The early years of Sellwood - 1882 to 1910
Sure, you probably know a lot about Sellwood today – like where the best places are to have dinner; where the most popular coffee joints are; your favorite bar or hair stylist.
But do you know how Sellwood began? There have been a lot of changes in the Sellwood-Westmoreland neighborhood over the past fifteen years. New people, high-rise condos, and innovative storefronts have replaced what was a community filled with small wooden houses and workers' cottages scattered amongst false-fronted shops.
For newcomers, I think it's well past time to refresh the history behind the community they moved into.
So, let's begin by taking you back more than a century. There, in our mind's eye, we find T. A. Woods, a real estate specialist and entrepreneur, standing on a heavily timbered ridge south of Downtown Portland, looking across the Willamette River at the rural eastside.
Unlike the already-bustling town of Portland to the north, the view he sees – six miles downriver – is more tranquil. Here, under the blue skies, there is still forest, the sound of birds chirping, the occasional horse-drawn wagon, and abundant wildlife.
The settlement of Willsburg, just east of where Sellwood is today, was prospering with its sawmill, and the Oregon and California Railroad trains that passed through at least once a day. A few rudimentary workers' shacks were haphazardly strewn along the landscape on the south side of town. And what was then the Seth Lewelling fruit orchard stretched from there; with Chinese men and other workers quietly pruning and cultivating apples, prunes, cherries, and pears for local residents – as well as for shipment south to the gold miners of California in 1849.
Just northwest of Willsburg, on the bluff overlooking what now is Oaks Bottom, trees were being felled and the land was being shaped for a horse race track with bleachers, on the "City View Tract". Named for its excellent view of the city of Portland, in the following years this area would become a frenzy of action on the weekends. Grand leisure boats dropped people at the landing for the horse racing, dining, drinking, and socializing. And the new racing facility also hosted baseball and holiday celebrations.
Gazing across the Willamette at all of this, Woods envisioned it as the perfect place to start a town with small cottages and large mansions, strategically placed, with a river view and a commercial district running down to the waterfront. The Willamette River was teaming with steamboats, schooners, and a variety of other boats, providing convenient travel and trade between Oregon City, Milwaukie, and Portland – good selling points for any experienced real estate agent.
Later rumors that rails for a streetcar line could be built in that area connecting to the west side of the river were an added bonus. As the town of Sellwood was beginning to take shape, the Eastside Railway began running on 13th Street starting in 1893. Amenities that residents would need, such as stores, temporary lodging, and other necessities, could be obtained just to the south in the town of Milwaukie until a business district took shape. Milwaukie was only a mile southeast of Sellwood, and people could travel down the dirt country road (now S.E. Milwaukie Avenue) laid out in the 1840's by Ben Stark and William Pettygrove.
T. A. Woods, after taking the lay of the land from west of the river, went on to partner with Henry L. Pittock to purchase 360 acres of land from the Reverend John Sellwood. Lots were platted, and a small boat was rented to hustle buyers across the river to its east side, where the new town of Sellwood was beginning to take shape. Plots of land could be bought through the Sellwood Real Estate Company. And there certainly was demand! T.A. Woods was inundated with people eager to buy lots, and homes were already under construction as fast as lumber could be hauled up the hill.
The town of Sellwood's first Post Office was opened in Edwin Corners' country store in 1893 on First Street. Prior to being promoted to Postmaster, Edwin probably offered to hold any correspondence and packages delivered to Sellwood for residents living in the area, or planning to do so soon. Mail and parcels were picked up on the dock at the foot of Umatilla Street which a daily ferry dropped off.
To entice families to move in, the Sellwood Real Estate Company set aside land for the Sellwood School, which opened in 1884 – followed by the construction of a Presbyterian Church. The Methodists had already established their first Sunday School in Sellwood in the previous year.
A commercial district began forming along Umatilla Street.
T.A. Woods planned on reserving the waterfront exclusively for industrial use, such as for a sawmill or grist mill. George Albers arrived on the scene and began setting up a small furniture factory by the river. Needing choice lumber for the quality chairs, tables and bed sets he planned on manufacturing at the Sellwood Furniture Company, fine-cut lumber was supplied by S.W Brown's sawmill, situated within a few feet of George Alber's factory
By the turn of the New Year in 1886, more than 200 families were already living in Sellwood, which boasted two furniture factories, one sawmill, a hotel, and three stores, two churches, and a school.
Merchants came and went – including Robert Kain, who lasted a year, and Edwin Corner, who eventually left the retail business to concentrate solely on sorting letters. Wiley Dickerson attempted to run a seasonal fruit stand, but by the following year had moved on to other enterprises. For a few years, Mrs. Margaret Randall operated a market at 11th and S.E. Umatilla Street – until she decided that renting beds, cooking meals, and tending her vegetable garden were more profitable than being a grocer. She was credited with opening the first hotel in Sellwood, which included a saloon. And, to convince people that Sellwood was a desirable place to live, Mrs. Randall offered a space above her saloon to be used as a Sunday School for children.
John W. Campbell was the first to set up a permanent grocery store – and it went on to remain open for the next 70 years. The upstairs of Campbell's Grocery was used as the meeting place for the Sellwood City Council, during the town's brief time as an independent city.
Sellwood's first City Council was introduced to its residents on March 12, 1887. Five members were assigned positions, presided over by a Council President – Sellwood never had an elected mayor. The All Volunteer City Council served close to seven years, until Sellwood was annexed into the City of Portland in 1893.
Some merchants came to stay for the duration, and others barely were able to stick it out the year. Among other short-termers were bookbinder Clark Horatio, and George P. Dorriss who was a printer. Sellwood had three shoemakers early on – Earl B. Berry; the partners of Andrew Uno and Narisse DuFresne; and H.L. Lindeleaf, who opened his own boot and shoe shop on the south side of Umatilla Street near Second Avenue.
James S. Hite and David C. Greenawalt hauled wood and river water to residents, and offered a private express delivery service for new residents needing to move furniture and other possessions to their new residences. Samuel Craig sold fresh drinking water from Crystal Springs Creek for fifteen cents a barrel, or two for a quarter. If you wanted a shave and a haircut, a visit to Frederick Redinger or Lionel Sayre was in store for you. James Wilson and Nicholas Count shoed horses, repaired wagon rims, and performed the other tasks demanded of blacksmiths.
There weren't enough patients to support a doctor or dentist in the town yet, so a visit to the local physician would require a wagon ride into Portland or Oregon City, but Dr. Otto Zistel – who moved into a home on Umatilla Street near Sellwood School – was available for home visits, when he wasn't in his office in Portland. D.S. Stryker did double duty as a dentist and doctor, and was also available to provide medicine for any ailment, or to pull a tooth.
When Reverend John Sellwood left town after selling the property he'd owned for twenty years, his heirs returned to Sellwood and established a new Episcopal Church, and donated $3,000 for the construction of the church. They not only invested in real estate, but many of the members of the Sellwood family were so enchanted with the little town they decided to stay for a century or two.
The little settlement became a favorite stopping point for seamen and their captains, being close to work and near the Willamette River. Most notable was William P. Short, who captained the "City of Sellwood" riverboat which made daily runs between Sellwood and Portland. He lived on Spokane Street. (Later in his life, Captain Short was at the wheel for the final trip of the "John P. Caples" ferry when it made its last voyage across the Willamette in 1925 as the brand new Sellwood Bridge was finally opened to motor vehicles.)
Sellwood continued to grow and prosper. Before long, a brewery was built at Marion Street at S.E. 11th, and it became the toast of the town. Residents were confident enough in the growth of their community that money was collected to plank the muddy surfaces of Umatilla and Spokane Streets.
Just south of Sellwood, an upscale development by the Cambridge Land Company was being planned, with breathtaking views along the Willamette River – and replacing with houses the fruit trees once harvested there by Henderson Llewelyn and Joe Meek in 1847. This was to be the closest that T. A. Woods would see of his vision of grand mansions built along the river.
A Volunteer Fire department was started in 1895, and the volunteers were required either to help out with chores, or pay a tax to support the fire company. The majority of residents still used wood stoves to heat their homes, and kerosene lamps were used in lieu of the electric lights that were scarce and expensive. (And there was also a belief, at the time, that you could die by touching an electrical switch!)
The "Panic of 1893" brought great hardship to the nation, in addition to the Northwest, as thousands of small banks failed. The Cambridge Land Company was among those affected, causing its development to be foreclosed upon, and what few homes had already been built were moved to another area. However, the Oregonian newspaper announced that the industrious citizens of the village of Sellwood were prospering better than other cities across the country. That news had to come from Downtown, since it wouldn't be until 1906 when Charles Ballard started the newspaper you are reading now, then called the Sellwood Bee, so residents would have a newspaper to boast about their own activities.
Things were bustling at the Sellwood Primary School; the school district hired five new teachers, and 185 pupils were reported to be attending classes.
The first decade of the Twentieth Century came to a close with the townspeople having great expectations for the future of their community, Sellwood even became a regular ferry stop along the Willamette River between Oregon City and Portland. And there we will end our recounting of the earliest history of Sellwood – Westmoreland was just starting its development at the time.
Today, only a few original homes and workers' cottages remain in Sellwood to remind us of the pioneer days. Randall's saloon is now an apartment house at 11th and Umatilla; the golden brick façade of the former Sellwood Bank at 13th Avenue, built in 1907, now rents office space to those who work at home; and the old storefront of the Home Grocery, built in 1910, is now the home of the quirky Portland Puppet Museum, at 9th and Umatilla.
Stroll the cobblestone surface at the foot of Spokane Street to get a feel for what was once the independent town of Sellwood.
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