Brookland became Brooklyn and rails appeared, as a neighborhood formed
First referred to as Brookland in its earliest years - because of the brooks running through what would eventually be the neighborhood south of Powell and just east of the Ross Island Bridge - the more familiar name of Brooklyn has been adopted by local residents, apparently when the meaning of the original name was forgotten, and the phonetics led to modifying it to the more familiar name of a section of New York City.
Adopting today's nomenclature, the locality we call Brooklyn began when pioneers Gideon Tibbetts, and his wife Mary Fox Tibbetts, arrived by covered wagon in 1849.
The Tibbetts occupied 680 acres of land that had been abandoned by the Dobbins family, who'd reportedly left for California in pursuit of the newly discovered gold near Sacramento. Gideon and his family settled on a claim that bordered the Willamette River and extended eastward to what is now S.E. 26th Street, and from Division south to Holgate.
The Oregonian reported that the Tibbetts were the first family on the east side of the river to live in a 'house of boards that was painted' near present day 12th and S.E. Tibbetts Street.
Gideon planted a 40-acre field of wheat, and constructed a gristmill, with partner Robert S. Kinney utilizing the flowing waters of the 'Brookland Creek'. Not a bad idea; but he made a better decision by leasing a right of way to transportation entrepreneur and unscrupulous investor Ben Holladay, and his newly-formed Oregon Central Railroad, to lay tracks across Gideon's Brookland property in 1863.
A rival train company on the west side of the river was competing against the 'East Side Company' to see who could first lay 20 miles of tracks southward - the direction of the distant California border. Holladay won the battle of railroad owners, and renamed his railway the Oregon and California Railroad.
By 1872, Holladay's Oregon and California Railroad had laid tracks from the Tibbetts farm, past the town of Willsburg and Milwaukie, southward as far as Roseburg. With the arrival of the railroad, the Brooklyn neighborhood became a destination for immigrants from southern Italy and parts of Germany looking for employment.
While Chinese laborers were hired to lay the first rails, and were integral to the initial development of Inner Southeast Portland, it was the Italians and Scandinavians who received most of the credit, and made up the majority of the work force, from the late 1890's until the 1920's.
Railroad companies in America enticed skilled workers from Germany and Switzerland in the early 1890's to immigrate to the Northwest on a 'travel now, pay later' theme. Carpenters, laymen, and cheap manual laborers were needed to expand the growing railways. And numerous jobs were available for industrious workers in laying down tracks or repairing locomotives.
A few years later, Italians arrived on the scene. Forced to abandon their homes in southern Italy because of the declining economy there, the majority of these immgrants settled into the southern portions of Portland. A presence is still felt in the area from many of the offspring of the first generation of Italians - and Germans as well.
In the early 1900's, as Brooklyn turned into a blue collar neighborhood, a commercial district began developing around the intersection of Milwaukie Avenue and Powell Boulevard. The Eastside Railway Company arrived in 1891, and streetcar service afforded residents easier access to the amenities and health services available in downtown Portland. Many of the shops along Milwaukie Avenue were occupied by German business entrepreneurs; their store names became household words, and are still fondly recalled by local residents.
Mier Klappers Dry Goods store was on the southwest corner of Powell and Milwaukie, and Matt Lang's Cigar Shop and Lohr's German Bakery were located close to the train tracks at S.E. 11th Street. Other businesses of the time included a tin shop, Bellarts Saloon, and the Greater Portland Steam Dry Works (now the Sauter Spray Equipment Store).
And on the northeast corner of Milwaukie and Powell, Brooklyn's semi-pro baseball team tossed the ball around an open field where games were played against other local communities. Grocer F.J. Urfer had a store in what is today Lowell's Print Shop, while Pebbles Store resided where locals now visit The Brooklyn Pub.
The Brooklyn Pharmacy - today the only pharmacy in a river-side Southeast neighborhood between north of Powell Boulevard and the Clackamas County Line - opened in 1897. Paul Brinkman managed the store until 1905, when he became its sole owner for the next 40 years. The pharmacy moved to different locations during its existence, but it continued servicing the residents on Milwaukie Avenue, and is Brooklyn's oldest continuous business.
The 'Brooklyn School' at Haig and Milwaukie (the location that is now Brooklyn Park) was constructed in 1889, for grades first through sixth. The two-story wooden structure with tower belfry loomed over the block; an additional two wings were added in 1915. By 1930 it was considered a fire hazard by concerned parents, and a new brick building was built by Architect George Jones at today's Winterhaven School location on S.E. 14th Street.
The Brooklyn Post Office, a branch station, was first opened in 1904 one door north of where the Aladdin Theatre now stands. J.B. Williams was the head clerk of the postal station; by the 1960's the Brooklyn Post Office had moved to its current position off 14th and Powell.
