Filling the eastside gulches: “The last stand of the frontier in Portland”

Yes, we’re diverging a bit from old houses, but our recent foray into Portland’s lower northeast side has been interesting, plus at least a couple of our readers asked a good question: so when did that happen?

We know from our recent look at the 1909 Sanborn maps that the western edge of Portland’s eastside represented a major challenge to turn-of-the-last-century developers and engineers. Everywhere the land met the waters of the Willamette and its tributaries–and in the upslope transition to the relative plateau we consider today’s eastside–the land was marked by gulches, gullies, ridgelines, swamps, seeps and seasonal creeks.

Sanborn maps from 1909 referred to these areas simply as “deep gulch” which was less a geographic place name than a kind of short-hand for you’re gonna have some work to do if you want to build here. Sanborn didn’t show topographic lines, locate waterways or note other natural features. Just white space implying terra incognita. Interesting that for a fire insurance map, they didn’t consider the fire hazard coming up out of the gulch: lots of summer news stories from those early days of gulches on fire and nearby homes being threatened.

So if you’re like us, you want to know a little more about the extent and location of these places. Click around in the Sanborns below to look at some of the deep gulches in Eliot and Lower Albina. You’ll recognize the street names: some of them still don’t go through today because of old fashioned topography, and of course there are two major sports arenas, a hospital and a major interstate highway that have reshaped the landscape too. Still, have a look to set the table for the story of development that follows and the memories of a little boy who grew up playing in the gulches. And if you’re interested in learning more about Portland’s “hidden hydrology,” take a look at this cool set of maps we came across while looking around.

 

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Here’s the area around today’s Portland Public Schools building off Dixon in Sanborn Plate 287 from Volume 3 in 1909. If you venture around this vicinity today as we did recently, you’ll see the line of bank hasn’t moved a whole lot, but the bottom of the gulch has clearly been filled. For a comprehensive discussion of the development of this area, check out Roy Roos’s excellent book The History of Albina.

 

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In Plate 297 above, you see a channel toward the bottom of the map at the “intersection” (we use this term loosely because these were little more than gravel traces, not engineered roads at the time) of Wheeler and Broadway, and an east-west hollow up toward the top all along Weidler, where Sanborn notes that either the street or future buildings, or both, were planned to be built on posts. Bring on the engineers!

Let’s hear from Edward W. Coles, who grew up on Hancock Street, one block from this terra incognita, at today’s 77 NE Hancock. Coles was an adventurous schoolboy at the turn of the last century. His explorations and memories are collected in a self-published volume called These Were My Days. In just over 90 pages, he brings Portland day-to-day life of the 1900s into very clear focus. It’s great reading: a time capsule, really, that we’ll draw on again down the line. Here he introduces us to one of the most memorable afternoons of his entire life, which happened in Montgomery Gulch at the foot of Hancock Street.

One of my most unusual experiences happened when I was in my early teens. Ecology was not a concern in those days. They threw most anything down the hill into Montgomery Gulch. [My friend] Orlo and I would go down after school looking for anything we could use. Once, there was a piece of galvanized pipe 2 feet in diameter and 15 feet long which was lying on the side of the hill. He dared me to slide down the inside.

I put both arms against my sides and slid down. The only trouble was that the lower end had dug in the dirt and I couldn’t get out. I hollered and Orlo tried to move the pipe but it was too heavy. Then he got frightened and left, leaving me stuck in the pipe. I thought he was going for help. I wondered what would happen to me: maybe I would starve or maybe the rats would crawl into the pipe when they saw I was helpless. I screamed but my voice only echoed against the pipe. I was frantic, and I was sure that my days were numbered.

