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Golf Junction Park — hidden treasure; echo of Portlands past

SOUTHEAST HISTORY
by: D. A. Owens Golf Junction in the early days – this photo dates to around 1908. In the background is the power conversion station (it’s still there), an Oregon Water Power and Railway Company (OWP&R) inter-urban that ran between Estacada and downtown Portland, and the ticket office.

Not far from the occasionally-controversial geese of Westmoreland Park, and the sounds of kids playing at busy Sellwood Park, there is one of Inner Southeast's smallest and least-known parks - Golf Junction Park.

Located at the south end of 13th, at Ochoco Street near the entrance to the enclosed Garthwick district, this little half-acre 'pocket park' lacks the majestic view of Sellwood's Riverfront Park or of the meandering waterway in Johnson Creek Park, but it has more historical significance than all four of these other parks combined.

For most residents of the area, little is known of the historical background of Golf Junction - and where the name for the little park comes from.

Portland was in the forefront in this country in establishing an electric trolley system - the power plant was at the Oregon City Falls, and overhead wires brought the electricity to Sellwood. Sellwood was the site of trolley car barns (which were recently replaced by townhomes), and a recreational building for the 'car men' who ran the trolleys - a structure which still exists just west of the townhouses.

Historic Golf Junction dates back to 1893, when Sellwood was first connected to downtown Portland by way of that electric streetcar line. Like many other communities throughout the district, trolleys brought new life to the cities and suburbs. Instead of relying on horses and carriages to travel about, families could now conveniently ride the rails to downtown Portland for shopping, theatre, dining, as well as visiting friends and relatives who lived there, or along the way.

The East Side Railway streetcar, as it was later called, lumbered south on Milwaukie Avenue, turned west onto Bybee Boulevard, and swung around to continue southbound on S.E. 13th Street. At Ochoco Street, riders could disembark and board an inter-urban railcar that took them south to Milwaukie, Gladstone, and Oregon City.

The Waverley Clubhouse (built in 1898), at the end of 11th and Ochoco, was a favorite stopping place for businessmen and the social elite who enjoyed a leisurely round of golf.

In 1913 when the Waverley Golf Club built a new clubhouse farther south on the links - still its current location - two additional stops at Ardgour and the Overlinks were added to the inter-urban commute from Golf Junction to Waverley.

In 1905, Portland planned and hosted a World's Fair, the Lewis and Clark Exposition, which drew over 3 million visitors to the northwest section of the city. Golf Junction became a focal point, as investors and entrepreneurs figured this would be an opportune time to promote the economic development of the east side of town.

Tracks were laid for a proposed new inter-urban rail line, the Oregon Water and Power Railway, to be built beside the Willamette River to the bluffs at Sellwood - a route now often now referred to as the Springwater Corridor. Southeast Portland and Clackamas County businessmen were anxious to attract out-of-town fair-goers - using fishing tournaments along the Clackamas River and weekly stays at the Estacada Hotel as attractions. Soon, railcars full of spirited folks passed through the intersection at Golf Junction daily.

The ridership and popularity of the streetcars and inter-urbans had become so great that, by 1909, officials of the OWPR built one of Portland's largest car barns just north of the Golf Junction interchange. Crewmembers at the repair shop maintained cars for five different city lines, for what local newspapers and specifically THE BEE of that era declared was the nations' third largest streetcar system. The club house for the motormen and workers to relax during their time off was constructed just west of the car barns in Sellwood by the following year.

As the population of Sellwood increased, men were lured to the area to work as mechanics, clerks, and conductors aboard the streetcars. Boarding houses were built along the Sellwood streets, close to the car barns, to furnish quarters and meals for the workers. A new power conversion station was constructed on the east side of 13th street across from the car barns. It is still there.

In the 1920s, a new housing development, the Garthwick district, would be created adjacent to what is now Golf Junction Park, becoming one of its two entrance points.

For the next forty years, thousands of people and tons of merchandise and produce would be shipped through the Golf Junction intersection on rails - but, before half of that span of years had passed, by the 1940's the glory days of the trolleys were fading.

Automobiles and buses took ridership away from the streetcars, and in 1959 the streetcar rails were abandoned or paved over for new roads. In many cases, though, they are still there - and are visible when the roads are resurfaced, as has been the case along Milwaukie Avenue and Powell Boulevard in recent years.

The car barns were bulldozed in 2009 by their then-owner, Reed College, to make way for the Trolley Barn Commons, townhouses now occupying the two-block area where the streetcars were once garaged.

The once-popular stopping point of Golf Junction Station was neglected and, over time, became a tract of land filled with weeds and loose rails left to rust, festooned by debris from travelling transients and yard clippings left by careless nearby homeowners.

In 1996 a contingent of Garthwick residents banded together, working through SMILE, to form a committee which turned this small parcel of land into a beautiful pocket park for all to enjoy.

Together they raised over $2,300 in donations and, with the help of many volunteers, a chain link fence was built on the west side of the lot to protect visitors from venturing into abandoned rail cars stored on nearby tracks. Trees and crocuses were planted, and a graveled path and a decorative sway chain were installed.

A small section of the original streetcar tracks is still there in the park, so that visitors can imagine the days when people dressed up in their best attire lined the waiting station, or filled the confectionary shop at Golf Junction.

But over time the small park declined again, becoming a mass of wild bushes, un-mown grass, with accumulating litter including a discarded Christmas tree. It was again a stopping place for vagrants and homeless souls.

The neighborhood association for Sellwood and Westmoreland, SMILE, had leased the park in perpetuity for one dollar from the Union Pacific Railroad, which owns the parcel, in April of 1998, and had assumed responsibility for the park's upkeep. It was time for upkeep to be restored.

Concerned over the shabby condition of the park she'd helped establish, Mrs. Branson again requested help from local residents to help restore Golf Junction Park, and over the last two years Joe Johns, Dan Amundson, current SMILE President Mat Millenbach, and Eileen Fitzsimons, along with maintenance workers at the Waverley Country Club, have all stepped forward to trim the trees, water the grass, mow the grounds, and re-gravel the existing trolley tracks embedded in the ground of the tiny park.

The bulk of the maintenance workload recently has been credited to Joe Johns. But questions arose regarding who would continue to manage the park, and whether it should be kept in a natural setting, or be enhanced with benches and picnic tables?

On the sunny Thursday afternoon of September 15th of this year, a handful of residents joined Rod Wojtanik, Metro's Senior Regional Planner, and George Lozovoy, Project Manager for Portland Parks and Recreation, at Golf Junction Park to review its future. Again, Margaret Branson was among the participants that day.

During that meeting at Golf Junction Park, ideas and solutions were proposed, and responsibility for its upkeep and security was resolved, allowing the little historic park to remain for future generations to enjoy.

In addition, that still-active Golf Junction Park Committee is seeking from Rod Wojantik and the folks at Metro, and George Lozovy of the Portland Park Bureau (although this particular park is not in the city park system), the dedication of a plaque there, to make sure future visitors know what its presence (and those rails in the grass) signify for the history of the City of Portland.

The plaque and the park will in this way also commemorate the briefly-separate town of Sellwood, incorporated into the City of Portland in 1893, and the many families still living in Inner Southeast who trace their roots to the railway that has contributed to the rich history of Sellwood.

And the park and the plaque together will also commemorate the trolley car barns, the power substation, the club house, the Waverley Country Club, the boarding houses, and the Garthwick development in Sellwood - all of which have yet to be honored by any interpretive plaques commemorating what Inner Southeast residents and these institutions have contributed to the city of Portland for over 100 years.