Brooklyn's Library (1913-1920) was available to students and residents on the southeast corner of Powell and Milwaukie, where the Arco gas station and AM-PM Mini Market now are. It later occupied the old Brooklyn Fire Station at 12th and Powell, and later still moved to a point near Commerce (Cleveland) High School, before the lack of public funds closed it forever in the 1930's.
For entertainment, the Brooklyn Theater was open on the northeast corner of Milwaukie Avenue and Haig Street. According to Movie Theater historian Steve Stone, vaudeville acts and movies were offered from 1912 until 1929, and the building later provided a lively gathering place for music and dancing as the 'Mission Dance Hall'.
Russian immigrant Isaac Gellar started the most notable movie house in Brooklyn on December 23rd, 1927 - Gellar's Theatre. Gellar demonstrated his marketing skills by placing a huge neon sign on top of the theater facing west, to attract elite customers on the other side of the Willamette River to come over and see movies on his silver screen.
Gellar's was renamed 'The Aladdin Theater' in the mid 1930's but continued as the neighborhood's movie house, but in the 1970's it became notorious in Southeast Portland for showing X-rated movies. 'Deep Throat' ran continuously for over a decade. Since remodeled and rehabilitated, today the Aladdin is a successful venue for the live performance of rock bands, pop acts, and jazz musicians. National radio broadcasts have originated from there in the recent past.
While the railroad and Portland's streetcars created an influx of immigrant workers in the Brooklyn community, the formation of the Inman and Poulson Lumber Company in 1890 provided another opportunity for part-time workers new to the area. Located just north of the Ross Island Bridge, Johan Poulson and John Inman formed one of Oregon's largest lumber mills, occupying over 37 acres, which employed many of Portland's arrivals.
Most of the elaborate Victorian homes, bungalows, and smaller workmens' cottages located in the Brooklyn neighborhood today were built by construction workers using timbers from the Inman and Poulson Lumber Company.
Religion played its own important part in the formation of the Brooklyn community. Among the significant churches in the early years were St.Paul's Evangelical, the Mizpah Presbyterian Church , the Memorial Evangelical Church - which later housed the Sunday Baptist School - and the most prominent, the Catholic Sacred Heart Church.
Sacred Heart Church has been a fixture in the neighborhood for over 100 years, having been built in 1893. This colonial-gothic-style church, with its 90-foot steeple, was constructed by long-time parish member Joseph Spelderich, and was originally situated on the corner of Cora and Milwaukie, where it remained for 10 years. In 1911 father Gregory Robl, Brooklyn's most notable citizen of the time, had the church moved using a horse team, a wagon, and a prayer, down the dirt and gravel road to its present site at 11th and S.E. Center Street.
The success of that move certainly may qualify as a miracle if you can envision what the horse team faced when confronted with the steep pitch of Center Street!
For over forty years Father Robl was instrumental in locating jobs, lodging, and meals for his German and Italian parishioners, who often had just arrived in the neighborhood. Among the many accomplishments of Father Robl during his tenure were the construction of the Rectory and Sacred Heart School in 1911, and the Benedictine Sister's Convent in 1914.
For his loyalty to the parish, a gymnasium and community hall was built in his honor, named Gregory Hall. Gregory Hall was torn down not long ago to make way for the Sacred Heart Villa Retirement Community.
Events of the 1920's and 30's would forever change the community of Brooklyn and its business district. The Ross Island Bridge was completed in 1926, connecting Brooklyn to the west side of the Willamette, and Powell Boulevard was extended through the Brooklyn town center.
Over a quarter of the residential housing and merchant shops were removed or destroyed to make way for this progress, which also shortened the boundaries of the community. The section of Brooklyn that was located north of Powell Boulevard would later become part of the newly-formed Hosford-Abernethy neighborhood in 1974.
In 1932 - billed as 'the Super Highway' - today's McLoughlin Boulevard, State Highway 99E, was constructed south along the western margin of Brooklyn, removing easy access to the Willamette River and to Ross Island. To this day, many Brooklyn residents say they miss being able to visit the picturesque waterfront where weekends and holidays had been filled with fishing, boating and other leisure activities.
Residents did not sit idly by when this happened. Together, they created the Brooklyn Action Corps (BAC) in 1964, billed as the first neighborhood association in the city created to 'help reconnect concerned communities to City Hall'.
Much as in the past, today transportation is again changing the face of the Brooklyn community. Construction has started on the long-promised new Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail line, which will travel down S.E. 17th Avenue from Powell to McLoughlin in the near future. Meantime, Union Pacific's Brooklyn Rail Yard - one of the largest rail yards in the city - has been converting itself into a container shipping terminal.
Despite all the social and physical changes to the Brooklyn neighborhood for longer than a century and a half, its character endures, and it still evokes the flavor of the old days.