It's unlikely anyone ever told Phillip Augustus Marquam to go back to where he came from. He was, after all, reportedly the richest man in Portland and the largest land holder in Multnomah County in the 1850s. He was also from California.
He wasn't born here but he died in Southwest Portland and is buried at River View Cemetery. His name lives on 107 years after he died with a lot less money and land than he once had. Oregon's busiest bridge is named after him. So is the hill on which OHSU sits - which he owned and then donated - and the surrounding nature park. There's even a gulch named after him.
Soon his name will also be attached to whatever mode of transit is chosen to ferry MAX riders to the top of Marquam Hill. The only thing certain is that it will be called the Marquam Connector.
You would think that any man worthy of having so much named in his honor would have left behind an extensive narrative. Not so with Mr. Marquam. I've lived here 36 years and driven across the Marquam Bridge more times than I can calculate. Yet only recently did I bother to look into the story of the man they named the bridge after.
Don't worry, history doesn't show him to have said or done anything that would force a civic reconsideration of his honors. No one's going to call for renaming the Marquam Bridge.
A real forty niner, he came here from the gold rush in California in 1851. He must not have struck it rich, because before he headed north he served as a judge in Yolo County, west of Sacramento.
By the time he was 35, Marquam was a Portland lawyer and land owner. A client who owed him $500 in legal fees ($15,500 in 2019 dollars) couldn't pay so he handed over some land instead. That land is now the entire block just north of Nordstroms in downtown Portland.
He built Portland's tallest building on that lot – called the Marquam Building, of course – as well as a family home where he and Emma (nee Kern) raised eleven children.
By the time he was 40, Marquam had apparently invested wisely because he could afford to purchase the 390 acres now known as Marquam Hill for $2500 ($77,000 in today's dollars). The seller was supposedly John Donner, brother of George Donner, leader of the extremely ill-fated Donner Party.(At least that's what one history of Phillip Marquam claims. But George Donner's brother's name was Jacob and he died with George in 1847. I couldn't find record of another Donner brother named John.)
While that part of Marquam's story may be in doubt, there is no question that he eventually donated that land to the State of Oregon. He was elected to two terms as a judge in Multnomah County and two terms as a Republican member of the Oregon House of Representatives. His generosity and his accomplishments as a railroad man and land developer are probably what got the bridge named after him in 1966.
Still riding high in the 1880s, he built the grandest musical theater on the west coast and called it, naturally, the Marquam Grand Opera House. Long-time Portlanders may remember it as the Orpheum Theater at Broadway and Morrison.
Something went wrong after that. He had angered local brick makers by importing cheaper, inferior bricks from San Francisco. Some of his buildings began to crumble. He lost the Marquam Building to foreclosure in 1908. He died at the home of one of his seven daughters in 1923. Phillip Augustus Marquam was 89. Gone and forgotten even though his name is very much alive.
Next month on the SW Connection Opinion page: So who's Markham?
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