What’s a Gulch and where is it exactly?

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.

Manufacturing comes to the Gulch

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 The Oregon 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.

Sullivan’s Gulch Grand Avenue Bridge, 1920s, looking south. Source: Oregon Historical Society, Negative 01770

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.

Next: We’ll explore the paradox of the 1930s and 1940s that involved Sullivan’s Gulch becoming—almost simultaneously—home to a high-profile golf course and the location of a giant homeless camp.

Sullivan’s Gulch: A look back in four parts

Chapter 1: Homesteads and railroads

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.

Next: In the early 1900s, the gulch became a magnet for manufacturers and for neighborhood kids seeking adventure.

Who built our houses? Check out these new builder biographies for your address

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.

Recent additions include:

Judson Hubbell 1872-1954

Ernie Johnson & Nelson Anderson 1920-1924

Max Kaffesider 1873-1960

Emil G. Peterson 1882-1960

Max Shimshak 1897-1978

Time travel on Portland’s eastside: A tantalizing glimpse of 1905

We’ve come across a digitized collection of photos from 1905—thanks to the Oregon Historical Society (OHS)—that offers a tantalizing glimpse of homes and street scenes on Portland’s eastside, including one we’ve been able to identify and a bunch of others we’re still working on.

The collection which resides at OHS includes 88 individual glass plate negatives taken by an unknown photographer that were left behind in a Northeast Portland boarding house.

Many of the photos depict the Woodlawn neighborhood. The one we sleuthed out is a tidy one-story hip-roofed bungalow not far from Woodlawn School that looks a lot today like it did back in 1905. See for yourself:

Glass negatives of early Portland residential scenes, Org. Lot 1417, Oregon Historical Society Research Library, image 039. Used courtesy of the Oregon Historical Society. The original address of the home was 1503 East 11th Avenue North.

The same house today in the 7200 block of NE 11th Avenue. Google Streetview image.

This particular photo was not too difficult to identify because the home’s pre-address-change address is visible on the front porch column. With a little detective work we were able to identify this as a home in the 7000 block of NE 11th Avenue.

We’re confident there are other distinguishing details in these photos that will be tantalizing to many of us photo detectives. But even if you just enjoy a little time travel, it’s so interesting to have a close up look at these houses as brand-new buildings, to see the family moments and groups, the dirt streets and background views.

Read more about the collection and take a good look through the images via Ilana Sol’s blog post on the Oregon Historical Society website, and then take a good look through the images. And let us know if you identify any of the places!

Old Building + New Purpose: Good Tidings Church is now Steeplejack Brewing Company

The scaffolds and fences have come down from around the former First Universalist Church of Good Tidings / Metropolitan Community Church at NE 24th and Broadway, and soon the doors will open on the restored and repurposed 112-year-old church building.

The former First Universalist Church of Good Tidings was built in 1909 and has recently been restored and repurposed. It opens to the public soon. Photographed July 2021.

We wrote about the project here last November: neighborhood residents Brody Day and Dustin Harder have been adapting the old church into the new Steeplejack Brewing Company. The two acquired the building in April 2019 from the Metropolitan Community Church which was downsizing to a building in Southeast Portland following 42 years in the space. At the time, another offer was on the table from a local developer who wanted to demolish the church and build a five-story condominium on the site. After a meeting with the pastor and the congregation—and assurance that Harder and Day were planning to keep the building intact—they successfully closed the deal.

Steeplejack opens quietly to the public starting on Friday, July 23rd from 3:00-10:00 p.m. with a grand opening scheduled for Saturday, July 31st, when regular hours begin from 7:00 a.m.-10:00 p.m.

The old church has the distinction of being one of a few buildings in Portland dedicated by U.S. Presidents. William Howard Taft sealed up a small time capsule and set the cornerstone during the building’s opening on October 4, 1909. Day and Harder have the original box (it had been opened some years ago) and plan to set a new cornerstone, sealing in the old box, at 2:00 p.m. on Saturday, July 31st. Next week, they’ll be accepting very small time-travel items that might go into the box.

We had a chance to visit the newly-completed restoration as part of Steeplejack’s soft opening this week and offer these glimpses of the “new” old space:

The front door and location of the historic cornerstone and time capsule, which will be placed on Saturday. July 31 at 2:00 p.m. The original cornerstone was set by U.S. President William Howard Taft on October 4, 1909.
The west face of the building. Note the heart shape in the large stained-glass window, and then have a look on the wall inside (below) as the sun shines through.
An interior scene. Tables built with original structural wood reclaimed during the restoration.

Remembering Beverly Cleary, 1916-2021

We’ve learned tonight about the passing today at age 104 of beloved neighborhood author Beverly Cleary, whose stories about Klickitat Street, an adventurous girl named Ramona, and a bunch of creative kids bring our early neighborhood vividly to life. To celebrate her gifts, we’ve reprised below this post from 12 years ago. Thank you Beverly Cleary: your stories touched our own childhood, and connect us with our kids and with this place.

