East Portland: Evolution of a small city

West’s Block building on SE Grand: Now home to AHC’s headquarters. Bult in 1883 and possibly the oldest standing building on Grand Ave.

What we think of today as Portland covers a broad swath of land on both sides of the Willamette River. In the late 19th century, that same area contained several mostly independent communities, including Albina, St. Johns, Sellwood—and East Portland, a small city on the eastern shore of the river roughly bounded by Division Street to the south, 12th Avenue to the east, and Sullivan’s Gulch to the north. While people had lived in this area for far longer than recorded history, East Portland only existed as an official city for two decades before merging with Portland and Albina in 1891.

The Architectural Heritage Center’s (AHC) current exhibit, East Portland: A Changing Landscape, a Forgotten City, explores the area and its history in imagery and displays (hint: there once was a huge body of water that sliced through SE—imagine crossing a bridge over SE Grand).

Here’s an interview I did with AHC’s Val Ballestrem on the exhibit and how SE Portland has changed since its beginnings. The exhibit runs through April 2020 —go check it out!

What was the motivation behind the exhibit?
We recognized that it was a story that has been given very little attention over the years. In the process of researching, the most recent published history of East Portland (other than photo books) I could find was written in 1930! We had already been considering an East Portland exhibit when we became aware of the After Promontory exhibit. Once we were on board with hosting After Promontory, it made sense for us to do the East Portland exhibit at the same time.

Was the eastside primarily industry mixed with housing and apartments? Did any of the people that lived east “commute” to downtown or stay eastside?
From the 1870s onward, there were always industries near to the river, but because of the landscape, much of the land west of present-day MLK Jr. Blvd. remained undeveloped until into the first two decades of the 20th century. There were some houses and hotels in that area, but most were on bits of land that stayed high and dry during Willamette River flooding. The earliest concentrations of housing in East Portland were east of MLK and north of Oak Street. Housing in that area shows up in some of the earliest photos of the area. To the south, the housing was a little more sparse, in part due to the large presence of the Hawthorne (or Asylum) Slough that cut a large swath through the area south of Stark St. as well as a sizable amount of land set aside for what was then called the Oregon Hospital for the Insane. There was also quite a bit of land at the south end of East Portland that was used as farmland.

 By the 1880s, it was clear that the east side was viewed as a residential suburb of Portland even though it was still its own city. There was a lot of flat lands as you moved farther away from the river, making home building easier. It took until 1887, however, for the first bridge to appear (Morrison St.), which immediately led to the rise of streetcar suburbs on the eastside. I’m sure there were lots of people using the various ferries that crossed the river prior to the arrival of the bridges. It should also be noted that one of the details that came out of consolidation in 1891, was that all of the bridges became free to use. East-siders had been clamoring for this – probably most of whom needed to get to work or otherwise conduct business on the west side.

 

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Can you talk about the pond that once existed? When was it finally filled in?
There was a spring-fed slough that cut through East Portland from about present-day Madison St. and 11th (adjacent to the asylum), north toward Belmont, and then north and east toward the river. Early maps and photos show this slough that by the end of the 1880s had been cut off from the river and was considered as a pond. The Goat Blocks development was built on some of the land where there was once a slough/pond. Also, the building that includes Next Adventure at SE Grand and Stark was built on the filled-in pond.

 Basically East Portland was bisected by this slough. There was a 15 – 20 foot ridge that ran along MLK roughly between Stark and Hawthorne, this is why much of the land west of MLK and south of Stark remained undeveloped until it was filled in. The early roads in that area were built on pilings as were many buildings.

If you’re trying to explain the boundaries of East Portland to someone today, what would that be?
The city boundaries of East Portland were roughly the river, Division St., 12th and approximately what is now Lloyd Blvd (or I-84). The Central Eastside today encompasses this entire area, but extends to Powell at the south.

 Was there a particular industry that reigned?
Food-related businesses (especially processing businesses) show up pretty early in East Portland, including canneries and meatpackers. There were grain mills on the east side from the 1850s onward. Gideon Tibbetts’ flour mill was the first, but was to the south of East Portland, near Clinton and 11th. In later years (after 1900) wholesale grocers started to become more prominent. Since lumber was necessary for growing cities, lumber mills showed up pretty early as well, but really dominated the southern end of what was East Portland into the 20th century.

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How did the arrival of the railroad impact east Portland?
The simple answer is that the construction of the railroad, beginning at the end of the 1860s, led East Portlanders like James B. Stephens, to envision a city that could perhaps rival their west side neighbor. Over a couple of decades, the railroad helped transform what was initially a farming village into a small, industrial-minded city.

 

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