Searching for the 1920s Alameda woodcutter

A few years back, about this time of the year, we found a story in The Oregonian from the fall of 1921 that caught our attention. It was about a so-called hermit, a woodcutter who had lived much of his life in a one-room shack near Bryce Street, before Bryce was even a street and before the neighborhoods were built.

The newspaper story was trying to be one of novelty, but underneath it was actually a story of displacement. O’Donaghue was being moved on from the shack in the woods where he lived because land was being cleared and houses built.

Joseph Albert O’Donaghue told of helping clear forests to make the roads we know today, and of wolves and bears he’d killed right here on Alameda Ridge.

Some of it sounded a little fantastical. Like his memories of being a rifleman in the Crimean war 70 years earlier. Of being at least 90 years old. Of walking from Portland to San Francisco and back again.

But a bunch of it had a ring of truth and carried enough information that 100 years later, we could do a little diligence on his stories.

So before we apply some research tools to Mr. O’Donaghue’s story, read the piece below that ran in The Oregonian back on September 18, 1921. And if you want to get in the right frame of mind, you might also read our post Time Passes In Alameda from December 30, 2010, reminding us of so many layers of history here in these neighborhoods.

A careful read of the 1921 story helps us identify certain things to fuel our inquiry:

  • Researchers like a name like Joseph Albert O’Donaghue. Distinctive and traceable.
  • He was from Pictou, Nova Scotia, Canada.
  • He worked for Bernard Brandenburg, and his Bryce Street shack was on property Brandenburg owned.
  • He knew P.O. Collier (who offered him a new place to live).
  • He was a Mason.
  • He was a firewood cutter.
  • He had family in San Francisco.
  • He was a reader.

That’s enough to get us going. Here’s what we found:

The 1910 federal census shows O’Donaghue at age 67, single, living as a “hired man” with two other boarders and a cook in an unaddressed building near 37th and Fremont. It lists his birth year as 1843, from Canada, his father from Ireland, mother from Scotland, and that he arrived in the US in 1878. He reported himself as working full time as a farm laborer. We couldn’t find him in the 1920 census.

The annual Polk city directories track O’Donaghue’s presence like this:

  • 1888 listed as a laborer, boarding somewhere in East Portland (that was us before we became part of Portland proper in 1891).
  • 1906 listed as a laborer, boarding near Fremont and 36th.
  • 1916-1917 listed as a laborer, living near NE 35th and The Alameda.
  • 1921 still working as a laborer, living near NE 35th and Fremont.

His trail goes cold after the 1921 newspaper story, no city directory listings. Nothing. Then in March 1927, a death notice in Esson, British Columbia for Joseph A. O’Donaghue, age 80. Is this our man? Hard to know.

So to the next question: where was O’Donaghue’s shack? We know the property where he lived was owned by Bernard Brandenburg, who owned quite a few lots in the Spring Valley Addition, east of NE 33rd.

Spring Valley is one of the oldest plats in the area, filed on November 6, 1882 by “Clara L. Files, Spinster,” and encompassing the area east-west between 33rd and 37th and north-south between Skidmore and Bryce, including today’s Wilshire Park.

Brandenburg owned six lots which today make up the north end of the two blocks just south of Shaver between NE 33rd and 35th (when 33rd was the only road out here, the numbered streets in this vicinity didn’t exist). We’ve circled them below in red. If he lived on property Brandenburg owned, we’d guess that could be the location of O’Donaghue’s old shack.

Here’s a look at the 1925 aerial photo, with the Spring Valley Addition circled in red. Was the shack somewhere out there?

1925 aerial photo over the Spring Valley Addition. Bryce is incorrectly labeled as Beech. The dense stand of trees is today’s Wilshire Park. Aerial photo courtesy of City of Portland Archives.

Perry O. Collier was a popular and successful local real estate salesman who worked these properties as they came on the market. He may have been the one who handled the Spring Valley property deal with John L. Hartman, the big-time Portland attorney-banker-developer behind Rose City Park and other major subdivisions. Hartman bought the Spring Valley Addition property and replatted it for subdivision in June 1921. Those plans are probably what was leading to O’Donaghue’s ouster in September 1921.

This is where the story might bump into something we already know.

Not long after starting the blog—way back in 2007—we met three of the “boys” who grew up in this part of the neighborhood in the 1930s and 1940s. As often happens, our conversations led to questions, maps in hand, that would help turn back the clock. The boys told us about an old man who lived in this area, and we wrote about it in the post Memory Fragments | An old man and his dog, and a follow-up post Memory Map, which featured handwritten notes made on an old Sanborn map from one of the boys—Dick Taylor—about that exact property…that it was owned by the old man’s family. Hmm.

Is this our man? We’ll never know.

But the trip back in time is enough to reset our mental picture of the neighborhood we think we know today, and to feed our imagination. Think about that the next time you’re out on an evening stroll up Bryce on a cold night at the end of the year.

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