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The Geography of Imagination: Exploring Neighborhood History With Henry, Ramona and Beezus

We’ve been re-reading some favorite books recently, and as it turns out, finding quite a few clues to the world of neighborhood history. Award winning children’s writer Beverly Cleary grew up in the neighborhood and if you read carefully, you’ll find real echoes of our past in her books.

Cleary imagined an entire universe in a few small blocks. Our favorite young residents—Ramona, Beezus, Henry, Ribsy—crisscrossed their kingdom on bikes and on foot walking to their beloved Glenwood School, delivering the evening Journal newspaper, and getting themselves into some memorable misadventures.

Ramona Rides downhill (is that Regents or maybe NE 37th?) in a drawing by Louis Darling.

Ramona Rides downhill (is that Regents or maybe NE 37th?) in a drawing by Louis Darling.

The geography of that imagined place came from author Beverly Cleary’s own experience as a child growing up here in the 1920s and 1930s. She lived in a home on Northeast 37th Avenue, and attended the school now named for her: the Beverly Cleary School Fernwood Campus. The landmarks that define Henry and Ramona’s world—the churches, schools and houses, the hills and even the vacant lots—are drawn from places Cleary frequented as a young person.

It’s possible to find clues to Cleary’s own geography—and even a sense of Alameda neighborhood life in the 1950s—by exploring Henry and Ramona’s neighborhood as it unfolds on the pages of more than a dozen of her books.

A good place to begin looking for clues is Ramona Quimby’s house, just up the street from Henry Huggins on Klickitat Street. Cleary actually tells us in one of her books that Ramona lived with her mother, father and sister Beezus in a rented house near the corner of 28th and Klickitat. I remember reading that part of the story to my daughter one night and making a mental note that I needed to go look up that address on my next walk through the neighborhood.

As many astute readers will recognize, the corner of 28th and Klickitat is actually a “T” intersection adjacent to the playground at Alameda School. The day I walked past that spot and realized it was the setting for Ramona’s fictional house (a school playground), I laughed out loud and tipped my hat to Beverly Cleary.

All readers of the series know that Henry Huggins lives with his mother, his father and his dog Ribsy in a square white house on Klickitat Street. Cleary never really tells us exactly where on Klickitat that might be. But if it’s a square white house—let’s imagine an old Portland foursquare style house with a nice porch—chances are it’s west of Ramona’s house. In Henry And the Paper Route, Cleary hints that Henry’s square white house was slightly elevated above the sidewalk with a sloping lawn the kids rolled down. This sounds indeed like a four-square, built in the 19-teens. Now all we have to look for is Henry’s red bike and the barking Ribsy.

Ramona and Henry’s Glenwood School is an obvious stand in for Fernwood School (known today as Beverly Cleary School), where the young Cleary attended before moving on to Grant High School. Why didn’t she create a fictionalized role for Alameda School? We do know there was a certain rivalry between neighborhood schools.  Kids from one school sometimes looked down their noses at kids from the other. Was omitting Alameda School a diss? Probably not. Just a little too complicated to explain why kids living in the playground of one school (wink) would be going to a different school a few blocks away.

Vacant lots…now there is a commodity of the 1950s that we just don’t have any more. By the late 1950s virtually every easily buildable lot in Alameda had been developed (many of the last ones by builder Ken Birkemeier). During Cleary’s growing up years—the 1920s and 1930s—there were plenty vacant lots to be found and they surely provided a refuge for everything from baseball to clubhouses. In Cleary’s 1955 Henry And the Paper Route, Henry watches as the ladies club sets up sawhorses and planks in a nearby vacant lot for the annual fundraising rummage sale. The vacant lot was a community commodity as well as landmark. Reading more closely between the lines, was the ladies club the fictional counterpart of our own Alameda Tuesday Club? Could be.

The business district of the fictional neighborhood bears some resemblance to places we all shop and frequent today. The movie theater, dime store, Rose City Barber Shop and even the “Colossal Market” are landmarks in today’s Hollywood neighborhood. The Colossal—where Henry’s mother bought everything from vegetables to hair clippers—was probably patterned after the original Fred Meyer store at 42nd and Sandy.

Al’s Thrifty Service Station, where Ribsy steals a policeman’s lunch, is today’s 76 station at 33rd and Broadway. Kids at Glenwood School watch from their classroom windows as a new supermarket is built: today’s QFC (formerly Kienows) just south of Fernwood. All the pieces line up.

In addition to the fun of hearing about these thinly disguised places we all know from our area’s past, there’s some wonderful imagery in these books that evokes an earlier time in the neighborhood, while also being timeless:

  • Ramona and Beezus playing outside on a summer’s evening until the street lights come on, when it’s time to go in.
  • The 11-year-old Henry riding his bicycle through the neighborhood in the late afternoon and early evening, delivering the afternoon newspapers hot off the press.
  • Kids jumping in puddles and playing in rivulets of muddy water on a rainy morning’s walk to school.
  • The Fuller Brush man in trenchcoat walking door-to-door selling his wares.
  • Henry crawling on all fours through Grant Park at night with flashlight in search of nightcrawlers for fishing.

