Remembering the streetcars of Sellwood and Westmoreland
Those who live in Sellwood and Westmoreland know what it's like to contend with the morning bumper-to-bumper traffic on the Sellwood or Ross Island Bridge, or to battle returning commuters from downtown Portland. Milwaukie Avenue and S.E. 17th become clogged as workers from elsewhere wend their way back to their homes in Clackamas County.
But, in 1890, the town of Sellwood, with a population close to 800, was a pretty peaceful place to live. Townsfolk complained to the Sellwood City Council (the town had its own Volunteer Council from 1890 to 1897) about neighbors' cows trampling fences to get at home gardens, or about wild animals raiding local chicken coops in residential backyards. But that was soon to change.
Portland's first streetcar line started up on the west side of the Willamette River as early as 1872. Wooden railway cars drawn by horses and mules lumbered across the business district on First Avenue, taking passengers on a slow ride across just a few blocks of Downtown Portland. It wasn't until the streetcar lines were electrified that investors began building tracks leading out from Downtown into the various neighborhoods around the Rose City.
Few people lived on the east side of the river, and most of the working class lived in cramped quarters – boarding houses and dilapidated apartments – close to where they worked, in the busy industrial sections Downtown. Transportation options were limited for those who chose to live more than a mile outside the city limits.
But crafty businessmen and bankers on the west side of the river already had their eyes on the little community of Sellwood. It was a hefty hike for workers living there to walk to work, so many residents in Sellwood had to pay for transportation by ferry from the Umatilla Street Landing – usually at least a 30 to 40-minute commute each way – after the boat arrived. Those who lived a bit closer to town, such as in the communities of Brooklyn, East Portland, or Richmond, could board the Stark Street Ferry to commute Downtown. It wasn't until March 2nd of 1887 that the new Morrison Bridge was opened to pedestrians and horses and wagons, which was a substantial improvement for those on the east side of the river – but a substantial toll was required.
Tolls varied from five cents for pedestrians to twenty cents for a driver and two horses, a fee much more expensive at the time, than it sounds today. Plus, those paying it still had to do a lot of walking before and after crossing.
Electric-powered streetcars ushered in a new era in transportation. Many of Portland's "streetcar suburbs" were blossoming entirely because of the presence of a trolley line in their neighborhood. Investors knew that land located near a streetcar line could be sold, at a considerable profit, to merchants planning to open a bakery, barbershop, grocery store, or drug store in a growing community. Streetcar owners also planned on robust income from the fees paid by passengers getting aboard in Milwaukie, or Oregon City, or Gresham, who wanted to ride the trolley into Portland.
Of particular interest to the Eastside Railway executives was the opportunity to take riders to and from one of the state's busiest venues at the time – the City View Horse Racing track in Sellwood, sited where Sellwood Park is today.
Work on a new east-side electric streetcar railway was begun in 1891. As work started moving south from the Morrison Bridge, the construction was briefly halted in the Brooklyn neighborhood, as work crews dealt with the marshy and swampy land and the Southern Pacific Railroad crossing at S.E. 11th Avenue.
A wooden trestle for pedestrians and the railway was built across what locals called "Brooklyn Creek", allowing the rails to extend as far as the Sacred Heart Church at S.E. Center and Milwaukie Avenue before winter set in – but rains and cold didn't stop construction, as the owners of the Interurban were rushing to complete the tracks before the start of the next horse racing season in Sellwood.
After a brief stop at the Midway community, at the north end of today's Westmoreland, rails were laid down the largely empty countryside to the intersection of Bybee and Milwaukie Avenue. This area, too, was still mostly vacant land, occupied by the Jersey cows of William Ladd's 500-acre Crystal Springs Farm. Westmoreland as a community wouldn't be formed until about 1909.
On July 5th, 1892, the Eastside Railway was finished as far as S.E. 13th Avenue and Miller Street – barely past the start of the City View Horse Race season – and now the railway was able to deliver a profitable return to the stockholders of the Eastside Streetcar Company for the remainder of the season.
The completion of the Eastside Railway Company sparked additional interest in the new transportation system, and in such neighborhoods as Woodstock, Laurelhurst, Albina, Westmoreland, and Irvington, where rail service helped grow the new communities. The Sellwood streetcar helped create a commercial district in the newly-named Westmoreland district around Bybee and Milwaukie, followed by a construction boom to the south, as the Columbia Trust Company offered over 700 buildable lots for sale. By 1893 Sellwood's population had doubled to over 1,800 people.
To keep the streetcars repaired and in running order, a maintenance "car barn" was built in Milwaukie, just south of Sellwood. Workers who lived in Sellwood walked over to the town of Milwaukie, or rode the trolley from Golf Junction, south to the car barns. Golf Junction was a popular stopping point when the Waverley Golf Club built a clubhouse and an 18-hole golf course, on what was once Luelling Fruit Orchards. Once the railway was completed the following year to Oregon City, commuters could spend the weekend at Willamette Falls, or attend special events and political rallies and Chautauquas at the end of the car line in Canemah Park.
