Kenneth Brown: Heroic Promoter of Sellwood and Ross Island
As large apartment buildings today rise within the Sellwood-Moreland Improvement League boundaries, long-time residents wonder if we have reached a density saturation point.
But in contrast, Portland neighborhoods in the first quarter of the last century competed with each other to attract people, businesses, and municipal improvements – such as reliable water supplies, street lighting and paving, and public parks. Citizens organized "Push" and "Pep" Clubs and business associations. Records and photographs recently acquired by SMILE provide a record of attempts to extend that development even to Ross Island, almost one hundred years ago.
Originally "Oak Island", Ross Island was renamed for the man who claimed it in 1850, emigrant Sherry Ross. He and his wife initially lived on the island, but by 1854 had moved to downtown Portland. Ross used the island as pasture for as many as 27 cattle, rather than a dairy herd that would require twice daily milking (curiously, a 1921 photograph shows that cattle were still being pastured on the island).
Ross died in 1867, and his wife Rebecca sold the island for $17,000. The buyer may have been John Kiernan – or he may have purchased it later. In any case, Kiernan was the island's owner from at least 1879 until 1926.
One issue that surfaced many times, and to some extent has never been resolved, was determining the best "use" for Ross Island, plus three adjacent smaller pieces – Hardtack, East, and Toe Islands, which collectively total about 300 square acres. Today much of that acreage is water, since the main island has been hollowed out by Ross Island Sand & Gravel Company, which purchased it in 1926. But, there were several attempts between 1905-1926 to acquire it for a variety of uses. The materials that now belong to SMILE hint at efforts by Sellwood residents, led by a persistent individual, who for five years proposed multiple plans for the islands, which he thought could include or lead to public acquisition. He did not succeed for lack of trying, but because the political winds were unfavorable at the time.
Kenneth Brown was born in Ontario, Canada, in 1866. At the age of 27 he graduated from Princeton University, and three years later earned his divinity degree from its Theological Seminary. He became a minister in the Home Missionary program of the Presbyterian Church, and served as a pastor in seven states before arriving in Portland in 1919. By the age of 53, he had concluded his religious career to sell insurance and pursue his interest in photography. He had established a studio on the east side of S.E. 13th Avenue in a building, the site of which is now the parking lot of the Key Bank at Tacoma Street. He also became a tireless booster for his new community, as President of the Sellwood Better Business Club.
Brown may have seen similarities been Ross Island and Belle Isle in the Detroit River opposite Windsor, Ontario, where he was born. Although Belle Isle, at almost 1,000 acres, was considerably larger than Ross Island, it had been developed into a public pleasure ground for local residents. Brown hoped that Ross Island could become equally attractive to Portland citizens and tourists. Although privately owned, it was used by boaters, swimmers, picnickers, and campers from the metropolitan residential area.
The Oaks Amusement Park was a popular attraction to the east of the island that was well served by the interurban train system (now the Springwater Corridor).
Earlier attempts had been made to acquire Ross Island for public use. In 1905, members of the Portland Rowing Club urged the city to buy the property – an appeal that went nowhere. In 1911, city councilman Allen G. Rushlight was elected Mayor. A plumbing contractor, he was raised in the Midway area near Milwaukie Avenue and Ellis Streets, and was familiar with the Island.
In 1912 he commissioned architect Edgar Lazarus to prepare a general development plan for the Island, which was likened to "Belle Isle, in Detroit." The Lazarus drawing featured walkways, a lagoon, swimming beaches, and ornamental trees, with a causeway bridge connecting Ross and Hardtack Islands. But when the public had the opportunity to approve purchase of the islands in November, 1912, for $300,000, they rejected the proposal. Rushlight finished his term of office a year later, and the Lazarus plan was set aside.
After the bond rejection in 1912, plans for Ross Island lay dormant for nine years, until Kenneth Brown began promoting improvements. Although he had not been a Portland resident at the time of the Lewis & Clark Exposition in 1905, Brown was aware of the economic benefits and increased development that could be generated by such an event.
In the early 1920's a scheme was being put forth by local "captains of industry" to hold the Atlantic-Pacific Highway Electrical Exposition in Portland in 1925. By this time automobiles were becoming more numerous, but construction of paved roads was far behind. A national "Good Roads" movement was underway; businessmen and farmers saw value in improved shipment of Oregon grown and manufactured products. Promoters believed that the Exposition would attract hundreds of thousands of visitors and potential investors to the city, and boost economic growth.
As discussion began about just where to stage the Exposition, neighborhoods began touting their sections of the city as the ideal location. Kenneth Brown was sure that Ross Island was the perfect site, and that leveraging Exposition improvements could lead to transforming the property into a west coast Belle Isle Park. In May, 1921, he became President of the Sellwood Branch of the Ross Island Boosters, whose membership was composed of local business owners, and the ministers of several churches. But city-wide promotion required funding; consequently pledge cards were circulated to raise money. Membership and booster committees were organized and letters were sent to newspapers and business owners beyond the neighborhood, seeking support.
