Back when what's now Sellwood Park was 'City View Race Track'
At the start of the 1880's, Portland was showing early signs of becoming a law-abiding town. City leaders were attempting to limit gambling; and the Women's Christian Temperance Union was rallying the public to try to place a ban on beer joints and drinking establishments. It was even strictly forbidden to enjoy shooting off a few rounds with a pistol in the streets! Young men were beginning to complain that there wasn't much fun to be had in such a "civilized town".Even horse racing, which was nominally a pastime for the rich and successful, was discouraged – because it involved betting, and also, the races were usually held on Sundays when folks should be in church!
Horse racing was an exciting sport which drew large crowds, and plenty of money exchanged hands there. Because of the possibility of fixed races, and because of the illegal gambling that often went with it, Portland city officials deemed horse racing off limits in the downtown area. Racing would have to be carried out somewhere else – preferably, at a safe distance, over on the east side of the Willamette River.
One site to which such gambling, liquor consumption, and cavorting was diverted was the newly-built City View Race Track, just south of Portland on the east side of the Willamette – a mere three miles away by boat. Here, a large oval track was constructed along a clearing of huge Douglas firs, on a bluff overlooking the Willamette River. Yes: This place was what most of us now know today as Sellwood Park. Next to the track was a diamond, used extensively for either the English game of cricket, or the exciting new American sport then starting to draw national attention, baseball.
More than 50 horse stalls were made available for race horses which were transported to the track by boat for racing events. Captain George Flavel was credited with transporting some of those first racing equines to the City View Race Track in 1882. The track featured a covered grandstand for spectators, which also offered (as the name suggested) a view of the growing city of Portland for those who would turn towards the north.
For some of those who arrived for the races in Sellwood, being at the track was a time to dress up and show off elegant finery, and to catch up on the latest gossip. Those spectators chose not to actually partake of the dusty races and snorting horses, but came instead for a pleasant afternoon of boat-watching on the Willamette River, while sipping tea.
A dancing pavilion, picnic tables, a fine restaurant, and a resort for ladies were a few of the other amenities located at or near the City View Race Track. A barn in which were stored grounds-keeping equipment was also nearby. Decorative tents surrounded the grandstand on both sides, where those arriving could buy tickets, and make wagers on their favorite horse. The terrace out in front of the grandstand was an ideal place for early spectators to get a close look at the horses and jockeys – and also to cheer for the local firefighters in their pre-race tug-of war against the local mail carriers, or the railroad tough guys, or whoever else it might be.
However, Sellwood had yet to be established as a community! It would be another year before a townsite would be plotted just south of the race track – where families, churches, a school, and businesses would begin sprouting along the waterfront. In the meantime, until the clergy and their congregations settled in and began to propose changes, the City View Race Track was a sometimes-illicit place of entertainment – a safe distance from downtown Portland.
Although wagering on horse races was not always legal, America's love of the racing of horses can be traced back as far back as George Washington, and the country's Colonial days. But it wasn't until the establishment of the Oregon State Fair at Oregon City in 1861 that horse racing became a sanctioned event in the Beaver State. Early residents brought their horses from various places in Oregon, Washington, California, and Montana to win bragging rights for having the fastest horse around. When the State Capitol was moved from Oregon City to Salem two years later, the annual horse races and the State Fair went with it.
In the years to follow, race tracks began appearing at county fairs and in many areas, including Hillsboro and Albany in Oregon, and Walla Walla in Washington – providing an opportunity for those who wanted to train race horses fulltime.
Farmers, agriculturalists, and occasionally wealthy merchants who dabbled in the hobby of raising horses, called themselves horse breeders. Bob Bybee, who considered himself a trainer, became successful operating racehorse stables at the farm of his brother, James Bybee, on Sauvie Island.
George Misner and Allen A. Unckless, who became expert horse trainers, provided their services at the City View Race Track, while property owner P.J. Martins (who gave his name to today's Martins Street) owned an apple orchard near the Sellwood Bluffs, and also experimented as a horse breeder near the racetrack.
"Horse and wagon" was the dominant form of land transportation at that time, and making the trip from Portland to watch horse races in Salem by boat or carriage was a serious day-long undertaking. Serious racing fans preferred a venue closer to home, so riding the luxury steamboat from downtown Portland to the City View Park drew substantial crowds to Sellwood. The Oregonian newspaper heralded the opening of the racing season in which over 600 people boarded the steamer "Salem", which made five daily trips from the west side of the Willamette upstream to the City View Race Course in Sellwood.
The races held at City View were usually of the trotting type, in which drivers and buggies competed against each other over distances from a quarter mile to a mile. Races were run all day; but the main event pitted three to five horses, with the winner being declared from among the best of five heats, with a thirty-minute rest period between races to cool off.
