Oak Grove Beach, 1917-1929

Oak Grove Beach, 1920s. If you squint you can see the rail bridge in upper left-hand side of photo that still stands today. Photo: OHS.

I’ve written about Oak Grove in the past and plan on writing more in upcoming posts. (You’ve been warned.)

Downtown Oak Grove is ripe for a renaissance. It’s mere minutes from Milwaukie and Sellwood. Younger families are moving in – or moving back. Land is cheap – and many take advantage of it with urban farms or robust gardens in the area. Some just let nature take over (“The lawn doesn’t need mowing. It’s called “naturescaping.”) or others decorate their front yards with 365-a-day garage sales and plastic blue tarps (insert banjo music here). That’s Oak Grove in a nutshell – from million-dollar homes on the river, to HUD housing blocks away – it’s a mixture of incomes and lifestyles.

It has its history, too. After living here for close to a decade, it’s taken that long to connect with others, learn about the history and really get a sense of community.

One recent fascinating discovery was Oak Grove Beach. I had read about it in the past in Willamette Landings but didn’t think it was an actual destination until I started poking around the Oregonian archives.

From what I gather, the beach was a natural stretch of shore just south of what is now Rivervilla Park. “Beach goers,” mostly from Portland, Milwaukie and Oak Grove, could swim in the Willamette and enjoy the warm sun on the shore. The below map shows the Rivervilla Park near the bridge at the top. The beach was most likely located between the bridge from Milwaukie to Lake Oswego and River Forest Lake:

It had different owners through the years. One owner had some problems with the county and was denied a petition for a dance license in 1922. One presumes that this was eventually approved since later newspaper ads advertising dancing.

As years passed, Oak Grove Beach offered more to visitors than just a swim in the Willamette. Festivities for New Year’s Eve at the Rio Vista Pavilion in 1923 was advertised with the promise of “lots of noise, good music, favors for everyone, wonderful floor.” Half-fried chicken was 50 cents. For Thanksgiving, diners could enjoy Percy Brown’s Troubadours, a seven-piece orchestra in the Rio Vista Pavilion and Restaurant, with $100 worth of turkeys given away. New Year’s Eve and Thanksgiving in Oregon? That doesn’t scream “beach weather.” Which means the Pavilion and cottages were constructed to draw visitors year-round. It also means that there were structures along the shore at one point. Intriguing.

Oak Grove Beach wasn’t without tragedy or (some very mild) controversy. In January 1925, Portland youths were found guilty by a jury on possession of “intoxicating liquors.” They were arrested in one of the cottages on New Year’s eve with six young women of Portland by state prohibition agents who declared in court that the kids had chugged a large portion of a gallon of moonshine.

Later that year in July, Ed Hillery of Portland drowned while swimming at night in the Willamette. His swimming companions reported Hillery missing shortly before 10 at night. His body was recovered the following night.

On a lighter note, Oak Grove Beach provided the backdrop for various groups, including camping for organizations and a “newsies frolic” that promised races, baseball, swimming and diving exhibition.

Getting to Oak Grove Beach seemed easy enough. Located a mere 2 miles south of Milwaukie early owners of automobiles on the east side would go south bound to Pacific Highway to Oak Grove and turn right to the beach. Admission at one point was 35 cents for women while men paid 65 cents. Trolley riders would take either the Oregon City or Oak Grove car. Steamboats would bring visitors from Portland.

At the recent unveiling of the wonderful new Trolley Trail, a ped/bike path that follows the long-gone trolley line, there was a trolley on display that perhaps once took visitors to the long-gone Oak Grove Beach.

The beach and pavilion appeared to disappear around 1929. Land on and near the beach was sold to homebuilders who quickly took advantage of the impressive views. Nowadays, the beach is home to private residences and is only accessible if you live in one of the homes or passing by on a boat on the Willamette.

And who knows. On late, warm summer nights if you listen hard enough, maybe you can still hear the strains of Percy Brown’s Troubadours playing a waltz or some hot jazz number to Oak Grove Beach revelers.

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7 thoughts on “Oak Grove Beach, 1917-1929

  1. There used to be so many public bathing spots back before WWII, I couldn’t really figure out why, and why they went out of fashion so abruptly until my mom mentioned the fact that people who lived in apartments during this time typically had shared bathrooms so a leisurely soak in their own tub was out of the question.

    Public bathing allowed a person to get clean and relax in the water as long as they wished!

  2. This was very interesting. I’ve lived in Oak Grove since 1956 and didn’t know about this. I wonder if any of the cottages still exist?

    1. Further south, near Roethe Rd, then Jennings Ave, remanants of original summer rental cabins do still exist– tho few are in their original state. Take a walk down to the river there sometime. In some cases, smaller structures have been enlarged or hidden in new skins; others have been torn down to make way for new– and ALL are on tight lots.

      While the Willamette Greenway is not ‘buildable’, access to the river through privately-owned property puts the kibosh on fully enjoying the river as folks once did (though never in lamprey season when what we called “eels”– dead ones!– floated by in great numbers.

  3. I’ve been on the river in the Portland Spirit and the Jet Boat but it would be fun to take a slower trip (with the history detectives?) with the purpose of looking at Oak Grove from the water.

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