Our first light rail: Oregon Water Power and Railway

by: Courtesy of Ron Peterson Photo of the Sellwood Trolley at Golf Junction on 13th Street, in front of the Sellwood Carbarns, in 1911.

My article in the November BEE about Golf Junction, and the significance of today's small park at that location in the light rail history of Sellwood and Southeast Portland, got quite a lot of interested comment. There is more to that story than I told then, so let me continue the narrative for you now…

In 1905, Sellwood was the center of an expanding railway system, as the intersection at 13th and S.E. Ochoco, known as Golf Junction, became one of Portland's busiest departure and arrival points. The Oregon Water Power and Railway ran close to 210 passenger trains per day over the tracks at Golf Junction.

Once the rail line from Portland to Estacada was electrified in 1907, the resulting easier access to the suburbs created a surge in new housing in the Lents and Arleta communities.

The OWP and Railway was the first and largest electric railroad in the northwest - or interurban, as they were called. Unlike the streetcars that lumbered along the city streets at the speed of 5 to 10 miles per hour, Interurbans were the new mode of travel for sightseers. Traveling at speeds of 30 to 40 miles per hour, they were cleaner, faster, and quieter than the old steam engines of past days, and special promotional packages were offered to the public.

For the small fee of $2.75, patrons would be entitled to a round trip aboard the OWP and R train from Portland to Estacada and back. Three meals and one night's lodging at the newly-built Estacada Hotel were included - so that families could spend the weekend, hiking, picnicking, or just strolling about the boardwalks in Estacada.

The electric trolley also provided a fast and efficient outlet for farmers and gardeners to ship their goods to city markets. Seasonal crops such as fresh fruit, vegetables and dairy products could be shipped downtown or to other small towns in record times.

As recalled by Editor Doug Decker in a 1987 issue of THE BEE, 'A milk train ran west every morning, bringing milk to Portland from dairy farms in Gresham and Boring'. The Oregonian used the train system to drop off newspapers from their printing press on the west-side to hundreds of newspaper boys to deliver on their bikes throughout the east county. From the Main Post Office headquarters on N.W. Broadway, the Postal Department made use of streetcars to whisk letter carriers to outlying communities to complete their daily routes.

Special railcars were available by charter to convey passionate sports fans to neighboring high school football games, or Beaver baseball games at Vaughn St Stadium. Religious groups traveled to Canemah Park in Oregon City for Chautauqua gatherings, while fraternity groups booked seasonal events at Gladstone Park. Both these destinations were built near the interurban tracks.

You could even order a funeral car for the day, and have family and friends accompany the casket of the deceased to the Portland Mausoleum.

As more coaches and railcars were ordered by the railway to handle the overcrowding, it was apparent that a garage was needed to house and repair the interurban cars and trolleys in the evening hours.

A 1½ story brick building was constructed by Italian Masons on the two block site westward from Golf Junction, and 200 workers were hired to work at these new 'Sellwood Carbarns'. The carbarns provided an excellent opportunity for residents to work close to home, and sparked an influx in new housing and storefronts.

Passenger rail service rose to an unprecedented boom in the 1920's, but sagged into a downward spiral by the 1930's and 40's. Ridership did accelerate briefly at the start of World War II, when women entered the job market and relied on the interurban for transport to the Portland shipyards. Of the 120,000 jobs available at the Kaiser shipyards, nearly 25 percent of the positions were filled by women.

But travel by electric rail again decreased in the 1950's, when street busses and the freedom of auto ownership signaled the end for the once mighty street car system. In 1958, the final call for the interurban passenger train offered a last memorable ride for train enthusiasts from Sellwood to Oregon City. The car barns and rolling stock were abandoned by the owners and stockholders of the railway company, and were purchased by the Union Pacific and Southern Pacific railroads.

Ownership of the electric rails bordering Ochoco Street was transferred to The Portland Traction Company, and diesel trains continued carrying freight from the Portland waterfront to warehouses located in the Milwaukie Industrial area.

According to Mel Ellis, president and owner of Humphreyline, Inc, formerly known as Molded Container Corporation, the Federal Government took control of the vacant repair garages at Golf Junction during the depression. The bays there were used to house grain that was later sold and shipped out to various locations.

Molded Container arrived as an occupant of the former Sellwood Carbarns in 1956, and started the production of a stacking egg flat made from scrap newsprint. In the ensuing years they switched over to manufacturing thin-wall plastic containers used by Gregg's Foods for their soft margarine business. As many as 300 employees worked for the company, until the container business became too competitive to continue. In a strategic restructuring, the remaining manufacturing operations for Humphreyline were transferred to its facilities in Florence, Kentucky, at the end of 2002.

Once manufacturing operations ceased, John Gray, who had owned the carbarns for nearly 50 years, donated the property to Reed College, on which he served as a member of the Board of Trustees.

Historian Eileen Fitzsimons and SMILE, the Sellwood-Westmoreland neighborhood association, rallied to try to save the historic carbarns from demolition by preparing a listing for them on the National Register of Historic Places and seeking a developer who would construct condominiums within the existing structure - Venerable Properties - but after first announcing a sale to Venerable and requiring that company to invest a sum in the property, the college reversed itself and sold the property to developers Morton and Prell, who later sold it to the developer who constructed the current condominium complex on the property, after Reed College razed the carbarns structure and remediated the land underneath.

On that land today is a two-block townhouse development called the Trolley Barn Commons. A brick façade facing 13th street is the only remnant of the historic carbarns. Asbestos sheet rock was disposed of appropriately, and bricks were left onsite for sentimental citizens to haul away as souvenirs. The beautifully crafted wooden trusses and cross beams were hauled away for use in new buildings. But for some of them, the story has continued in a more publicly recognizeable way…

Salvage designer, Oregonian A and E columnist, and third generation resident, Shannon Quimby was contacted by lumber broker Ed Mays in July of 2011. Mays had access to a warehouse of used timbers and lumber leftover from the demolition of the streetcar garages that once stood at Golf Junction, and he wanted Shannon to design a line of furniture from the reclaimed lumber.

Thrilled at the opportunity of bringing a small section of history back to the neighborhood, Shannon, with the help of Endurawood and Dennis Griswold, created a line of furniture called 'Sellwood Trolley Line'. The furniture includes dining tables, benches, and side tables, with each piece uniquely named after a trolley line that once ran along the tracks of east Portland for over fifty years.

The Milwaukie, Hawthorne, Estacada, and Golf Junction are just a few of the many named pieces that are now available at the Endurawood showroom, at 1303 S.E. 6th Avenue, to include in your living and dining room collection.

As a believer in creating a sustainable and reusable art to decorate your house, Shannon reflects to THE BEE that 'every piece of the Sellwood Trolley Line is connected just like the trolley lines were once connected from rail to rail.'

And so it happens, rather unexpectedly, that you can still own a piece of the Golf Junction railroad history. You may not be able to ride your purchase to Estacada, but you certainly can sit at it, and dine from it, in your home. You can see more, online, at: www.Endurawood.com .