Trotting races could be exhilarating as well as dramatic – as when a superior horse and rider won the first two heats convincingly. In the following race, the previous winner might find itself being boxed out by the other contestants. Riders were also known to use their riding crop on opposing riders during a heated contest, or even to slap an opponent's horse while attempting to pass! Spectators packed the grandstand seats – not just to track their wagers, but to witness what must have resembled the ancient Roman chariot races at times…with collisions, and with opponents purposely ramming the wheels of their competitors buggies.
Apparently, security and order were on the lax side; newspapers around the state seemed to ignore the illegal and unsportsmanlike conduct. At the City View Race Track in July of 1882, the Oregonian reported that a crowd gathered around the judges' box, located near the track, where a contestant wanted to scratch his horse from the next race – but an unidentified attendee settled the matter by whipping out a pistol and demanding the heats continue with no withdrawals. In the next day's newspaper, there wasn't any mention of any culprits being arrested or weapons being seized.
Also, riders were then allowed to wager on their own horses in secret, which meant that they could control the speed of their animals based on the amount of money they might lose or win.
Some of Oregon's first millionaires were breeders and owners of racehorses. Promoters realized that newspaper coverage was leading to people idolizing horses as sports heroes, and many spectators regularly filled the stands to cheer on their favorites. The cheap fares by boat to City View Park provided incentive to attend the daily races, since admission to the track was included in the transportation fee.
Not that the City View Race Track was the only track on the outskirts of Portland; other attractions, some of them rather questionable, included the Red House in Milwaukie, the White House Roadhouse and Race Track across the Willamette from the town of Milwaukie, and later the Irving Race Course in the Northeast section of Portland.
Riders, young and old, untrained in the sport of racing, challenged and raced each other along the macadamized country road (now Macadam Avenue!) leading from Portland south to the White House Race Track – which turned into a place where bets were won and lost, money and property exchanged hands, and fistfights (and sometimes lives) were lost over each contest.
Local folklore suggested that the White House Road House was full of drink, betting, women, racing, and any other devious activities that the idle mind could conceive of. Mary Goodall summed it up elegantly in a pamphlet she wrote entitled, "Oswego History: Oregon's Iron Dream". She said that the White House was a place, "Where Portland came for amusement, and where the daughters of neighboring landowners were not allowed to enter by their fathers' stern commands!"
Once payday arrived, men who worked at the Oregon Iron Company, in the town of Oswego just south of the White House, rushed to spend their money at the race track – according to Mark Browne, archivist and council board member at the Oswego Heritage House. With only about 90 people then living in the town of Oswego, the bulk of the spectators came from the metropolis of Portland, nearly six miles to the north, by horse and buggy.
Since racing was a seasonal sport, held mainly in the spring and fall, managers at the City View Race Track knew additional entertainment would have to be scheduled between racing events to meet the revenue needs of the facility. Joseph Buchtel, a steamboat man, a baseball organizer, and Oregon foot-race champion, became director of the baseball activities at City View.
In 1883 baseball was becoming quite an attraction for both players and fans from across the Northwest. A semi-pro baseball league was formed, comprised of teams from Portland – including the "Stars" and the "Willamettes". Other baseball teams arose in Oregon City, Salem, Vancouver (Washington) – and as far away as in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.
Other events when ball games weren't scheduled were wrestling matches, boxing matches, rifle shooting, soccer, cricket, and relay games. During the Fourth of July celebrations, the Portland Caledonian Games became a regular attraction at City View Park. Thousands of people packed the stadium to watch the three-legged race, the 100-yard dash for adults and children, the "stone put", and a small version of pole-vaulting using a rigid stick. The highlight of many such games at City View was a tug of war between the Sons of St. George, an English organization, and their chief rival – the Caledonians of Scottish Heritage. The match in 1883 was won by the sons of St. George, after a tug of war lasting fully one hour, thirty-four minutes, and forty-five seconds – and the progress of that tense and lengthy match was called out for the crowd by an announcer, who detailed gains and losses, inch by inch.
Balloon ascensions were quite a marvel on the West Coast in 1889, and it was during this time that over 3,000 people viewed a notable flight at City View. Ballooning was then a dangerous experiment, and many balloonists who considered themselves experts in air flight nonetheless took off from the safety of a river or lake that offered a soft landing if disaster occurred. This time, Professor P.H. Redmond was attempting to launch his balloon from a dock on Sellwood's Spokane Street Ferry Landing.
Though he may have considered himself proficient at operating a balloon, his crew was not. His balloon helpers consisted of a few teenage boys who had just been hanging around the grounds, and were quick to offer their services in any capacity. Twelve-year-old Eddie Hall volunteered to man the ropes – but when the balloon began to rise, Eddie got stuck by his neck between the ropes and the basket.
While the young man evidently was not in danger of being choked to death, those who viewed the flight were not so sure. Eddie dangled precariously from the balloon for seven minutes until the professor could guide the craft down to safe a landing in City View Race Track. With burn marks on his neck, Eddie survived, and was able to regale listeners for years to come with the lurid details of his airborne ordeal. The Oregonian described the mishap as horrible: "Women fainted, children cried, and strong men turned their heads away."
