HISTORY: Before the Bridge – the Sellwood Ferry
Here's a dismissive bit of doggerel that ran on the front page of THE BEE on December 18, 1925. An anonymous "poet" with these few words wrote off 21 years of service by the Willamette River ferry "John F. Caples":
Good bye! Old Ferry.
We're making merry,
For now you'll drift away.
From ridge to ridge,
We've strung our Bridge;
So you need no longer stay.
Good bye! Old Boat,
No more you'll float,
For you have had your day.
The rest of THE BEE's front page that week was devoted to an account of the celebratory opening of the brand new Sellwood Bridge [the first one!] just three days earlier.
"As the procession moved eastward across the bridge, the old ferryboat John F. Caples started across the Willamette on its last trip, and the whistles from the East Side Mill, the Oregon Door Co., and harbor vessels loudly proclaimed the passing of the old and the coming of the new avenue of passage…
"Peter Leipzig, of East 13th and Spokane [now Gino's Restaurant] very appropriately draped the sign, 'This Way to the Ferry', which has served a good purpose on the corner for some time, in somber black."
So ended the era of the ferry at Sellwood, the John F. Caples.
Although I was aware that the final ferry to cross the Willamette River between the foot of Spokane Street and its west side landing (now just south of the Sellwood Bridge pier) had been named the "John F. Caples", I had not considered the origin of the name.
In the late 19th century citizens of Sellwood wanted a ferry just as badly as they later wished for a bridge. Even then, it was possible to cross the river by bridge – but until December, 1925, the closest one to Sellwood was three miles north. (The Ross Island Bridge opened a year after the Sellwood Bridge, in 1926.)
So, for instance, if you wanted to go from Sellwood to Lake Oswego or to Washington County, you went to downtown Portland, crossed the Madison Street (later Hawthorne) Bridge, then headed out Canyon Road toward Beaverton, or onto Macadam Avenue to reach Lake Oswego.
When Sellwood opened for development in 1882, the real estate company selling lots provided a small passenger steamer, "The Dolly", to carry potential property owners to the remote new suburb. Since the streetcar line did not arrive until the spring of 1893, the alternative to reaching Sellwood then was by horseback over the unpaved, rutted Milwaukie Road (now Avenue). Large steamboats that carried passengers and freight far up the Willamette would stop at the foot of Umatilla Street when signaled to do so, but not on any frequent or predictable schedule. However, by 1887, a privately-owned passenger steamer, the "Sellwood", was traveling between the Washington Street wharf downtown and Spokane Street in Sellwood. In May of 1889 the Oregonian stated, "Since the ferryboat has been in operation [in Sellwood], the amount of travel through here has been wonderfully increased…the company in charge intends to have the inclines on either side of the river put in first class condition."
As the population of Sellwood increased, residents wanted a ferry that would take them straight across the river to travel west up Taylor's Ferry Road or south on the White House (Macadam) Road. In November, 1902, the Oregonian reported that "a Sellwood Board of Trade committee was going to lobby for a free ferry across the river at Umatilla Street." Seven months later, in June, 1903: "The citizens of Sellwood have been wanting a ferry for a long time but they are slow to suggest a member of the city's three-person Ferry Committee." In 1893, the community had given up its status as the independent City of Sellwood – and now that they were paying taxes to the City of Portland, they wanted services equal to those in other neighborhoods (water, paved streets, and a professional fire department and equipment). And also, a FREE public ferry.
Soon the residents of both Sellwood and South Portland were guided in their quest by the individual for whom the ferry would be named, John Fletcher Caples. "Judge" Caples was an experienced attorney, a district attorney, and a member of the state legislature. The initial step was to approach the state legislature with a bill requesting money for the ferry. This was achieved, but the $15,000 expenditure had to be approved by a public vote.Although he was a resident of Sellwood, Caples was also the Chairman of the South Portland Improvement Association. He knew that it was important to build a larger base of support for the ferry, and persuaded the association to join with the Sellwood Board of Trade in the lobbying efforts. In May of 1903 he expressed his public support for the ferry which would connect the two communities. He "declared that the two sections were entitled to this ferry. All other sections of the city had facilities for crossing the river and the transaction of business, except Sellwood and South Portland." He wisely suggested that both "booster" organizations extend support for other transportation ballot items – the rebuilding of the Morrison Street Bridge and establishing a second Albina ferry. Consequently, all four measures were approved, and by July of 1904 approaches were being prepared for the arrival of the new ferry in the following month. Perhaps it was only justice for the judge that the ferry was named for him.
