One More for the Vernon Tank

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.

Home History School | Time Capsule

If a picture is worth 1,000 words, here’s one that sums up Home History School so nicely, sent by an AH reader who has been out seeking hidden horses. Thanks Carla. Yes, this horse is wearing a mask.

On Mondays around here we’ve been providing activities and tools to get kids of all ages (even us big kids) exploring the history of our neighborhoods.

  • We started by encouraging history detectives to search out and meet the ubiquitous Elwood Wiles, whose name is on sidewalks all over the eastside from 1910-1915.
  • We suggested tools for figuring out the story of your house, including finding your earliest plumbing permits and your old street address.
  • Discovering your nearest streetcar route and considering what the streetcar meant to our neighborhoods came next.
  • We went on safari to neighborhood schools with 1924 maps in hand, and tales of school buildings long gone.
  • Our oldest residents—our trees, and in particular our Heritage trees—came next with walks, tree ID keys and stories of the Pearson Pine.
  • And then the horses: thinking about what horses meant to these neighborhoods. They were fundamental to our early life and the energy they invested still shapes the ground we walk. Their plows and wagons build the eastside grid.

So in our last regular Home History School post, we turn the table a bit today with a look forward: what will the future understand about the pandemic that has turned our lives upside down here in 2020?

This week’s focus is on what you’re doing to record your own thoughts and observations and how you will pass them forward to the future. Check it out:

Time Capsule

Home History School | Hidden horses

There was a time when Northeast Portland neighborhoods were alive with horses.

In the early days, they plowed the fields. Later, they built the streets, delivered the groceries, brought the fuel that heated our houses and the ice that cooled the kitchen ice box. Carted out the garbage. Hauled in building supplies and new furniture. Brought families here and there.

You name it: horses were essential to the early days of these neighborhoods and were as common a sight as a car is today.

Horses and men grading Regents Drive at the top of the hill near The Alameda (as today’s Alameda Street was known), taken in May 1909. From an advertising brochure produced by the Alameda Land Company.

Even though horses haven’t walked these streets for about 100 years, there is a silent herd slowly returning to remind us (with a smile) of just how common horses were to making our lives work way back when. This week’s Home History School contemplates the early role of horses in our neighborhoods and gets us all searching for the hidden herd you might be able to find on your street or just around the corner. Check it out:

Hidden Horses

Humble virtual variety show with a sprig of history

Here’s a weeknight evening distraction that allows you to have some fun while doing some good. Our local pub / book store—Rose City Book Pub—is working hard to stay alive in the midst of the pandemic shutdown. Owner/Publican Elise Schumock has launched a weekly virtual variety hour on Thursday nights from 7:30-8:30 that’s just as quirky and interesting as the book pub itself.

Last week was the inaugural on-line show and it featured some great local music, a couple of short stories and prose read by the authors, and a little local history from yours truly. Elise asked us to provide a few minutes of local history each week, so we will.

It’s a humble, hand-made little show for sure, but kind of fun to have a few neighbors hanging around together in front of our glowing screens. If you’re at loose ends on Thursday night, have a look and you might find comedy, original music, poetry, story telling and a sprig of history.

Find the Rose City Book Pub Virtual Variety Show here, Thursday nights from 7:30-8:30.

Home History School | Oldest Living Residents

Each Monday this spring, we’re providing a weekly focus on local history explorations for kids of all ages that include activities and questions to get you going. This week, we’re focused on our neighborhoods’ oldest living residents…our trees.

This is a great time to be out in the neighborhood: as our trees bloom and leaf out, they silently remind us how much they add to our lives.

The shower of pink petals from the cherry blossoms; the emerging fresh new leaves on the maples and copper beeches. Shade from the afternoon sun. They’ve been waiting patiently all winter to remind us they are here. Take a moment to appreciate them.

Each tree has a story: in most cases, years ago, someone intentionally put it there to grow. Like this giant, the Pearson Pine:

The 130-year-old Pearson Pine, a Portland Heritage Tree, presides over the neighborhood from NE 29th and Fremont. Dairyman and farmer Samuel Pearson planted this tree on purpose in that location to mark the corner of his property back in 1885.

In this week’s installment, we get outside to appreciate (and to identify) the trees in our neighborhood, and to meet a few special ones–the Portland Heritage Trees–which have been here a lot longer than we have and will likely still be here when we’re gone (so, be nice to them).

Click below to get started:

Oldest living residents

Vernon Tanks: 1959 shortage produces an even bigger tank

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.

Vernon Tanks: Water arrives, but more storage capacity needed

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.

From The Oregonian, May 16, 1915. Interesting to note that the picture in the lower right shows the intersection of NE 24th and Skidmore, the spot where this water main broke in March 2019 flooding homes and local businesses.

 

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.

Vernon Tanks: Landmarks hidden in plain sight

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.

Next up: More water arrives, but limited storage capacity creates problems.

Home History School | Old School

A young person we know told us recently that it felt funny to say this, but he actually wouldn’t mind being being back to school. This made us smile. Schools contain so much of our lives and our memories. Friends, teachers, the playground, your classroom. The smell of the hallways, the cafeteria, the auditorium.

So this week we’re turning back the clock on a few nearby schools and the neighborhoods that surround them.

Old Vernon School, Art Classroom, about 1915.

These buildings are like time travelers that have seen change all around them: generations of kids who’ve grown up in the hallways; houses springing up here and there; school buildings themselves changing (or, like Kennedy School, closing down altogether).

This week’s activities ask you to explore places you might think you already know everything about–the immediate vicinity of nearby schools– to see and think about change. Click below for the latest installment.

Old School

 

 

 

 

 

Home History School | Find your streetcar

Northeast Portland streets were once alive with streetcars taking neighbors to work, school and play. They were an institution that connected us with the city and with our neighbors. Noisy, drafty, cold in winters but alive with neighbors going places, these electric-powered vehicles were loved by Portlanders, and our system was the envy of the country.

The Beaumont streetcar at the end of the line between Klickitat and Siskiyou on NE 41st Avenue, about 1914. Courtesy City of Portland Archives.

The rise of cars and buses in the 1940s brought an end to streetcars, but if you know where to look, you can still find clues, and there’s lots of photos, memories, maps and even old film to teach us about these times. This week’s activities get you looking for clues, finding your nearest streetcar route and learning about the electric trains that criss-crossed Northeast Portland neighborhoods.

Click below for this week’s installment.

Find Your Streetcar

%d bloggers like this: