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.

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.

Another neighborhood goodbye: Food King Market

We know change is the only real constant in our neighborhood life, but it seems we’ve been saying goodbye to businesses and buildings more frequently than usual these days.

Today is the last day of business for Food King Market, located at 2909 NE Prescott. The building has recently sold and the family that has met the neighborhood’s convenience store needs for the last 20-plus years is closing up shop. There most certainly is a story here about owners David and Kaybee and their own history in the place and where their path leads from here. The neighborhood will miss them and the convenience of having a small market nearby for last-minute needs.

For the building, it’s unclear where the path will lead. The new owner is in conversation with the city regarding permitting and here’s what the official status of remodeling plans says:

“Remodel and change the use of the existing structure (which is now consisting of three units: a grocery store, a residence, and a current vacant unit), to either 100% office or a combination of office and retail sales and service. Also proposed is to convert approximately 500-800 sq ft of existing footprint into covered or partially-covered outdoor areas.”

The silver lining at this point for the neighborhood appears that this is not a multi-story Airbnb hotel or condominium. It seems the new owners are considering repurposing aspects of the original building.

Which leads us to this photo, which accompanied this post we wrote 11 years ago describing the history of the stores that have operated on the site, and shared memories of some of the “kids” who dropped by for iced cokes on credit.

1955, looking northeast from the corner of NE 29th and Prescott. Photo courtesy of Tom Robinson.

Thanks David and Kaybee. We’ll miss being able to zip over for the missing ingredient at the last moment, and we wish you well. And we’ll continue to follow remodel plans for this building which has been a neighborhood institution of sorts for almost 100 years.

Highland Congregational Church – Portland Playhouse

If you’ve traveled the west end of NE Prescott recently, you’ve seen lots of activity around the old church at the corner of NE 6th and Prescott. We know it today as the Portland Playhouse, but it started out life as the Highland Congregational Church on January 3, 1904.

Portland Playhouse, 602 N.E. Prescott. November 2018.

 

From The Oregonian, January 4, 1904. Note the original steeple cap.

A news story in The Oregonian from January 4, 1904 reported that its founding pastor, The Rev. D.B. Gray, explained to his new congregation that the building cost $4,709.15 to build and the two lots it sits on cost $800. The community raised $600 of the total and the Oregon Missionary Society provided the rest. The Sunday school associated with the church had 150 children. Plans for the church were furnished by L.B. Volk of Los Angeles, California and Peter Wiser was the builder. According to The Rev. Gray, the building is modeled after the Mizpah Church at East Thirteenth and Powell streets. Capacity was about 300 people, with room left for future expansion. Original interior finishes were natural wood.

The story went on to say why the new church was so symbolic for the surrounding community:

“The dedication signalizes strikingly the wonderful growth of the city to the northeast as fully 500 homes have been built in the Highland District in the last two years, besides a schoolhouse now occupied by 500 students.”

In 1904, this part of town was the eastern edge of Portland. Roads were dirt and the farther east you went, the wilder and brushier it got. The Broadway Bridge was still almost 10 years from being built, and central sewer, water and gas and streetcar systems were just working their way out to this edge of the city. Here’s a look at the surrounding area–known then as the “Lincoln Park Annex”–in the 1909 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map.

Detail from Sanborn Fire Insurance Map Plate 246, 1909. The address numbers you see here were completely renumbered in the early 1930s during Portland’s Great Renumbering.

This part of the neighborhood was platted as the Lincoln Park Annex in 1891, an 18-square-block area gridded by a collection of unimaginative street names that never made it to the map. In fact, most locals never used the “Lincoln Park” name either, preferring the term Highland back in the day, and today’s King Neighborhood.

The 1904 church building has always had a strong connection to the surrounding community. During its first year, it was the venue for a rousing anti-cigarette meeting featuring preachers and businessmen from near and far:

From The Oregonian, November 28, 1904

From the mid 1920s until the early 1950s, the building was referred to as Grace and Truth Hall. Its most recent faith community was the Mt. Sinai Baptist Church, from the mid 1960s up until 2005. Following Mt. Sinai, the building was vacant for several years and like many older area churches was sinking under abandonment and deferred maintenance. It was bought by a private owner who lived in the old church for several years prior to its current incarnation as Portland Playhouse, a theater company.

The first play in the church was 2008 and since then, Portland Playhouse has built a solid reputation for high quality and well produced shows, and a loyal following.

Michael Weaver, Managing Director of Portland Playhouse, explains that the church has recently undergone a $2.4 million interior upgrade to better function as a theater, and to expand the theater company’s offices into the former fellowship hall in the basement and the former Shining Star Daycare, which was attached at the back of the church. While much has changed inside, the upgrade kept the bell tower, stained glass windows and much of the original flooring. “We wanted to honor the history of the building,” says Weaver.

Check out this Portland Playhouse photo gallery to see a nice documentation of the renovation, and information about what’s playing (A Christmas Carol starts next week!).

Figuring out the Prescott Jog

AH readers know we like nothing better than a good history mystery, so we were intrigued when a reader asked recently about why NE Prescott makes a jog south between NE 33rd and NE 37th. In this case there is no one single reason: it’s multiple reasons related to changes in surveying proficiency, the passage of time, the helter-skelter nature of developers operating at the edge of the city limits in 1900, and a complete absence of planning in our turn-of-the-last-century city.

The Prescott Jog near 37th

The jog at NE Prescott and 37th

Let’s look at the basic ingredients:

The Grid: Back in 1850, surveyors used a grid to map Oregon and to organize our landscape into big boxes and small boxes, known as townships, ranges and sections. In Northeast Portland, our main east-west streets are organized on section or half-section lines. Prescott (all but the four-block stretch we’re talking about here) rests on a half section line.

The Plats: Portland has more than 900 of these: a plat is basically a plan that divides the land into lots and streets. Developers were in charge of their own plats, and gave them unique names, some of which are pretty interesting. A plat called “Willamette Addition,” drawn and filed in 1888, contains the area from Skidmore to Killingsworth and from NE 33rd to NE 37th. Of particular note: running along the bottom of that plat is our mystery stretch of Prescott between 33rd and 37th.

So here’s what happened:

The Willamette Addition was anchored on the south boundary to what in 1888 was thought to be the half-section line (the future Prescott). Actual development of the Willamette Addition didn’t happen until the 1920s, and in many cases much later.

Our maps pages shows both Alameda Park (the neighboring plat to the west, 1909) and Wilshire (the neighboring plat to the east, 1921), which were laid out decades later by different developers using different survey technology. And guess what: the location of the real Prescott (in alignment with the more-recently-surveyed half-section line) moved about 75 feet to the north.

But meanwhile the Willamette Addition was still just a drawing and raw land owned by different developers, with it’s weirdly offset four-block southern boundary, which was referred to as Columbia Street, stuck on the grid of 1888 and quickly becoming irrelevant. The developers of Alameda and Wilshire weren’t in control of the Willamette Addition, but they had to build streets around it and needed to tie their new neighborhoods into the actual half-section-line-based street we know today as Prescott. So, build they did, marooning this yet-to-be developed four-block stretch of “Columbia Street” 75 feet to the south, and necessitating eventual construction of the s-curve jogs we know today when development of the Willamette Addition finally followed years later.

There’s a story behind everything. That’s why we love history!

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