (there aren’t any street signs here, just the ghostly Google label), perched on the south edge of the gulch behind Oregon Mt. Community at NE 29th. Directly behind this view, the street sweeps to the east, down the hill and under the Banfield for access to the U-Storage building, which is the old Doernbecher Furniture Factory.
Looking west along the Banfield Expressway (Interstate 84). Google Streetview image.
The Sullivans knew the area when it was a wild and somewhat remote place. But after their passing, when the railroad arrived in the spring of 1882, builders began to fill in the lower part of the Gulch to make way for the rails and to protect from Willamette River floodwaters. They also built the first steel bridge across the Willamette, the Albina yards to the north, and lots of infrastructure.
Here’s, a birds-eye view from 1890 looking west. This map was produced to market properties in Ben Holladay’s addition, which as we can see just happens to be at the center of the Portland universe. The red arrow indicates the location of the old Sullivan Homestead–and a water source / favorite bucolic picnic grounds known as Sullivan’s Springs–near today’s intersection of NE 19th and NE Pacific Street.
Oregon Real Estate Company birdseye view, 1890. Courtesy of Portland City Archives, A2010-015
And just because we’re a little crazy for old maps and photos—and on the chance you might not already know about it—below is an amazing photograph from 1903, one of 14 tiles in a giant panorama called the Henrichsen Panorama, looking right at the mouth of the Gulch in 1903. You could spend an hour looking at this photo and its 13 siblings, but we’ve pointed out a few places on this one panel just for orientation, and to help you visualize this landscape before things really exploded on the eastside.
The Henrichsen panorama, one of 14 images taken in 1903. Courtesy of Portland City Archives. Image A2004-002.3575.
Arrival of the railroad ushered in a whole new wave of change for the Gulch and for Portland, including the siting of heavy manufacturing right alongside the rails for easy transfer and shipment. In our next post, we’ll explore the tension between industrial use in the Gulch and growing residential use in the uplands to the north and south.
We’ve recently completed short biographies of six more builders responsible for many of our homes on Portland’s eastside and beyond. The section here on the blog called The Builders now has profiles of 18 builders responsible for thousands of homes, mostly built between 1910-1950.
Builders working on an eastside bungalow in the early 1900s. Courtesy of Oregon Historical Society, Negative 37092.
Through our research, we’ve been able to make contact with many of the builders’ families and have added photos and other biographical information that provide a glimpse of the builders’ lives. Included with each biography is a list of addresses of homes by each builder.
One common theme emerges when you read these: most of the builders were immigrants, many of them from Russia and from Scandanavia. All have interesting stories.
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
Do you have a memory or photo from Dekum Court or know someone who does? I’d like to hear from you.
For a time during the early 1940s, the Concordia neighborhood was home to one of the first wartime housing projects in Portland: the Dekum Court Project, an 85-unit complex of housing for non-commissioned officers and their families stationed at the Portland Air Base.
A newspaper photo of living quarters at Dekum Court from The Oregonian, November 8, 1942.
From 1942-1945, 300 military family members of all ages lived in 53 buildings which covered a 15-acre site located between NE 24th and NE 27th avenues, from Dekum and Lombard.
Here’s a map and a site plan to help you visualize:
Courtesy City of Portland Archives, A2001-025
It’s a fascinating and rich story: development of the site for wartime housing; subsequent repurposing as public housing managed by the Housing Authority of Portland; and later partial redevelopment as a ranch-house-subdivision. The original wartime housing quarters are now gone. But there must be stories and memories that remain.
I’m in the research phase of learning more about Dekum Court and would like to hear from anyone who has memories or photos to share. Please drop me a note (email@example.com).
Stay tuned, we’ll come back to Dekum Court in the months ahead with the full story of its development and early life.
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.
We’re working on two upcoming public programs that may be of interest to AH readers, and that continue our ongoing exploration of local history: the evening of Monday, November 25th at Northeast Portland’s Kennedy School; and the morning of Saturday, December 7th at the Architectural Heritage Center.
