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When motorized vehicles began to appear on Southeast streets

SOUTHEAST HISTORY


by: COURTESY OF CITY OF PORTLAND ARCHIVES - This is the Motor Vehicle Inspection Station on the northeast corner of Milwaukie Avenue and Powell Boulevard; it was one of twenty stations located around the city, whe car owners were required to have their vehicles brakes, tires, and lights inspected, so that they were safe to use on the road. The photo was apparently taken in the 1930s. As E. Henry Wemme drove his homemade model Stanley Steamer down the cobblestones of Front Street in 1899, Portland was witnessing the beginnings of the auto era.

It would be another six years – not until the Lewis and Clark Exposition opened in 1905 – before Oregonians would start to become excited about this new contraption called the automobile. At that time, members of the elite Portland Automobile Club boldly predicted that motor vehicles would eventually replace horses, slow steamboats, and cumbersome trains and streetcars.

During this time the east side of Portland was still basically rural. Milwaukie Avenue and Powell Boulevard were the main thoroughfares connecting Sellwood and Brooklyn and the neighboring community to downtown, and travel was mainly by wagon, horse and buggy, or on foot.

Streetcars were available for residents to ride for work or pleasure across the river to the west, but most streets east of the Willamette were still simple farm roads of gravel and dirt. There was little motivation to own a motor vehicle, let alone drive it down the treacherous streets of Westmoreland and other parts of Southeast Portland.

In fact, business for the Sellwood Ferrymen was brisk, as passengers and supplies were still using this mode of transportation – but the opening of the Springwater Interurban streetcar in 1905 was about to cut into the Sellwood Ferry’s profits. And, with the introduction of the motor vehicle, the ferry’s days were numbered – as would be the streetcars, decades later, to the surprise of most Oregonians.

From 1887 to 1893, Sellwood was still an independent town, and its officials were working vigorously to provide fresh water to the community and insure that sewers were installed along the thoroughfares. Merchants lobbied for cement sidewalks to be laid and streets to be paved along their storefronts, to attract potential customers.

Finding their jobs as Sellwood Councilmen to be too demanding, and the tasks needing completion too expensive for their budget, this all-volunteer council convinced local citizens to agree to be incorporated into the City of Portland in 1893.

Once the community had been accepted into the City of Portland, the ex-Sellwood Councilmen created a committee and petitioned the city to complete the job of finishing the streets of Sellwood so they could drive their new autos on them. Historical reporter Karl Klooster of “This Week” magazine wrote that “Sellwood prided itself on being the first Oregon town with paved streets”.

One of Sellwood’s first car dealers was P.H. Dunn, who opened a shop at the corner of S.E. 13th and Tenino, now the site of Spencer’s Antiques. Since there is not any evidence that Dunn actually ran a car lot in the neighborhood, potential buyers in need of a new or used auto probably viewed a catalogue of available cars in Dunn’s showroom. Like a real estate broker, Dunn would drive the auto enthusiast over to the seller’s house to view and test drive used autos for sale. That is, if the buyer even knew how to drive the contraption.

The gas or electric carriage, as the first autos were called, represented for its owner a symbol of success – a rich man’s car. By 1905 there were only 242 car owners in Portland, and exactly 141 miles of paved roads in the entire United States.

Car prices varied in downtown Portland -- a four-cylinder Packard that seated up to five people comfortably sold for a modest $3,000. A top-of-the-line Apperson Touring Car, holding up to six persons, cost $6,000 – and it came with the added luxury of a covered roof, and had electric lights.

There were in that era over 50 car manufacturers across the country selling motor vehicles for rich folks who, in the Portland region, desired transportation to beach resorts, rides to mountain excursions, and drives to events at Oaks Park, the Vaughn Street Park, and to other events in high society.

Rich folks only? Well, in 1909, the average income for skilled and unskilled workers in most industries was around $544.00, and the thought of owning a car was merely a dream.

Driving outside the city limits, car owners had to be expert navigators, as service stations were few and far between, and good paved roads were unheard of. Hardware stores in the local town, or farmers, could provide gasoline when the car’s tank ran close to empty. And if a rough or rutted road caused a spring to snap, brakes to break, and belts or wheels on their autos to dislodge or break down, there were no repair specialists around to fix the problem. A driver had to have the knowledge and tools to fix his car while out on the road, or a crafty farmer or handy blacksmith shop would have to be called upon. That is, if you were lucky to be near either one when your car broke down.

