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Pearl loses a bit more of its grit

Last train rumbles out of the district as industry moves away

Emptied of its cargo of bone chips and other animal parts, a one-car freight train slinked north on Northwest 13th Avenue, sneaked under the Fremont Bridge and began its trek to a waiting rail yard.

The early Sunday departure concluded a vital chapter of Portland's commerce history: The train had completed its final direct-rail delivery to a central-city industrial business Ñ the Wilbur-Ellis Co. feed plant at 1220 N.W. Marshall St., which is moving across town.

After 121 years, inner-city rail service in Portland has reached the end of the line. In its 1950s heyday, the rail-heavy area, then the southern edge of what was known simply as the Northwest Industrial District, bustled with factory-bound delivery trains carrying everything from cogs to cow carcasses.

Then, some 30 years later, city planners dubbed the area the Pearl District, and image became everything.

In losing Wilbur-Ellis, the Pearl may gain another glitzy building while dispensing with an entity that emitted a sweaty-feet smell.

The change is one more step in the Pearl District's reinvention as a trendy condo and retail haven in which industrial facilities no longer fit. Jeff Joslin, a city planner, estimates that the area contains 25 percent fewer industrial facilities than it did 20 years ago.

In their stead sit examples of new residential and retail development that have boosted the district's population from 629 in 1990 to about 2,000 in 2002, according to the Portland Business Alliance. The number of residents in the entire River District urban renewal area, of which the Pearl District is a part, is expected to increase to about 10,000 by 2020.

'None of these condos were here eight years ago. It's totally transformed itself,' said Chris Thompson, an assistant foreman for Wilbur-Ellis. 'Pretty soon, you won't find any industry here.'

From mixing to mixed use

The 13th Avenue run ended because of Wilbur-Ellis' imminent move to North Portland. The company sold its Pearl mixing plant earlier this year to developer Al Solheim for $2.7 million; Solheim said the site will serve an unspecified 'mixed use.'

'I'm a little bit sentimental,' Solheim said. 'At one time, this was a significant warehouse district. But rail cars are no longer really viable in this kind of district.'

Since opening in 1882, the Portland Terminal Railroad Co. had dispatched delivery trains to the Pearl District area. The 13th Avenue line ran west of the 'beer line,' which delivered hops and barley to the Blitz-Weinhard brewery at West Burnside Street and 11th Avenue. That line ended in 1999, when Blitz-Weinhard closed the plant.

Richard Engeman, the Oregon Historical Society's public historian, said four other plants along the beer line ceased rail deliveries after Blitz closed.

'I remember people commenting, 'This is the trendy Pearl District, but we still have industrial (rail cars) going down the streets at night,' ' he said. 'And I thought, 'Well, we won't have that many anymore.' '

Blood and beer

Wilbur-Ellis Co., which produces bone meal and blood meal, had operated at the Northwest Marshall Street site for 50 years. The San Francisco-based company said it can double the 2,000 to 3,000 tons of pet food ingredients it produces annually at its new Port of Portland plant at Terminal 4.

Most of the three-per-week deliveries to Wilbur-Ellis took place after midnight, a concession to the area's increased daytime traffic. Often, daytime deliveries were delayed when automobiles parked too close to the 13th Avenue tracks, said Ed Immel, a rail planner with the Oregon Department of Transportation.

Along with bone and blood meal, the rail cars delivered remains of pigs, cows and chickens, 'anything they don't feed to humans,' according to Thompson.

Ray Niiranen, yard manager of the Portland Terminal Railroad, said the plant also occasionally imported carcasses, which sent blood seeping onto 13th Avenue.

'Boy, I tell you, the flies, the stink, the blood would drip out of the boxcars,' he groaned. 'It was pretty messy.'

Such ingredients explain the malodorous cloud that Wilbur-Ellis often unleashed on the Pearl. The scent regularly gagged Bridgeport Brewing's customers sitting on a porch across Marshall Street.

Bridgeport head brewmaster Karl Ockert said the neighbors nonetheless enjoyed a good relationship: 'They've been helpful neighbors from the onset, when they let us borrow a forklift to move our tanks into the building.'

Goodbye, 'stinky building'

While Pearl District neighbors have privately bemoaned the plant's bouquet, many are unaware that Wilbur-Ellis is leaving.

'Once they find out it's the 'stinky building,' ' they will rejoice, said Jackie Mathys, the Pearl District Neighborhood Association's communications committee chairwoman. 'I know people can't stand the smell of that place É but it's on the fringe of all the action that's going on in this neighborhood.'

Sam Adams, Mayor Vera Katz's chief of staff, said the district 'remains very mixed-use in terms of offices, retail, residential, and there is light manufacturing that still exists in the district. We'd like to preserve that character.'