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The hotels and boarding houses of old Sellwood


DANA BECK - Constructed in 1914, Sellwoods Electric Hotel introduced the innovation of electrical lights and heating for its guests. Just to the left of this building, which once was the Electric Hotel, is one of many original rooming houses, today converted to apartments. Then mainly occupied by laborers, conductors, and mechanics who worked on the streetcar or interurban lines during the early 1900s, these rooming houses offered affordable homes for the new urban working class. When the West was young, almost every town had at least one saloon, general store, and barbershop, plus a two-story false-fronted hotel – with a balcony.

While Sellwood might not be pictured as a western-type town with cowboys riding up to the hitching post after a long day on the dusty trail, there were a few hotels for them to room in if they did. And a few of those are still standing in the neighborhood.

Picture this, in the 1880’s: The independent town of Sellwood was still a small rural community. People traveled by wagon, by horse, or on foot, along winding dusty roads and through streets bordered with small dwellings, and false-front stores that offered goods and services to passersby.

Most of the merchants in these tiny shops lived above or behind their storefronts. In 1887, a Sellwood City Council was set up to deal with home owners’ complaints. Problems to be addressed centered on the need for clean drinking water, corralling wandering cows, the foxes that roamed the streets, and the need for paving the dirt streets.

Visitors who came through the rural countryside to Sellwood came for the pleasure of watching and betting on the horse racing at Sellwood’s track, investing in a summer cottage, or finding employment at any of the small business along the waterfront – or, east of the new town, in unincorporated Willsburg.

Boarding houses, extra rooms provided by residents, and a few hotels, were offering lodging for travelers.

The St. Charles, the Merchant, the Sellwood Hotel, and Randall’s Hotel were the first available formal lodgings for weary travelers. While primitive in comparison to the elegant hotels that newcomers and prospective businessmen were used to in the downtown Portland of the day, they did serve the needs of Sellwood during its early years.

Sorenson and Young were two such men looking to start their own business. Viewing the Sellwood hillside spangled with trees, and with a watercraft landing near the river by which one could ship lumber aboard sail boats along the Willamette, they opened the first lumber mill in the area, at the foot of Spokane Street, in 1888.

They duo were boarding at the Merchant Hotel owned by Joseph M. Merchant, on the northeast corner of Sherrett and 11th Streets. Taking advantage of the shortage of lodging available in Sellwood, when Joseph first built his home he had included additional rooms upstairs to rent out.

Born in Manchester, England, in 1829, Joseph Merchant had arrived on the East Coast in 1849 at the age of 20. He went on to serve three years in the Union Army, during the Civil War, under the leadership of General Ulysses Grant – and then, when the war was over, he married Miss Sarah E. Holland in Lawrence, Massachusetts, in 1866.

Not long afterward, the couple moved to California, where they lived for a decade until the adventurous Joseph decided to move his family north – to Portland, Oregon. Credited as one of the most esteemed and reliable carpenters, contractors, and builders in the city, Joseph’s accomplishments included the construction of the Perkins Hotel, the Selling-Hirsch Building, and the Washington Building, along with the Grand Central Hotel and the Portland YMCA building.

Locally, Joseph helped in building parts of the Sellwood School, additions to the Brooklyn School, and building numerous homes still standing in the neighborhood today. Check your deeds, residents; you might find his name on yours!

While the Merchant Hotel provided accommodations for millworkers, sailors, carpenters, and artisans, for those working in or near the area, the St. Charles Hotel – which was located farther down the street, on Umatilla, at the end of 17th Street – was a favorite for well-to-do men seeking frolic and fun.

The fun in question frequently included attending horse races. This was a time when the City View Racetrack, located in parts of what today is Sellwood Park and the adjoining area, was providing entertainment for the rich and famous from Portland’s downtown core. A luxury ship took spectators up the river to a landing on Spokane Street, to allow athletic young men to climb the hill and partake of the weekend’s events.

Afterwards, a trip down to Rosaer’s Beer Garden provided liquor, spirits, and games of chance – and those who came for the weekend could check into the St. Charles for the night.

Workers employed at the Wills sawmill, the brick factory, or the Schindler Furniture factory, in the community of Willsburg, also stayed at the St. Charles until accommodations could be found elsewhere.