The vessel did move in a straight alignment from one side of the Willamette to the other through the guidance of an underwater cable, which sometimes broke and required replacement. The ferry itself was pushed along the cable by steam engines fueled with wood from the East Side Lumber Mill.To accommodate the fluctuation in river height, both tidal and during floods, a wooden ramp, with a float underneath on the water side, provided adjustment. Horses, often pulling heavy wagons, were provided with better footing on the steep grade of Spokane Street by more than a half block run of bricks laid with their edges up. One hundred years later, asphalt is crumbling off the lower end of Spokane Street, and the bricks are readily discernable.The Caples' hours were usually 6 a.m. to 8 p.m,, but by 1915 County Commissioners were considering a request from Oaks Amusement Park to extend the hours to midnight during the summer.
And how about the man himself? John Fletcher Caples was born in 1832 in Ohio. Although the youngest of ten children, he somehow managed to earn a four-year degree from Ohio Wesleyan University, followed by employment at a legal firm, where he absorbed enough knowledge to apply for and be admitted to the bar in 1853. Politically a Republican, he was a delegate to the convention in Chicago which nominated Abraham Lincoln as their candidate. He practiced law and "served in the Government" during the Civil War, and in 1865 brought his wife and six children via the Isthmus of Panama to Vancouver, in the Washington Territory, where he was soon was elected City Attorney.
A year later he moved to Portland, where he began a private law practice and served in the state legislature. Following his wife's death in 1877, he assumed a large workload as the elected District Attorney of five Oregon counties – including Multnomah, Washington, Columbia, Clatsop, and Clackamas. That he was responsible for such a large area reflects how sparse the population was at the time.
He must have been well-regarded in his public positions because, in 1897, President William McKinley appointed him as U.S. Consul-General in Santiago, Chile. According to his obituary, Caples had "the opportunity to exercise that diplomacy and tact which was especially required . . . by the complications engendered by the Spanish-American War." He held this position until 1901, when at the age of 69, he returned to Portland and resumed his law practice.
Caples apparently suffered a stroke in the fall of 1906, but died in his "home in Sellwood" on July 17, 1908, at the age of 76. Unfortunately the address of the home is only given as "Eleventh Avenue" in the obituary, with no house number. A private family service at home was followed by a larger public one in the Taylor Street (First) Methodist Church in Downtown Portland. He was buried in Riverview Cemetery next to his wife Sarah.There was no mention of the kind of law he practiced, or who his clients might have been, but an interesting article appeared in the Oregonian two days after the funeral. Although he was not a judge, he was referred to by that honorific title. His obituary stated that "Judge Caples . . . showed his friendship and sympathy for the colored race. A testimonial was printed in the paper by members of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church which, in summary, "Spoke for the colored citizens of Portland and vicinity in general . . . praising his [Caples'] sympathies and unmistakable friendship, and hand of benefaction in all matters pertaining to the general welfare of our race…" The members of the AME Zion Church "delegated their pastor Rev. W.W. Matthews . . . to convey the token of their honor and appreciation to the memory of a life so noble as his." Research in case law is beyond the capabilities of this writer, but perhaps a BEE reader familiar with Mr. Caples legal history will enlighten us.
Although the John F. Caples ferry has been gone for almost a century, there are still opportunities to glide across the Willamette River by public ferries at more-rural locations: In Canby, at Wheatland (near Salem), and near Independence (Buena Vista, pronounced "Bew-nah Vista"). Check online for times, fees, and service. There is also a ferry crossing of the Columbia River between Cathlamet, Washington, and Westport, Oregon (on Highway 30).
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