The History Pub program at Kennedy School on November 25th will explore the layers of history in Alameda, Sabin, Beaumont, Wilshire, Concordia, and Vernon neighborhoods to examine how changes in the physical and human landscape have shaped the places we know today (and how little we actually know about earlier lives lived here).
The Architectural Heritage Center program on December 7th is our deep dive into the story of the Oregon Home Builders, a high-profile Portland company that built many beautiful homes during its five years of operation from 1912-1917 before crashing in a mess of bankruptcy, unfulfilled promises and questionable business practices.
We’ve been researching an Alameda home built by Russian-immigrant homebuilder Solomon “Sam” Olimansky who built dozens of homes, apartments and duplexes across Portland between 1919 and the 1950s, several of them notable for their whimsical use of clinker brick and storybook cottage house design.
Olimansky was a cagey, talented builder and charismatic businessman who spoke fast in his native Yiddish, loved to laugh, and was known to present building inspectors with house plans sketched on scraps of paper pulled from his pocket.
From a September 5, 1971 story about Sam in The Oregonian.
Sam began his building career in his native Poland as an apprentice violin maker. Later in Portland, he built everything from cabinets and display cases to homes, duplexes and apartment complexes. Sam was a natural builder, and a character.
We’ve added a biography of Sam Olimansky to our growing collection of homebuilder biographies you can find in The Builders section.
With thanks to the current homeowners for commissioning the history study that led to insights about Sam, and to his grandson Gil Olman for sharing memories about his grandfather.
Over the years, we’ve heard the notion that there was once a gravel pit and then a garbage dump at the corner of NE 33rd and Fremont. We remember in the 1990s when the house at the southwest corner—the one with the old swimming pool out back—was removed because of major foundation problems, which seems like reasonable evidence of the underlying problem.
But we wanted to know more, so we tracked down the details. Let’s start with a photo to put you in context.
Here is the area in a 1925 aerial photo, the earliest one we know of. There’s lots to look at here, but start at the large vacant lot in the lower right hand corner. The street running east-west is Fremont and the vacant lot just below it to the south is actually three blocks, between today’s NE 32nd Avenue on the left and “E 33rd” on the right. 32nd Place (then known as Glenn Avenue before the Great Renumbering) does not yet go through.
Detail from a 1925 aerial photo showing the intersection of Fremont and 33rd, two labels added for reference. Click to enlarge. Aerial photo courtesy of City of Portland Archives.
That’s a pretty steep slope to the south (just ask local kids with sleds hoping for snowfall) which is one reason it’s one of the few unbuilt pieces of ground you can see in this photo.
Back in the late 1890s and up until about 1910, that slope was heavily excavated for gravel, which makes sense. It’s right along the crest of the Alameda Ridge, which after all is one giant gravel deposit left over from the cataclysmic Lake Missoula Floods of 13,000-15,000 years ago. The Fremont gravel pit provided tons of rock for a young and growing Portland, which was busy building roads. In those early years, 33rd and Fremont even became known as Gravelly Hill, a name that stuck around for decades (we try to slip that name into a conversation whenever we can, you should try it just to keep it alive).
In the photo, you can see the disturbed area at the top of the slope all along the southern edge of Fremont. That was the top of the gravel pit. A few years later it was also the top of the garbage dump.
In 1910, Benjamin Lombard, who developed the Olmsted Park plat which you can see just up the hill in this photo (now considered part of the Alameda neighborhood), sued the city for violating its own ordinance that prohibited gravel pits within 100 feet of a public street. Fremont was a city-owned street, plus the city owned a good chunk (but not all) of that vacant lot to the south too. East 33rd had long been known simply as the County Road and was the county’s responsibility.
A letter to county commissioners in August 1910 reported “the roadway at Thirty-third and Fremont streets is in danger of caving in because of excavation in the Fremont gravel pit.” The county passed this complaint along to the city, which was also hearing from Lombard about the same time. Due to the undercutting of the slope required by the gravel mining operations, Fremont Street was just about ready to slide down the hill.