Merchants, whose shops had been lining Umatilla Street westward to the Sellwood waterfront, were faced with having to make drastic changes, when the streetcar line was complete, and pedestrian traffic changed. Two and three story structures began showing up north along 13th Avenue, and soon residential housing and small shops filled the remaining empty lots along that street. Residents now had two commercial districts to choose from – and much later, a third one, along S.E. 17th.
Meanwhile the Eastside Railway Trolley Company was soon sold and consolidated into the "Portland City and Oregon Railway". The new railway would change names many times, as it was repeatedly sold to different investors. But, to local residents, it was considered just the Sellwood Streetcar Line, and that name always showed on the signs over of the trolley when it came rolling down Milwaukie, Bybee, and 13th Avenues.
For only a nickel, a passenger could travel to work Downtown in less than twenty minutes. Rides were available every thirty minutes, and passengers could board the trolley cars at every other block – making it a more convenient trip than the former wait wait at the cold riverfront for passage on the Sellwood Ferry, which often took ten minutes longer.
Between three and four uniformed motormen and conductors were assigned to each streetcar, but the life of a trolley man could be made difficult by the unsupervised young boys who spent their free time skating at Oaks Park, crawling on log jams near Ross Island, or hunting for crawdads in Johnson Creek – and who gathered around streetcar stops looking for a free ride. When the hawk-eyed conductor's attention was distracted elsewhere, they jumped onto the back rail, where they held on for dear life until the streetcar slowed for the stop they wanted and they jumped off, running to safety before they could be caught.
In 1905 the Lewis and Clark Exposition was officially declared open in Northwest Portland – drawing thousands of World's Fair visitors to tour the town. Streetcar transportation was in great demand as a way of getting there and back. Richard Thompson, in his book "Portland's Streetcars", reported that the Portland Consolidated Railway Company carried over a million passengers a week to the Exposition's grounds.
Meantime, the owners of the new Oregon Water Power and Railway had an idea how to draw the World's Fair visitors across town to Sellwood, and thus increase fare revenue. On a twenty-acre peninsula next to the Willamette River in Sellwood, they built an amusement park – today's historic Oaks Park – to draw Expo visitors away from Downtown. As part of it, an Interurban line was constructed along the east bank, winding around Sellwood and connecting up with the Sellwood Trolley on Ochoco Street.
In this way, visitors to Portland could visit the World's Fair, spend a day at Oaks Amusement Park, and then perhaps continue out into the countryside heading off for Gresham or Damascus, where they could spend the day picnicking, hunting, and fishing, among other sporting pleasures. That eastbound Interurban line followed what is today, with the rails removed, the Springwater Trail.
And what to wear on the streetcar…? Long harem pants with wired skirts and long lampshade skirts were the fashion of the day for ladies, in the first decade of the Twentieth Century – and these garments proved to be particularly hazardous when boarding or departing a moving streetcar. Men were dressed in business suits and slacks, and could easily board a moving vehicle without any trouble; but ladies wearing the "Hobble skirt" which narrowed at the bottom, were more prone to missing the platform or even falling off the last step when the streetcar was in motion.
Fare inspectors had to come to the rescue of such damsels in distress, and to stop the train if need be, to administer first aid. When that happened, the aid given often ended with a brief but stern lecture to those whose actions had delayed the trolley's schedule.
By 1909, Sellwood had become a bustling community – and by then it was an established part of Portland, instead of the separate town it had briefly been. The Oregon Water Power and Railway, seeking to consolidate their rolling stock, bought a section of property – between Linn and Ochoco Streets, and between 11th and 13th Avenues – for the construction of a six-garage streetcar barn. A power station was constructed across the street on 13th Avenue (it's still there). The following year a two-story brick building was erected on the block just west of the new barns to serve as a combined Car Men's clubhouse, temporary living quarters, and time schedule office for employees of the OWP and Railway.
The Car Men's clubhouse is still there, too – and late in the Twentieth Century it would become one of only three buildings in the Sellwood-Westmoreland neighborhood to be listed on the National Historic Register. (The other two are the Oaks Pioneer Church, and the Sellwood Community House.)
A commercial district continued to grow rapidly along Sellwood's 13th Avenue, as also were more apartment and boarding houses, along with the "Electric Hotel." Construction was booming, and buildings were appearing as fast as contractors could build them.
At the intersection of Bybee and Milwaukie, an historic metal arch stood grandly across the road proclaiming it to be "Westmoreland" – but the informative arch's time there was brief; it was soon removed to make way for the widening of a corner to accommodate an easier turn for the new streetcar line that was being installed for the Eastmoreland development just east of that intersection – and now you know why the northern corners at Bybee and Milwauie still boast gently curved buildings set well back from today's more-squared-off curbs. Ladd's Real Estate Company, which was selling homes in both Westmoreland and Eastmoreland, helped pay the subsidy needed to complete the streetcar tracks eastward to Eastmoreland, bringing transportation to students at Reed College, where the campus was just being completed.
