We’ve been down enough amazing research rabbit holes to recognize a special gem when we see one.
This spring, AH friend Brian Burk completed a research odyssey that turned up fascinating clues about the Vanport flood, an extinct airfield, daredevil pilot Tex Rankin, and one particular old barn and house, all of it centered on North Portland’s Delta Park. He calls it A Mysterious Vanport Survivor.Truly worth 15 minutes of your time. Note that you have to scroll down from the main page to see all the good stuff.
Brian’s multi-media website weaves all these pieces together artfully—along with his history detective narrative —to provide a lens that will change the way you look at a local landscape and history you thought you knew.
Brian is a multi-media journalist, born and raised in Northeast Portland, who loves documenting the beauty of the world and its people through still and moving images. You can see more of his work here.
Our 1912 Arts and Crafts bungalow has been home to eight families in its 110 years and I’ve made a point of connecting with someone from almost all of them. Seeing the house through the eyes and experiences of others has allowed my family to know this place in a unique way during our 30-plus years here, to appreciate the changes in life, community and in the fabric of the house itself over that century.
During these pandemic years I’ve been busy with a special project to connect past and present that’s both tangible and personal. This week it all came to fruition when modern-day craftsmen carefully reinstalled the three original stained-glass windows—now restored—that were removed from the house almost 50 years ago.
As a lover of old buildings and a person who appreciates homecomings, it was a take-your-breath-away moment when Carl put the last panel in place this week. Here, have a look:
Tracking down these three windows, understanding the circumstance of their removal and their subsequent travels, and getting them back in shape to be reunited with the house has been a story marked by chapters of kindness, generosity, good luck and persistence. At the heart of this labor of love, it’s been a story about putting pieces back together.
In late 1911 and early 1912, builder William B. Donahue completed a lone bungalow on NE 30th Avenue, the only house on the block at the time, located just a half block east from the end point of the Broadway Streetcar line, right next to the temporary “tract office” of the Alameda Land Company. Donahue knew the house would be a demonstration of sorts to show what he could build for potential homebuyers. So even though it was just a simple bungalow, he added some nice touches, including stained-glass and beveled-glass windows in all the right places inside and out.
Donahue’s floorplan included a breakfast nook between the formal dining room and the kitchen, with full wainscot paneling and a plate rail. For this welcoming, family-friendly room he chose a bank of high window openings to install three rose-patterned stained-glass windows.
Which is where the windows presided as four families cycled through the house: wars, pandemics, business ventures, children, dogs, birthdays and deaths, leavetakings, joys and losses. All discussed and decided at the nook table under those three beautiful windows.
The family who lived here from 1961 to 1975 loved this house. And when it came time for them to leave, they wanted to bring a piece of it with them, a keepsake and reminder of all their good memories here. The daughters were fledging and they agreed to each take a window, a gift from their father, who removed the sash and replaced them with three plain sheets of glass. The stained-glass was removed from the old window frames and put into new oak frames for display. One went to Arizona. One went to Spokane, and one stayed with the parents in Milwaukie. The windows continued to bring the comfort of family memories from their old home. Time passed as four more families cycled through under the blank window-eyes of the breakfast nook. No one here knew anything different.
As I researched the story of this house, I sought out the families who lived here and I even found a relative of builder William B. Donahue. Through oral history interviews and letters, I learned about the view from the porch across empty lots clear to the 33rd Street Woods. Brothers playing on the roof. The goat and wagon that came for a visit. The upright piano that lived in the front hall. The life-long memory from the little boy sprawled out on the floor of the nook reading books while colored light streamed in around him, filtered through those stained glass windows. So many stories.
In November 2004, we hosted the Mom of the house from the 1960s on an impromptu visit when she dropped by the street to say hello to her old neighbors who still lived two doors down. When she walked through the house, wistfully, she mentioned the stained glass windows in the nook.
Because we had been dreaming about finding the old columns that were torn out of the living room in the 1940s by an earlier family (which we later faithfully rebuilt based on those I found still in existence in a similar Donahue-built house a few blocks away), her mention of stained glass windows in the nook was a very timely little bolt of lightning. Earlier that year we had restored the original front porch, which had also been demolished in the 1940s (a tough decade for old houses).
A few weeks after her visit, a photo and brief note arrived in the mail showing the old window she still had hanging in her kitchen. We almost couldn’t believe that rose-patterned window was once here.
Through conversation over the months and years that followed, it emerged that her daughters still had the other two which had become sentimental companions from their growing up years. I began to imagine bringing the windows back here where they started. That was 18 years ago.
In the last several years, with the thoughtful help of her son (now grown and with a family of his own), and through persistent friendly stories from me about the home’s history and our careful work of putting the pieces back together, a pathway began to emerge: when the family reached that point we all eventually reach of readiness to simplify our lives and possessions, the windows would be welcomed back home. Just as the family took solace in bringing them away when they left, we would find solace in their return.
Back and forth correspondence, phone calls, soul searching, acceptance and finally, readiness. Two of the windows came first: one of the daughters had passed away and the other was ready to release her window with her sister’s. Then a year later, the Mom of the house, now in her mid 80s, was ready to give us the third one. The day we met with her to receive it felt like an adoption.
By then, I had fortunately found Jakub Kucharczyk, the art glass master who runs The Glaziery based here in Northeast Portland. Jakub and his team are one of a handful of knowledgeable and capable artists and craftspeople nationally who know old glass like ours and more importantly have the expertise to restore it using old ways and original materials.
When Jakub examined our well-traveled windows he pointed out the hand-blown crackle glass from Germany that make up the tiles across the bottom, the subtle peach and rose colored Kokomo catspaw granite glass of the flower petals, the zinc channel borders that outline the shapes.
Most of the zinc joints were in pretty good shape but a few needed new flux and solder. One of the crackle glass panels needed to be replaced and Jakub had just the right old piece that looked like it came from the same batch. Even though a few pieces of the art glass were broken, we left them in favor of preserving the original materials, and Jakub made them as steady as could be. All the glass needed a good clean up, and all three panels were reputtied.
Working with glass like this has become a lost art. 110 years ago, most cities had a competitive art glass workforce and marketplace. Today, Jakub and his team service an international marketplace looking to them to restore worn out windows and to build fine new art glass. This winter, he and his team removed the oak display frames built in the 1970s and made our panels ready for the next 100 years.
Meanwhile Stephen Colvin and Carl Klimt at The Sashwright Co. came out to measure the openings and teach us about window stops, reveals and hardware. Dale Farley at Wooddale Windows (also here in northeast Portland) took those dimensions and built new Douglas-fir sash for our old glass just the way the old-timers would, another lost art.
Back and forth we shuttled, dropping off the windows with Jakub for restoration, retrieving the new sash from Dale and delivering it back so Jakub could install the restored windows. Once we had them home, we matched the stain to the existing interior window trim in the nook and Marie painstakingly painted and stained them. Marie is very good at painstaking work.
Fast forward to this week. Carl and his crew returned for the install. I believe they were as excited as we were to make this reunion possible. Out came the empty-eyed single panes. And very carefully one at a time the old windows, newly sashed, were fit and snugged back into the openings they once knew.
I still can’t quite believe they’re back. Every time we pass by, we stand and admire how these windows re-dignify that space, how they bring even more color and life back into the room. It’s still the place you want to sit in the morning with a cup of tea to contemplate the day ahead, or for friendly conversation at dinner.
But these time traveling windows now-come-home have made this space something more, a kind of shrine to the house itself, its builder, the craftspeople who have helped repair and restore it, and more than a century of friends and family who have passed through.
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 (firstname.lastname@example.org).
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.