This 1910 kerfuffle ended the slope’s official function as a gravel pit, though other places—notably a nearby hollow on privately owned land at the corner of today’s NE 37th and Klickitat—stepped in to meet the gravel need.
Fast forward to the early 1920s. Portland was booming and rapidly running into a garbage disposal problem. The city’s Guilds Lake Incinerator, located in Northwest Portland at NW 25th and Nicolai, was operating at full capacity and the city needed to find another way to deal with garbage.
William G. Helber, Portland’s Superintendent of Garbage Disposal, had visited Seattle and seen a new technique called “sanitary fill,” whereby garbage was mixed with dirt and buried in layers on uneven ground. This had the double “benefit” of disposing of garbage and leveling off land that could then be used or sold for other uses.
When Helber looked out across the Portland landscape, he fixed on several locations he believed would function well as sanitary fills.
From The Oregonian, January 16, 1923
Because the city didn’t own the downslope part of the hill, it took some creative deal making with the adjacent private owner to make it all work. Downslope owners Joe and Frances Brooks also owned the gravel pit at 37th and Klickitat. They agreed to let the city use the lower end of the Fremont pit for the garbage fill as long as the city would also fill up their old gravel pit on Klickitat with garbage. This site became known as the “Beaumont Fill.” The Brooks were then free to sell that as viable real estate to the developer who wanted to build houses there.
Not everyone was happy with the idea of burying garbage so close to existing homes. Alameda neighbors, who were always ready to protest (schools, camps, churches), were particularly skeptical. But Helber took them out on the ground to have a look at what he had in mind and the neighbors seemed satisfied to give it a try.
From The Oregonian, January 20, 1923
Starting in February 1923 through June 1924, all non-commercial trash from Portland’s eastside was hauled to Alameda to fill up the old Fremont gravel pit.
From The Oregonian, February 7, 1923
When the summer of 1923 rolled around, everyone held their breath (and their noses) wondering if the heat and the garbage would create a smelly problem. No news must have been good news, because there was no further coverage.
From The Oregonian, June 6, 1923
Here’s a great photo from the early 1930s that shows both of the completed sanitary fills (and so much else to look at). We love this photo.
Aerial oblique photo from the early 1930s shows both former fill sites and a lot more, including a very brushy Wilshire Park and the new Beaumont School. Click to enlarge this amazing photo.
In 1924, one year after opening when it became time to shut down the Fremont Sanitary Fill, the city realized it had trained all of east Portland to bring its trash to Alameda, and that it would probably take some retraining and even some enforcement to break the habit.
From The Oregonian, May 30, 1924
In a final accounting contained in his January 1926 report to City Commissioner Charles A. Bigelow, Garbage Disposal Bureau Director Helber summarized the following statistics for the Fremont Street Sanitary Fill:
Estimated number of loads of garbage received: 1,618
Average number of loads received per day: 62 ½
Average tons of garbage dumped each day: 136
Estimated tons of garbage dumped: 3,541 ½
Average yards of dirt received per day: 3 ½
Total salary of all dump workers per month: $442
Monthly installment on new tractor used on site: $121.25
That’s a lot of garbage. Sixty-two loads arriving at the top of the hill on Fremont Street each day for more than a year, dumped over the edge, spread by tractor down the slope and covered over with a little dirt.
The city continued to use the sanitary fill method in other areas as it planned a larger incinerator—a long drawn out process because no neighborhood wanted it in their backyard—which was ultimately built in 1932 in St. Johns and is known today as Chimney Park.
But in the meantime while incinerator planning and location were being fought about in City Hall, the fill method was gaining critics. Here’s news of neighbors at NE 37th and Alberta (today’s Alberta Court) complaining about the stench to City Council.
From The Oregonian, October 20, 1927
Back at the Fremont fill in the early 1940s, home construction was just getting underway. Here’s a photo from 1943.
Detail from a 1943 aerial photo, green outline added to show former gravel pit and fill area.