In the meantime, Orlo went to his home. Eventually my mother called me for dinner. No Edward. She had all the neighbors hunting, but no luck. Orlo had never said anything to anybody; he was too frightened. They called the police, but no luck. Then, one lady said that she saw me with Orlo early in the afternoon and that Orlo must know something. Finally the policeman frightened Orlo so badly that he confessed where I was. By that time it was getting dusk, and four or five men went down to the Gulch and pulled me out. I had been in the pipe for over two hours; I was almost out of my mind. I never thought I would get out of there alive. I was in bed for two days and had nightmares for months.

About that time they decided to put Montgomery Gulch to some good use, for valuable industrial property. They used hydraulic mining equipment: a giant hose and nozzle and lots of water at high pressure. A drain was made to the Willamette River, but after several weeks they had dead carp. The odor was awful. However, they eventually got it all washed down and smooth, all near the railroad and the river.”

Montgomery Gulch was a geographic place–you can see it there in Sanborn 287–and it was perceived as a major impediment to development. Named for James B. Montgomery (1832-1900), a railroad and real estate business leader and Oregon legislator who was a force behind the development of Lower Albina. Here’s a story from The Oregonian on November 13, 1914 describing ongoing challenges with filling Montgomery Gulch (note the salute to young Coles and his playmates down in the third paragraph):

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While these rough places on the bluffs may have meant adventure (and a scary afternoon) for young Coles, real estate developers had bigger issues. For them, the transportation and infrastructure challenges meant property with less value, and obstacles for higher value properties they were trying to sell. Gulches elsewhere in Portland were being converted to sewers draining directly into the Willamette. Some were open garbage dumps. Others were bridged by long trestles for roadways or rails. Whatever the strategy, a growing Portland needed more flat land and was ready to do whatever it took to solve the gulch problem. Here’s a quote from The Oregonian on March 3, 1905 that summed up the sentiment of the day:

“Around Vancouver Avenue and Weidler and Victoria streets is a deep gulch that runs down from Irvington. Into the gulch is dumped debris of all kinds. A row of buildings backing upon the gulch are said to be without proper sewerage. Complaints and remonstrances to the authorities have availed naught, say the neighbors.”

And a letter to the editor from November 6, 1912:

“Why could not all the refuse be dumped in some deep gulch and then have a crew of men grading on the mountain side closeby and dumping their earth on the garbage? Earth will purify any putrefaction it comes in contact with. Signed, O. Hempstead”

To the question of differential property values of gulch vs. non-gulch—and who pays the cost of improving infrastructure—some developers wanted to put the entire cost only on those owners whose sloped property was in need of improvement. Many on the eastside argued to spread the cost across all owners who would benefit.

Ultimately, as Portland’s population grew and property values increased, the city figured out how to contract the substantial grading and fill work. Fill was brought in from elsewhere on the eastside, and the city undertook a major project of widening and lighting Northeast Broadway to coincide with opening of the Broadway Bridge on April 22, 1913. Here’s an article from June 30, 1912 about big changes to the gulches, the streetcar line, and to Broadway itself:

6-30-1912 Fills Planned

By the time the Broadway Bridge opened, most of the curbs and streets were in place up here in Alameda. Sewer lines were in and streetcar lines and local businesses were starting to bloom. The grid was in place, the gulches filled, and the first steps were taken on the uncertain path to the future.

NE 3rd and Broadway as you’ve never seen it

One of the great joys of our research is finding the unknown—more properly the long forgotten—in the midst of the known. Photos, memories, documents and stories from the past add new understanding to places we know (or think we know), and often bring a hint of the familiar: the profile of the ridgeline on the horizon, the curve of a street, the form of a building we recognize.

Sometimes these clues from the past are unreconcilable with the landscape we know today. In the world of Northeast Portland neighborhoods, pretty much anything after 1910 will carry a hint of the familiar. Turn back the clock a bit further and those hints are harder to detect.