Hotels and boarding houses were sparse in Eastern Oregon, and passengers used to the many comforts that a big city could offer had to make do with sleeping in a haystack, or borrowing soft straw from a local farmhouse to make a comfy mattress for the evening.

The Oregon Department of Transportation website reports that the Oregon Legislature set up the first road system in the state: Local counties were responsible for the laying out and maintaining of new roads in their district. Every male between the ages of 21 to 59 who was not physically handicapped was required to work two days on the construction of public roads. Those who preferred not to perform the labor could pay a tax of $2.00 per $2,000 of their assed property tax value or go to jail. The harsh law evidently was intended to stress to the public the importance of having a healthy road system. And you thought conscription in this country was always just limited to the military!

Led by the distinguished members of the Portland Auto Club, money was pledged for the construction of a scenic highway along the Columbia River. It took two long years to accomplish the task, but on June 7th, 1915, more than 2,000 cars and their passengers attended a double celebration at Multnomah Falls and at Crown Point to formally open the magnificent and unique new highway connecting Portland to Hood River.

By the start of the 1920’s the car craze was in full swing. Auto dealerships were springing up along downtown boulevards, and service stations and repair shops were increasingly being located at every major traffic intersection – occasionally on every corner of a major intersection.

Thirteen Sellwood residents formed the Sellwood Buick Club in the 1920’s promoting safe driving practices and courtesy among motorists. Charter members included real estate agent H. E. Sellwood and merchants Peter Livingston and Mrs. R.L. Shepherd.

The neighborhood’s first car dealership, the Moreland Chevrolet Agency, was highlighted in THE BEE, and potential buyers no longer had to travel to the west side of the Willamette River to purchase a new auto. Rudy Taggesells and his car salesmen at this dealership provided service and sales on the southeast corner of Bybee Boulevard and Milwaukie Avenue, where the U.S. Bank is now.

The golden age of auto transportation arrived in full force in Inner Southeast with the opening of the Sellwood Bridge and the Ross Island Bridge in the mid-1920’s. Real Estate was booming, since automobile commuters could live in Westmoreland, say, and arrive at work downtown in a matter of minutes. Long commutes by streetcar and slow boat were no longer acceptable, and the Sellwood Ferry made its final trip across the Willamette in 1925. Barns and stables had virtually disappeared, replaced by the construction of garages.

As auto sales increased and motorists clogged the roadways of Inner Southeast Portland, city officials began calling for safe driving practices. Some twenty motor vehicle testing stations were set up around the metro area, and anyone owning a truck, car, or motorcycle was required to have the vehicle inspected at these stations. Maintenance experts would check to make sure brakes, tires, and lights were in working order, and that headlights were adjusted correctly to avoid shining into the eyes of oncoming drivers during dangerous evening trips on unlighted roads.

The Motor Vehicle Testing Station in Inner Southeast was located on the northeast corner of Milwaukie Avenue and Powell Boulevard, where the Portland Fire training facility is sited now.

Whenever these vehicles failed to pass the established standards, owners had to find a reliable repair shop, and many maintenance stations popped up within a radius of two blocks or so around each inspection station.

Cars were made in the Rose City, too, in early days. Portland’s first car assembly factory – the Ford Motor Company building – was right down the block from the inspection station, at 11th and Division. It employed over 250 workers.

Technology in the 21st Century has brought many luxuries for car owners that were unknown when their grandparents began driving. Because of mechanical failures, early autos were not always reliable. A Pierce Arrow or Peerless Touring Car might have cost $4,000 to buy, but easily required another $3,000 or $4,000 to maintain.

Times change. The streetcar concept is back in modern form, bicycles are gaining favor for commuting, and some younger drivers reportedly no longer find it liberating or glamorous to have and drive an automobile.

But, in an era in which motor vehicles now not only travel faster, further, and more reliably, but are built to last for hundreds of thousands of miles, the sheer convenience of having a car still puts it at the top of the list for personal transportation.