On October 9 1921, at a Benson Hotel luncheon, the Portland Civic League listened to presentations by three neighborhoods.
Mocks Crest had three speakers, Rocky Butte had two, and Sellwood was represented by Kenneth Brown. The Mocks Crest contingent emphasized their location near the railroad freight yards and the shipping docks – infrastructure appeal for business investors. They also addressed modern transportation changes, a primary Exposition theme, stating that that the base of Mocks Crest could accommodate parking for thousands of automobiles.
The Rocky Butte presenters emphasized their proximity to the new main west-east highway, Sandy Boulevard – and suggested that the butte could be used after the expo as a public park, with a view as good as the one from Council Crest.
Finally, Kenneth Brown made his pitch, describing the closeness of Ross Island to downtown Portland, its accessibility by water, and its permanent use after the celebration as a public park. The drawing that was provided in his brochure showed construction of a causeway from the foot of Holgate Boulevard across the slough to the island. It also suggested the island could be a link to communities on the west side of the river, if a bridge were built to Fulton (now Johns Landing).
Brown's sketch was similar to the Lewis & Clark Expo site, and included a permanent riverside exhibition hall for a Fish & Wildlife Department aquarium. However, his plan did not provide much parking space, an omission not lost on one of the other presenters, who commented, "the world is on wheels and… transporting people by water is a thing of the past."
No site recommendation was made at that lunch; the Exposition promoters knew they needed money if the project were to develop beyond the planning phase. Subsequently, a handful of businessmen and then-Mayor George L. Baker submitted a measure to Oregon voters in November of 1922, seeking to raise three million dollars in public funding. Unsurprisingly, the measure was defeated – for why would Oregon voters approve funds for a Portland-based event which appeared to benefit businesses who were unwilling to risk their own money on it?
Without funds for it, enthusiasm for the planned exposition dwindled. But Kenneth Brown and many in his community, still felt that Ross Island should be developed. The new plan was to use the island for auto campers, with recreational amenities for residents and tourists. However, one serious drawback to developing swimming beaches off the Island was the lack of sewage treatment anywhere on the Willamette River! In late summer, when river water was low, sewage and industrial filth were high (Portland's first sewage treatment plant was not built until the early 1950's). In August of 1923 conditions in the Willamette were so serious that the city heath officer issued a warning against any swimming in the river.
Another blow to Ross Island's prospects was a negative response from a study by the City Club in October, 1924. They opposed purchase of the Island for public ownership and use because "water pollution made it unsuitable for aquatic sports." The Club did not address the need for eliminating or treating the pollution.
In early June of 1924 a more serious threat to public acquisition of the Island arose. A stock company was formed by six businessmen who took an option on the island with a $10,000 payment to John Kiernan. Two weeks later, on June 28, Brown made an attempt to promote the beauty of the island over its commercial use, by leading a tour highlighting its natural attractions. He also took photos of the island, which are in the collection of materials acquired by SMILE. They reveal open, grassy meadows (and a cow), and many tall cottonwood and willow trees.
There are also two aerial photographs which show the eastern edge of the Island; the length of Holman Slough (between Oaks Amusement Park and Holgate Boulevard), lined with hundreds of houseboats; and Milwaukie Avenue from Holgate, south to Insley Street. It is hoped that these two images can be put online, possibly through the SMILE website; but at any event they will be on view at the History booth at Sundae in the Park on August 6 in upper Sellwood Park.
The final elimination of Brown's dream for Ross Island was announced in the August, 1924, issue of THE BEE: "The Ross Island Development Company has contracted with John Kiernan to purchase Ross Island for $200,000."
Undeterred, Brown made a last, desperate attempt to prevent sale of the island for the sand and gravel operation. In April, 1925, he filed a petition with City Council signed by "fifty prominent Portland businessmen" suggesting that Ross Island become "Rose Isle", and be used as a center for Rose Festival activities. Like the appeal of the Rowing Club twenty years earlier, his plea was ignored.
According to E. Kimbark MacColl, in his 1979 book "The Growth of a City", in 1926 Ross Island Sand & Gravel built its office and operations buildings on the bluff [McLoughlin Boulevard was not yet under construction] without a building permit. The area was zoned for residential use, but in spite of protests from the neighborhood, "by 1931 the Portland City Council decided not to disturb the status quo."
In March, 1926, Kenneth Brown moved his photography studio and family to the Rose City Park neighborhood. Three years later, he was President of the Greater Sandy Boulevard Improvement Club. In August of that year he died, at the age of sixty-three. He was survived by his widow, Frances, and two sons, Daniel and Kenneth Brown, Jr.