Case in point: this Sanborn fire insurance underwriting map from 1909 of the Eliot neighborhood, showing the vicinity of the busy intersection at Grand and Broadway that we all know. Or think we know. Have a good look and pay attention to the location and extent of the gully shown as Deep Gulch, the wooden bridges, the buildings up on posts, the row of houses with their bay windows all to the side. Check out the State Laundry Company building too, and the note about the night watchman. (If you don’t know about Sanborn maps—which were used for fire insurance underwriting—be sure to check out our post on the topic).

1-16-16 Sanborn 289 Detail

Detail from plate 289, Sanborn Fire Insurance Map, 1909

Everything in this frame from 1909 is absolutely gone today—the gully, the buildings even the streets which have been widened—and most of us speed through here (being careful about the red-light cameras) on our way somewhere else. Below is a modern view of that intersection.

1-16-16 Detail from Google Earth

Thanks to Google Maps. Click the thumbnail above for the full photo.

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Ready for an even closer look? This is the fun part where we get to try to imagine the landscape that once was, and how different it is today. As you study this photo, be sure to check out the detail: the awning style shutters; the orderly clapboard and fish-scale siding; the beautiful shingle roof; the decorative round gable end ornaments; the family members at each level; the gulch out back. The picket fence in the left foreground is running north-south along the edge of NE 3rd. The double gable end faces NE 3rd, so this view is looking off to the south/southwest at the corner of NE 3rd and Broadway.

1-16-16 Soden Home 3rd and Broadway

Home of B.T. and Cora Soden, NE 3rd and Broadway. Photo courtesy of Bob Elston.

And an approximate view today:

Site of Soden Home, NE 3rd and Broadway, northwest corner

237 NE Broadway in January 2016.

We’re able to feed this imagination thanks to fourth-generation Northeast Portland resident Bob Elston, great-grandson of Bartholomew and Cora Soden, who recently shared these and other family photos that got us to wondering about this part of the neighborhood, and to haunting these blocks ourselves in order to take a good look. Thanks Bob.

Fast forward a few years and a slightly different angle at the Soden place, this time looking west/northwest showing the barn out back, which is depicted in the 1905 Sanborn map. Note the same wooden bridge on Northeast 3rd over Deep Gulch, which keys the building into the northwest corner of that intersection. The dip of the gulch is still visible off to the left.

1-16-16 Soden Home 3rd and Broadway 1905

NE 3rd and Broadway, looking west in the late 1890s. Photo courtesy of Bob Elston.

 

Mildred, Willard, Frances, Raymond in front of the house on NE 3rd.

Frances, Willard, Mildred and Lester Soden, in front of the house on NE 3rd, 1898. This view is looking north on 3rd. Photo courtesy of Bob Elston.

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Bart Soden was owner and proprietor of B.T. Soden Hay, Grain, Coal and Plaster, provisioner of vital goods for the eastside at the turn of the last century. His warehouse and business was located just a block east from the family home at the southeast corner of Union and Schuyler (today’s MLK and Schuyler). Scroll back up to the Sanborn map and look at it there in the upper right corner, labeled “Hay, Grain and Cement Ware HO.” Here’s a picture of Bart and a helper, probably from about 1905, showing the delivery wagon heading out on a run:

1-16-16 BT Soden Business

The southeast corner of NE 3rd and Union, about 1905. Photo courtesy of Bob Elston.

Here’s the same view today:

Site of Soden Business, MLK and Schulyer, southeast corner

Bart was born in Australia in 1849, came to Oregon as a young boy, and grew up in rural Polk County. He earned a degree from the Oregon Agricultural College in 1879, tried his hand at teaching for a while, and eventually moved to Portland in the 1880s where he married Cora Wells, 16 years his junior. The couple built the house and business we’ve been looking at here, raised a family of two sons and two daughters, and were active in Portland society. Bart died in 1926. Cora lived until 1950. Both parents and several of the children are buried in the family plot at Portland’s historic Lone Fir Cemetery.

We’ve recently come across a memoir by a Portlander who grew up a couple streets over about the same time as the young Sodens. Stay tuned for his observations, which will continue to help us bring this long lost landscape back to life.

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