HISTORY: Stories told by the sidewalks and streets of Southeast
There are hundreds of hiking trails on the Oregon Coast and in the Columbia River Gorge; lately they've been so popular that it's best that you get an early start, since parking lots quickly fill to capacity. Such interest in outdoor adventures would have been scoffed at by many pioneering Inner Southeast residents in the late 1890s and early 1900s – simply because walking was an everyday occurrence. It was how you got around, and was not done for fun!
Automobiles were scarce back then, and you had to use your own two feet – to get to work, to visit the grocery store, go to the pharmacy, and even hike to school. Supplies were hauled by horse and cart or wagon, and most roads were nothing more than packed earth, so a trip on a wagon was necessarily slow and bumpy. People who lived in Inner Southeast, but worked upriver in Portland, early in the Twentieth Century could take the Sellwood Ferry across the Willamette – but doing so still entailed a brisk walk down to the ferry landing, and away from the landing on the other side.
And, upon arrival downtown, you might have to walk ten to twenty blocks through busy city streets to your place of employment. Now that was a hike!
In 1900, Sellwood School at S.E. 15th and Umatilla – it's Sellwood Middle School today – was bulging, with close to 700 students. Parents were in an uproar when the School Board decided to have students living along Spokane Street transferred to Midway School, at Ellis Street and Milwaukie Avenue (it's a parking lot today). Children would have to walk along the streetcar tracks to and from school, and there wasn't even a sidewalk available for safety. Riding the streetcar to Midway School and back was too expensive for most residents, and it was considered dangerous for toddlers to be left alone on them anyway.
The townspeople of Sellwood complained loudly that the streets were clogged with mud and overgrown shrubbery in the winter, and were dusty and rutted in the summer. They demanded their roads be paved. The local businessmen's club, the Sellwood Board of Trade, decided to take action for paved streets, new sewers, and sidewalks for pedestrians and bicyclists. But lobbying the Portland City Council was not an easy task! Every household throughout the city also wanted paved streets and sidewalks; dirt roads were everywhere, and nearly 80 percent of Portland's streets were in a varying degree of disrepair.
As can be seen in a paving map of Portland from 1895, which you can find in the City of Portland Archives, the only roads paved with asphalt were located between 1st and 4th Streets in the busy commercial downtown section on the west side of the Willamette River. Other sections of downtown Portland were paved with stone blocks or macadamized material; the few streets on the east side of Portland that had any covering at all were mainly coated in loose gravel.
But, further south and on the east side of the river, the once-independent town of Sellwood and now part of Portland, only received grading and leveling its dirt streets according to city standards, without any coating for protection from the elements or from the damage by heavy wagons and commercial vehicles making deliveries. Gravel and sand used for surfacing was expensive, and city officials also had the excuse that Sellwood lacked a sturdy riverside dock at the foot of Spokane and Umatilla Streets to unload and store any paving supplies which could be used to improve the streets any further.And, truth be told, most streets were not deemed eligible even for grading and leveling! The only roads which were so treated were 9th, 11th, 13th, and 17th Avenues between Spokane and Umatilla Streets – and only Tacoma, Spokane, and Umatilla Streets from the river east to 17th Avenue. However, Tacoma Street did have some improvements further eastward to the small town of Willsburg (about where McLoughlin Boulevard runs today) – and that improvement was granted only because between 60 to 80 men worked at Willsburg's Lumber Mill, and Shindler's Furniture, and Brick Factory, while all of them lived in Sellwood.
Milwaukie Avenue was still a winding unimproved country road that residents in Milwaukie were using to haul products and produce north to the commercial district in East Portland; and even when the streetcar Rails were laid along Milwaukie in 1893, the wooden ties were set in nothing more than hard-packed dirt. You might save the wear and tear on your feet by riding the streetcar south from East Portland; but once you disembarked onto Milwaukie Avenue you could be stepping down into discarded lumber, broken bricks, a hole, or mud. (Or something else. Remember, there were horses in the neighborhood, then – their hitching rings are still set in curbs around Inner Southeast.)
During the 1890s, the streets of Portland were filled with wagons, teamsters, streetcars, buggies, horse-drawn delivery vans, crowds of people going to and from to work, and hired hands delivering goods to vendors.Residents' and businesses' demands to have Portland's roads hard-surfaced weren't yet joined by the Auto Club of Portland – because cars wouldn't be present here until 1899, when E. Henry Wemme drove a one-seated buggy-like contraption down the cobblestones of Front Street without any horse providing the power.