And a timeless image that could have been borrowed from this winter: Ramona  sledding down the 37th Street hill on her dad’s old sled. Now there’s a scene drawn from the author’s personal experience, just a few doors up from her own childhood home.

Which gets to what makes Beverly Cleary’s work so appealing and enduring (and even instructive, for us students of history who also like to read to our kids): she crafts a slice of universal life through the experiences of her likeable, believable characters, and all through the lens of a remembered Northeast Portland childhood.

Mapping the Bayou

We’ve been reflecting on the legacy of the rivers and the people who for millennia defined the landscape we think of today as Portland. It is both inspiring and beyond tragic when we consider what was, and what has been lost.

This week, we want to help imagine that early landscape.

Here’s a detail from an 1852 map that conveys the complexity of the margin between river and shore in the northern edges of today’s Northeast Portland. Have a good look and we’ll discuss.

Detail of 1852 Map of Township 1 North, Range 1 East, Courtesy of Bureau of Land Management Cadastral Survey Records. The complete map plate is here in our Maps collection.

The island labeled “Vancouver Island” is today’s Hayden Island. For orientation purposes the number 24 (which is Section 24 in Township 1 North, Range 1 East) is at the intersection of NE 33rd and Prescott Street. The far right edge of this map running up and down follows the line of today’s NE 42nd Avenue.

For those of you familiar with the Willamette Meridian, NE 42nd Avenue scribes the section line between Range 1 East and Range 2 East. The number 13 is just west of today’s Fernhill Park at NE 33rd and Holman. Today’s Columbia Boulevard runs northwest-southeast just at the base of the slope (the slope is scribed on this map as a hatched line just south of the waterway).

Here’s another early map that continues the look east on the Columbia shore.

This 1850s map, of Township 1 North, Range 2 East, shows the location of today’s Portland International Airport in the area between the two lakes labeled as “wet prairie,” telling us the area was typically inundated during high water. A large shoal or shallow area exists in the Columbia between shore and Government Island. The road angling up from the bottom is today’s NE Cully Avenue (the Cully family was here in 1846). The topography showing in the bottom center is Rocky Butte. This early map shows today’s Columbia Boulevard, labeled “road from Portland to the mouth of Sandy River.”

Detail of 1852 Map of Township 1 North, Range 2 East, Courtesy of Bureau of Land Management Cadastral Survey Records. The complete map plate is here.

Here’s a detail from one more map that conveys the complexity of our northern edge: an 1889 land ownership map of Multnomah County compiled by R.A. Habersham, on file at the Library of Congress. In the 40 years between these two maps, the degree of landscape change is almost hard to imagine, with a grid of streets, residents and industry beginning to utilize these northern waterways as a vast sewer system.

Detail of Map of Multnomah County, Oregon 1889, courtesy of Library of Congress. Here’s a link to the full map (it’s a big file).

We’ve thought a lot about what this area must have looked like, and the people who lived here since time immemorial. We’ve wanted to find an approximation to suggest what all that changeable marshland might have felt like, and you don’t have to look far. Recently, we took the kayak to the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge just downstream from our reach of the Columbia and offer these photos to feed your imagination:

Imagining a “wet prairie.” That’s the reconstructed Cathlapotle plankhouse on the left at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge. February 2021

In the Wapato Valley

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

The Confluence Project

The Chinook Indian Nation

A Chinook Timeline

Photos from our icy past

As we pick up the pieces from last week’s snow and ice, we thought you might like to see a trove of photos that offer a glimpse of a similar winter event from 105 years ago, complete with downed power lines and broken limbs. Click in for a good close look.

Looking south on NE Grand Avenue near Holladay, courtesy of the Oregon Historical Society, OrgLot151_PGE139-24. February 1916.

Near NE Glisan and Cesar Chavez Boulevard, courtesy of the Oregon Historical Society, OrgLot151_PGE139-30. February 1916.

These are two of 21 images made by Portland General Electric to document a destructive snow and ice storm that hit Portland in the first week of February 1916. The photos are part of the Oregon Historical Society’s digital collection. Here’s a link to see all 21.

The February 1916 storm–referred to as a “silver thaw,” which essentially is rain falling through lower-elevation cold air that coats and freezes on contact with cold surfaces–left quite a mess. Schools were closed, streetcar service interrupted and significant damage inflicted on local infrastructure.

Local newspapers were filled with photos and reporting about the weather event, including this interesting look back (from the perspective of 1916) at the frequency of ice storms, the presence of ice in local rivers and hints of a changing climate.

From The Oregonian, February 8, 1916. Author Leslie M. Scott was chairman of the Oregon Historical Quarterly, a 40-year board member at the Oregon Historical Society, son of The Oregonian editor Harvey W. Scott, and went on to serve as Oregon Treasurer from 1941-1949.

If you are into old photos—as we guess you might be if you’re a regular AH reader—you should spend some time with the OHS Digital History collections, especially the rich collection of photographs, which is a favorite big black hole of time travel. You might also consider signing up for OHS newsletter, which is one of the handful of digital newsletters we always look forward to reading.

Thankfully, underneath the ice—then as now—are the daffodils.

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