By 1890, the now-established new town of Sellwood was spawning a booming business district. People from the west side of the river were coming over to buy lots, build homes, and settle down just south of the race track. Lots were advertised at from $150 to $300 each, along Miller, Leo (now Lambert), Lexington, and Bidwell Streets, in the newly-developed "City View Park District" of Sellwood.
Sellwood Boulevard, then and now, had the only unobstructed views of downtown Portland. The east side streetcar arrived three years later – announcing with great fanfare its value as an alternative and faster way to reach the games at City View. Handbills were handed to race track attendees alerting them to saloons and bars hosting after-race parties near the intersection of 17th and S.E. Umatilla. For partygoers, or for those who wanted to continue celebrating long after the races were over, Mrs. Randall's Hotel and Saloon at 11th and Umatilla, and the Sellwood Hotel on 17th Avenue, offered additional opportunities.As the Twentieth Century began, the reign of horse racing near Portland was coming to an end. Horse racing at City View, along with the economy of rest of the country, had taken a serious blow in the financial panic of 1893. Attendance at races began a steady decline at that time, and winner purses at horseraces declined with it. The Irvington race course closed for two years, reopened in 1900, and then finally closed down permanently. Sellwood's City View Race Track saw its last horse races just the year before. The last of the area's grand race tracks was at the White House, across the river from Milwaukie – which burned to the ground in 1904.
In one last encore of sorts, in 1901 local newspapers reported on a "horse chase" sponsored by Portland Hunt Club, which started southbound along the dirt path of Grand Avenue in today's Central East Side Industrial District, and finished at what they called "the old City View Race Track". It must have been quite a thrilling event, as the thundering of galloping horse hooves could be heard widely as they passed Midway School at Milwaukie Avenue and Ellis Street (today it's a parking lot), and by the few houses in yet-to-be-named Westmoreland, as they rounded the bend at Bybee, and headed into the home stretch west down Sellwood Boulevard.
As the trotting races began to decline, a section of City View Park was placed on the real estate market – but, because of slow sales, very few lots were then sold or built upon. A resurgence of interest in the old race track occurred in 1903 when businessmen and promoters listed "City View Park" as one of seven possible Portland sites on which to hold the Lewis and Clark Exposition, which was to take place in 1905. West side organizers had more influence and persistence than the other competing groups, so Guilds Lake in Northwest Portland was the chosen site for the Expo. The Sellwood neighborhood was considered too far away for attendees to travel to by boat or by the streetcar.But, residents of the Sellwood area did receive some benefit from the Lewis and Clark Expo – the streetcar company anticipated making much money during the Expo conveying visitors to attractions, and so they built an attraction in Sellwood to take the streetcar to. They called it "The Oaks Amusement Park", and it opened in 1905. That later led to a new interurban rail service continuing south and east from Golf Junction, at the south end of 13th Avenue.Oaks Park has certainly endured in a way its founders could not have imagined – it not only is still open and vibrant more than a century later, but although the Expo grounds at Guilds Lake are long gone, Sellwood's "The Oaks" today stands alone as the longest continuously-operated amusement park in the entire United States of America!
Furthermore, justice and hard work prevailed when the Sellwood Board of Trade lobbied city officials to turn the old race track into a city park – and, in August of 1909, the City of Portland paid W.H. Morehouse $47,000 for fifteen and a half acres to be renamed "Sellwood Park". Once completed the following year, the city's first public swimming pool, which also featured curtained dressing booths, was built in the park. Later, a 60 by 70-foot swimming pavilion that included rest rooms, a refreshment room, shower baths, locker rooms, and an assembly hall, was added. A gazebo was built in 1914 in the center of the park for the band concerts offered twice every summer. A baseball diamond was built to continue the tradition of baseball played there for the athletes of Sellwood School, and for the use of the semi-pro team started by the Eastside Lumber Mill. Currently, Sellwood Park is used for picnics, and offers a playground for young people, tennis courts, and two baseball diamonds.
On the first Sunday in August, the "Sundae in the Park" music and ice cream family afternoon gathering began in 1979 in Sellwood Park, sponsored by SMILE, the Sellwood and Westmoreland neighborhood association; it celebrated its 40th anniversary last August. However, whether it can continue this year will depend on how and at what cost Portland Parks and Recreation will make it available for the purpose – and, very importantly, whether local residents who would like to see it continue will actually step forward to help to make it happen. (If you would like to help, or just want to learn more, call Nancy Walsh at 971/570-2702.)And, just last year, the July Monday evening "Concerts in the Park" series moved up from Sellwood Riverfront Park into Sellwood Park. What was once a meeting place for horse racing, tug of war, and track meets in City View Park, today – as Sellwood Park – continues to be a focal point for outdoor and family activities for the Inner Southeast Portland community.
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