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Seeing Portland, 1915


By Dan Haneckow


Ephemera is not made to last. Fliers, menus, programs, tickets and scripts are used and discarded. But if a piece survives long enough, it provides a more contemporary window into its time than material meant to endure.


Such is the case with a set of typewritten lecture notes provided to guides on board the Seeing Portland sightseeing streetcar tour in 1915, a 2-1/2 hour experience exploring most of the rapidly growing young city. The manuscript was recently donated to the Pacific Northwest Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society.



The guests—tourists, conventioneers, trade delegations and locals—were treated to the sights, sounds and smells of the city in a specially built open streetcar. The talk begins after picking up passengers from downtown hotels on what was then called Third Street:


“On our trip this morning (or afternoon) I shall endeavor to point out the objects of interest along the way and to give you a few pertinent facts concerning our city.


“We are now going north on Third Street on the west side of the Willamette River, on both sides of which the city is built. The streets running north and south are numbered both ways from the river, those on the east side having the prefix E. Strangers often have difficulty in getting their bearings in Portland because the Willamette makes a bend, flowing north to about the center of the city just east of this point, where it changes its course and flows northwest, joining the Columbia some 10 miles away.


“Third Street, 15 years ago, was the principal retail street of the city and very few business houses could be found west of it. However, the retail district has been gradually moving westward and these steel arches you see, which are brightly illuminated at night, were recently erected by the “Third Streeters” to make their street more attractive. They now refer to Third Street as the “Great Light Way.”




As the car advanced up Third, the topic of Portland’s origins was visited with a mash-up of the story of William Overton and Asa Lovejoy’s canoe trip stopover and Lovejoy’s and Francis Pettygrove’s coin flip to determine the city’s name:


“Opposite this point on the west bank of the river stands a frame building where the merchant vessels from the Atlantic Coast used to land in the days of ’49. This was an early date in Portland’s history. The first settlement was made in 1843. Two men going from Vancouver, Wash., to Oregon City camped on the river bank a few hundred feet to your right. One was from Portland, Maine, and the other from Boston, Mass. Upon deciding to establish a settlement at this point, they tossed a coin to decide which one should have the honor of naming it after his native city. So you see, Portland had a narrow escape from being the center of culture and beans on the Pacific Coast.”


At Glisan, the car ascended the ramps that lead on the Steel Bridge After returning to the west side, the guide continued:


“We are now approaching the Broadway Bridge which you viewed on your left as we crossed the Steel Bridge. … From the bridge you will have a good view of the lower harbor. Portland has the only fresh water harbor on the Pacific Coast between Mexico and Alaska.


“Portland is the port ‘where water grade meets ocean trade.’ The Columbia River cuts through the Cascade Range, which is over 3,000 feet in height, and affords a down grade to the ocean from the vast Columbia Basin, or Inland Empire, an area of 254,000 square miles—larger than New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland and Virginia combined. Freight doesn’t have to climb into Portland—it rolls, on the two railroads on either bank of the Columbia or it floats down the river, now that the Celilo Canal around the rapids is completed. Portland’s locations make it the natural distribution point for the entire Columbia Basin.


“Ships drawing 27 feet of water enter Portland’s harbor. During 1914, imports came from 46 foreign countries, and exports were shipped to 15 foreign lands. Portland ships more hops than any other city in the world and rivals New York in wheat shipments, in fact, and has frequently led the United States.”




Here was standard Chamber of Commerce boosterism, but behind its confidence was insecurity. In the 1880s, Portland was the undisputed “Metropolis of the Pacific Northwest.” Since then, Puget Sound ports, especially the upstart Seattle, were showing signs surpassing Portland in population and trade. The city’s claim to be the distribution point for the entire Columbia Basin was on precarious footing.


Attention was directed to the right:


“Next to the bridge here on the right is one of the Albers Mills. Portland is the headquarters for this company, which is the largest cereal manufacturer on the Pacific Coast.


“From the bridge you get a bird’s eye view of the railroad yards of the Southern Pacific, the

O.W.R. & N. and the Northern Pacific. The North Bank Railroad Yards are farther west (the train yards today are the portion of the Pearl District north of Lovejoy). On your left is the Union Station.”


Dropping down on to Broadway the guide continued:


“The new Post Office building will be erected on this site. The investment will be $1 million.” (The building now houses the Pacific Northwest College of Art).


“Two years ago this part of Broadway, then Seventh Street, was dead, but the opening of the bridge brought it to life. The street was widened several feet to provide for the heavier traffic.

“On your right is the United States Custom House.”


The car crossed Burnside and continued on Broadway:




“The handsome building on the right is the Benson Hotel, one of Portland’s finest. Behind it is the Telephone Building.

“On this corner is the Oregon Hotel and diagonally opposite is the Imperial Hotel.


“On the right is the Empress Theatre and behind it the National Theatre, both new buildings.


The Morgan Building on the far corner occupying half a block was erected in 1913. Note the bronze drinking fountain on this corner. There are several of these in the downtown district and the water is cold and absolutely pure. The fountains were presented to the city by S. Benson, one of Portland’s public spirited citizens.”


The tour continued east on to Washington, south on to Fifth, noting the Lipman and Wolfe department store, the Yeon Building and Meier & Frank, then turned west on to Morrison:


“On your left is the Post Office Building (Pioneer Courthouse) long ago outgrown. The next building, with the court, is the Portland Hotel, famous for its delightful veranda and its homelike atmosphere. On your right is the Northwestern Bank Building, 16 stories high and covering half a block. This and half a dozen other large office buildings have been erected during the past two years.


“We are now crossing Broadway. Two blocks to the left are the Heilig and Orpheum Theatres and a block to the right is the Pantages Theatre.




“On the right is the Olds, Wortman and King department store (today the Galleria, home to Target), another of the Big Three, five stories high and covering the entire block.

“One block to the left is the new public library. It circulates over a million volumes and has 16 branches.”

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