Charles Bellegarde operated the hotel briefly in 1888, but when the profits proved not as handsome as he’d expected, he moved on to other ventures. Bellegarde had faced some imposing competition from Mrs. Mary Thomas, who was then running the Sellwood Hotel at 9th and Umatilla – she brooked no funny business from tenants, but cooked fabulous meals. When the St. Charles was put up for sale, she bought it, and renamed it the Sellwood Hotel, moving her operation there.

Situated at the crossroads of 17th and Umatilla, the Sellwood Hotel was the perfect place for overnight guests arriving from Portland to the north, or Milwaukie to the south. Mrs. Thomas also provided housing for travelers who came by boat, and arrived in Sellwood by way of Umatilla Street. For over 30 years The Sellwood Hotel served the area until a new owner, Mrs. Emma Cash, followed her purchase by planning to tear down the structure and replace it with more-modern cottages.

But, when monetary backing for her project fell through, Harold F. Miller bought the old hotel and opened a mail order business in it. Collecting remnants of old rugs, he recycled them into new rugs that were sold around the country. A weaving room, containing some fourteen looms, was located upstairs where the hotel guests once slept – and that Portland Rug Factory was then offering one of the few employment opportunities in Sellwood for women.

While there never were any reports of any famous celebrities staying at the Sellwood Hotel, Mrs. Agnes M. Thibodeau, its owner in 1909, did provide scandal for The Oregonian’s society pages. Mrs. Thibodeau had just been granted a divorce from her sixth husband – that’s right, her sixth – and had her maiden name restored, so that she could continue her life as she desired, as Miss Agnes Thibodeau. That was scandalous in 1909!

Elsewhere in old Sellwood, Randall’s Hotel was located in the heart of the Umatilla business section, allowing its guests to venture over to Campell’s Grocery, or repair a broken horseshoe at Hamilton’s Blacksmith, or get a prime cut of meat at the Umatilla Meat Market. You also could stay put and pay for a round of drinks At Randall’s Hotel, which operated as a saloon, according to local folklore.

But beer and hard drinks were probably prohibited on Sundays at Randall’s, as the first meetings of the Presbyterian Church in the neighborhood, including Sunday School classes, were held at the hotel that day each week.

Activity near the Spokane Street Ferry Landing began to increase when the Eastside Lumber Mill replaced the pioneer sawmill of Sorenson and Young, and employed over 200 men. Temporary housing was needed for the newcomers, and the Commerce Hotel at 542 Spokane Street was among the hotels and boarding houses along Tacoma and Spokane Streets to provide lodging for the millworkers, who only had to walk five or six blocks to their quarters.

Prior to the opening of the Sellwood Bridge in 1925, the Palatine Hotel and Cafeteria also offered a room and meals for the workers of the Eastside Lumber mill. Owner John P. Miller built this two-story structure on the east end of what would soon open as the Sellwood Bridge, on company-owned property on Tacoma Street. Company employees like Adolph and Gustav Schotz ran the restaurant and rented rooms there. By the 1930’s, William and Stefe Klar were operating the now-converted hotel as the Palatine Apartments and Grocery for residents, and for workers at the mill.

The Oregon Water Power and Railway was one of Sellwood’s major employers when it erected a six-bay car-barn garage in 1909 along the tracks at 11th and S.E. Marion. A carmen’s clubhouse was built at 11th and Linn, so off-duty streetcar workers could play cards and pool, and use cots that were located downstairs in the building to catch some winks.

Enterprising residents built two large structures called “flats” near the streetcar lines, renting furnished rooms to the extra workers hired on at the car barns. Rooms to rent were advertised locally in THE BEE, or were made available by word of mouth, or were posted in the small stores and pool halls in the neighborhood. These boarding houses contained sweeping balconies in the front and rear, and still can be viewed today along 11the Avenue between Marion Street and Umatilla.

An open yard at the rear of the boarding houses was ideal for families or single men wanting to grow and harvest their own vegetables during the summertime. These spaces also provided ample shade during the evening for renters to escape the oppressive heat, since electric air conditioning had yet to be invented.

Accommodations in the boarding houses provided the simplest of living conditions for the renters: The basics included kerosene lamps for lighting, a wash stand with a bowl, and a pitcher of water for washing up.

In 1914, electric lighting and heating was introduced to renters, when the state-of-the-art Electric Hotel opened, providing top-notch living quarters.

Those days of old Sellwood’s hotels and boarding houses have passed – but their colorful stories, and in many cases the structures themselves, remain for us today.