No, instead, it was the bicyclists who were loudly protesting the state of the streets at that time; the Oregon United Wheelman's Association and the Oregon Road Club were two of Portland's most prominent bicycling clubs, and they pestered the Mayor of Portland for better roads and bike paths.
It wasn't unusual to see monthly group outings in which over 3,000 bicyclists filled the streets – making their way through Portland enroute to Vancouver, Washington, or heading south to the State Capitol in Salem. Other popular rides were to Oregon City and over to Gresham, where a forested path was created especially for bicycle riders.
But the most common form of getting from one place to another was – as mentioned at the start – walking. And the pedestrians of Portland wanted sidewalks built beside the roadways, so they could to avoid splashes of water or mud raised by wagons passing in the rain.
In the late Nineteenth Century and early in the Twentieth, ladies wore long and flowing dresses with hems down by their feet. Merchants realized that if the city weren't going to be building sidewalks near them, they'd best build their own wooden boardwalks in front of their businesses, to encourage more ladies into their shops.
In 1903, in response to demands from constituents all over Portland, Mayor George Henry Williams created a Street Committee to plan for improved roads and sidewalks, and he assigned a city inspector to head the group. Among other things, the committee was charged with ensuring that any private contractors hired to pave roads, build footpaths, and perform other street maintenance, were doing so in accordance with city guidelines.
Portland even went so far as to hire men employed by the city to pour concrete sidewalks, install street lamps, place sewer grates, and make needed road repairs. For BEE readers who live in this older section of town and today have cement sidewalks, you might find the name "City of Portland" engraved at intersections and corners into the surface. If so, your sidewalk was installed by city employees, and it was completed on the date shown. Other early sidewalks are marked with the name of a contractor, and the date – including almost all sidewalks completed after September of 1917, when the Mayor decided to lay off the city sidewalk employees, in the belief that it was more economical to hire private contractors. By that time the demand for surfaced streets had led to construction of new roads and sidewalks by construction companies and individual contractors. But the streets were not yet reliably paved with concrete or asphalt.
Once street-surfacing started, the City of Portland accepted and made use of a wide variety of paving materials: Gravel, sand, clay, brick, granite, and cobblestones – even oyster shells; and even logs cut and placed perpendicularly to the direction of the road. However, During the course of travel, these "corduroy roads" made of logs proved to be extremely dangerous to horses and riders; the logs weren't firmly held in place, and horses' hooves could easily get caught between two or more boards causing them to trip, and the wagons they were pulling to tip over, injuring both horse and rider, and making a mess! Too, during the rainy season, such street logs were slippery, making travel even more dangerous. Log roads were not popular, and eventually were replaced with hard paving.
However, a new surfacing material called Tarvia (based on coal tar) was introduced in 1911; and even today, in parts of the Brooklyn neighborhood in Southeast Portland, you can occasionally spot pieces of it showing through later paving – black tar, and pieces of broken brick.
The most efficient road-surfacing technique used on city streets in the latter part the Ninetheenth Century and early Twentieth Century was developed by Scottish engineer John Loudon McAdam, and his surfacing material led to what was often called "Macadamized roads". Using small rocks and gravel, mixed with crushed stone, the mixture was laid on a firm base – a section of large stones laid in the ground along the intended road's path.
Such a street was made slightly convex to ensure rainwater drained off on both sides of the roadway, and it was held to be important that such new roads should be raised above the surrounding ground to keep additional rainfall from damaging the road.
This process was used in building an early road that ran from Portland south to Taylor's Ferry on the west side of the Willamette River. In 1863, the Portland and Milwaukie Macadamized Road Company started work on what today still is called Macadam Avenue. During these early years, that particular country road became a popular attraction for riders young and old, who were mostly untrained in the sport of racing, but challenged one another to races. At the finish line stood the glamourous White House roadhouse, where spectators gathered also to watch horse racing, and where they could obtain overnight lodging. It was a haven for men wanting to dabble in music, spirits, gambling, and other raucous behaviors.In 1904, in a quirky turn of events, the Carbolineum Arenarias Wood Preserving Company was paving streets in downtown Portland using a treatment for which the company was named: carbolineum avenarius. This wood preservative was supposed to protect the wood placed on a roadway from damage by rain, if it was laid correctly. Other contracting firms tried to order this special coating, so they could compete on equal terms with the C.A. Wood Preserving Company on city bids for treated wood blocks on roads; but the C.A. Company refused to sell the secret formula. They also blocked attempts by rival agents to buy the product on the East Coast, where it was manufactured.