Ridership on Portland streetcars reached an all-time high between 1905 and the early 1920s. The trolleys' first serious challenge to their monopoly on transportation was the introduction of "Jitneys" in 1914. As Carlos A. Schwantes explained in his article in the "Western Historical Quarterly", "'Jitneys' were Ford automobiles which had been converted into busses". Anything from delivery trucks to homemade autos could be altered into becoming a passenger service vehicle, and so could be used as a Jitney. There were no safety regulations or set fees, so drivers could demand their own price for a trip, and most of these Jitneys were driven by their owners. Let's just say riding in a Jitney could sometimes be as thrilling as buying a ticket on an unsupervised roller coaster ride.
Jitneys proved to be a nuisance to big corporate streetcar owners by cutting severely into their profits. Much like the taxicab business of today, customers didn't have to wait long to catch one, and they didn't make the frequent stops the trolleys had to, when they were full to capacity. Since Jitneys also weren't confined to where rails went, Jitney drivers could drop off passengers closer to their destination in a timely manner.
In response to the uncontrolled Jitney business, the Portland City Council decided to require a permit – at a substantial fee – to operate them, and also to require the posting of set schedules and times of operation. As a result, early in the the 1920s, private Jitneys largely disappeared into history.
Meantime, the streetcars proved to be beneficial to the Post Office Department. During the early years, all of the incoming and outgoing letters and packages were sorted in one location – at the Main Post Office in North Portland. After making the trip to collectthe mail at that main office to distribute on their daily route, mail carriers then had to make the considerable trip to their assigned routes in Sellwood, Montavilla St. Johns, or elsewhere, on foot – or in their own vehicle, if they had one. If they didn't, or didn't want to use it for business, mail carriers could use the new urban rail services to get to their routes faster and with much less effort.
Farmers found them very helpful, too – the urban rail service allowed them to get their milk and produce to customers and merchants while still as fresh as possible. Delivery by horse and wagon had been slow and cumbersome, but produce and dairy goods shipped on the Oregon Water Power and Railway Interurban got there faster and more efficiently. Fresh milk and eggs from farms in Oregon City, Sandy, and Boring could arrive in time for a customer's morning breakfast!
In 1929 the streetcar was again faced with competition, when buses running with gasoline motors were starting to replace them as the nation entered the historic ten-year Great Depression. Portland's prestigious urban railway system was in danger of disappearing.
If there was money for anything during the Great Depression, Portlanders would scrimp and save to buy a car – so fewer and fewer people were inclined to ride the rails. Even worse, Americans began to dislike the streetcar system, which still used old cars had not been kept up to date, and were worn out and uncomfortable to ride in. Passengers were further put off when the Portland Electric Power Company, which now had complete ownership of all of Portland's trolley system, announced a fare increase of six cents!
It wasn't until the United States entered World War II, and many things like gasoline and rubber tires became severely rationed, that ridership on the Portland Trollies returned again to the levels of 1920. The population here grew, as thousands of people were recruited to move from the East Coast to Portland for jobs in the Kaiser Ship Yards, building ships for the war effort, for wages higher than most other businesses in the United States at the time. Workers who hired on for this wartime opportunity needed cheap transportation to their work sites, and many chose to ride the rails to work, for shifts that ran 24 hours a day. But once the war was over in 1945, Americans again began to have disposable money as prosperity returned, and they were still fascinated with owning an increasingly affordable automobile. The end of the trolleys was near.
On June 21st, 1953, railway enthusiasts and past streetcar workers crammed aboard the last nostalgic streetcar ride out to the Cazadero Dam in Estacada, and back. That seemed to be the end, forever, of streetcars and urban rail transportation in Portland. But, as you already know, it wasn't.
However, it would be over thirty years before a new generation of Oregonians would support construction of a brand new urban "light rail line". In 1986, voters approved a bond issue to begin the construction of what was called "MAX" light rail, between Portland to Gresham. ("MAX" is an acronym for "Metro Area Express".)
In 1998 the west side MAX light rail service followed, giving Portlanders easy access to the Portland Zoo, and providing commuters to and from Beaverton and Hillsboro the option of riding to work by light rail instead of spending time in commuter traffic and having to pay to park their car.
Today's TriMet MAX light rail offers five different routes, encompassing over 60 miles of tracks and 97 station stops. Particular to Inner Southeast residents, the recently-completed Portland to Milwaukie "MAX Orange Line" gives visitors and workers the chance to glimpse sections of Portland's eastside terrain between the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) and northern Clackamas County.
Not only that – but, just like the golden era of the electric street railway, Portland now also has a 3.9-mile-loop true electric frequent-stop streetcar that circles the Downtown area and Pearl District, and crosses two bridges to serve the Inner Eastside Industrial District and OMSI as well – a route along which riders can still see buildings that are only there because there had been convenient and reliable streetcar service nearby, a century or more ago.
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