Representatives from the Miller and Bauer Company finally broke the monopoly, finding a business willing to sell them the carbolineum avenarius, and both companies ended up in court, battling over who could and could not use this magic wood preservative.
But, back to early Twentieth Century Sellwood! Plans were forming to "plank" Umatilla Street from the foot of the waterfront east to 17th Avenue. Since Umatilla was the first major commercial street there, and most of the members of the Sellwood Board of Trade owned a shop or store along this section of town, it was given priority. It would take another ten years before the Linden and Kibbe Company was hired to hard-pave Umatilla Street; so, in the intervening decade, residents and shop owners had to travel the street covered in wooden planks that often shifted and loosened after each trip over them.
Tenino and Spokane Streets were also surfaced with eight-foot planks three to four inches thick. The planks were laid out in parallel rows, and staked or tied with leather straps to try to keep them in place. Taylor Wayne, writing about the "Great Plank Road, from Tualatin Valley to Portland" in the Oregon Encyclopedia, reported: "Most plank roads lasted only a few years before deteriorating to the point of abandonment."To defray the cost of road work, the Portland City Council enacted a law that required residents and business owners to cover half of the cost of paving, grading, and installing sidewalks in front of their property. With road-building in Portland and the suburbs then at an all-time high, landowners had many contractors to choose from, and many of these companies deployed agents out in the field, going door to door offering residents the opportunity to improve their street.
Since property owners had to pay half of the cost of the road improvement in front of their home, the city allowed them to have a say in who was awarded the contract, and investigated any grievances about the work after it was finished. Construction companies were required to carry a bond on all contracts, so the City of Portland didn't have to cover the expense of finishing the work of a contractor who had walked away, leaving a project unfinished.
In 1916, the Federal Government passed the "Aid Road Act" to give funding to states to improve roads – but cities still had to rely on local taxes to pay their share of road construction within their jurisdiction.
Portland roadways were built using a hodge-podge of materials from neighborhood to neighborhood. By 1913, Malden Street was paved in concrete – while those living along 11th Avenue in Sellwood had to settle for a gravel road flattened by a large steam roller – although the City of Portland did pay $29 a mile to have such streets oiled, which was to keep the dust down from passing cars and trucks.
Yet during this time, one of Sellwood's most busy streets, 13th Avenue, still was not paved at all. The members of the Sellwood Board of Trade probably figured that since the streetcar tracks on 13th were owned by Eastside Railway Company, that firm would surely cover the cost of paving it – or would convince the city to do it for them. For quite a while nobody did it, so shopkeepers and merchants on 13th had to wait another six years until an asphalt surface was completed between Malden and Bybee Boulevard.
What is astonishing today is that so many Southeast sidewalks still show insert designs, paver steps, builders stamps, and hitching rings – all installed over 100 years ago. For those who are curious to find these vintage marks, one way is to find the name "Cochran Brothers" inscribed in the cement along Linn Street, placed there in 1919. Or, look along the sidewalk on Clatsop Street to find the "Warren Construction Co." logo imbedded somewhere between 13th and 17th Avenues. The Kibbe and Welton Company was another firm which placed numerous builders' stamps in the sidewalk along Malden, Rex, and Knapp in 1913. They are all out there to find on a scavenger hunt! Although modern rebuilding of sidewalks and corners has removed many of these historic marks of the past, corners rebuilt by the City of Portland to provide corner ramps have included a reproduction of the stamps which had been in the old concrete before it was removed – preserved to remind those passing by of who paved the sidewalk and when – and sometimes, what the roads in the intersection had previously been called.
As mentioned earlier, something else that can be found when you're out and about are all those rusty hitching rings still fastened to curbs, in Southeast and throughout the city. They were placed there for tethering horses, when carriages and milk delivery wagons drawn by horses were stopped in front of businesses and homes. Iron bands were once very common on the corners of concrete sidewalks, too – installed by the city to guard against damage from wagons and vehicles turning too close to the curb and chipping away at the concrete. But, the city gives, and the city takes away: The recent installation of ramps on corners to accommodate wheelchairs and human-powered vehicles accessing the sidewalks has lost the city most of those iron bands.The point of our story this month is: When you are strolling in Inner Southeast Portland, it is a good idea to look down! Not only to avoid the broken concrete edges forced up by growing tree roots – although that, in itself, is a very good reason for keeping an eye where you're walking – but also, to see and appreciate what remains of the era when Portland was unevenly growing from a dirt-street town into a paved metropolis.
Over a hundred years of Inner Southeast History still lies at your feet!
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