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Sellwood and Inner Southeast, as it was 116 years ago


PHOTO COURTESY OF THE SMILE HISTORY COMMITTEE - Men of the Sellwood Volunteer Fire Department, here preparing for inspection. Fire Hose? Check. Fire Ladder? Check. Firefighting neckties? Mustaches groomed and waxed? Check! Horses ready to go? ...Wait a minute! We dont have any horses. Were real men, and well push this ladder truck all the way down 13th Avenue by ourselves! (This early firehouse at 13th and S.E. Tenino is now the site of SMILE Station.)At the stroke of midnight on December 30th, 1899, what were residents living in Inner Southeast Portland thinking about, as they considered their future in the shiny new Twentieth Century?

Like many of us who were around on December 31st sixteen years ago to cheer in the Twenty First Century, when the big ball descended in Times Square in New York City, what were their hopes and fears for their future?

While there’s no one alive now to interview on this topic, let’s take a step back and see what transpired when the 1900’s arrived in Portland.

In the previous seven years at the end of the Nineteenth Century, local residents had endured the economic collapse felt nationwide in 1893, and again in 1897. Real estate sales and new businesses were at a virtual standstill, and the Willamette Valley was still saddled with the destruction left behind from the terrible flood of 1894.

In the community of Sellwood, with a population of only 1,800 people in 1893, residents lived on farms and in small cottages and houses scattered among merchant shops and stores built along Umatilla Street.

Over the following 13 years, over 5,000 people would settle into this neighborhood, and a hundred business firms and industries would be prospering in the community. The Eastside Railway Streetcar built along 13th Avenue offered homeowners a more efficient way to get downtown, and its rail placement away from the shops along Umatilla was slowly changing the dynamics of the commercial district of Sellwood.

The streetcar era had arrived, and crafty merchants like banker Peter Hume and sign-painter J.P. Zirniegnal took advantage, by building the first two-story business structures along 13th Avenue.

Sellwood’s first bank opened at Umatilla Street, and the Zirniegnal building at Tenino Street housed A. Robertson’s General Store. Upstairs office spaces at both buildings were used by local physicians, dentists, and music teachers.

The Lewis and Clark World Exposition was the most significant event that occurred in Oregon in 1905. With over 1.6 million visitors to the four-month-long fair, it helped increase Portland’s visibility and diversity as a big-time city. Sellwood in particular reaped rewards from the World Expo, as travelers explored the outskirts of the city by riding the new interurban lines which took passengers to the brand new Oaks Amusement Park, and past Golf Junction for further excursions on the east side of Portland.

Believe it or not, Sellwood Park was considered as the site for this World’s Fair, but bankers, promoters and the prominent businessmen in downtown Portland insisted the World Exposition be located on the west side of the Willamette River.

Although Sellwood was simply a neighborhood in Portland at the turn of the Twentieth Century, for a brief time previously, it held the special distinction of being a separate incorporated town. On March 12, 1887, the City of Sellwood’s first city council meeting was held, the new town’s first elected council members numbered five – including a recorder, a treasurer, a city marshal, two street commissioners – plus a mayor and council president. Meetings were conducted at City Hall, located above Campbell’s Grocery store along Umatilla Street between 11th and 13th.

The all-volunteer city council was disbanded after Sellwood was annexed into Portland, but the “Sellwood Board of Trade” was established in 1900 from ex-council-members, to continue Sellwood’s push to be a modern community. The Board of Trade would be responsible for creating a branch of the library, calling on government officials to provide a sewer system, as well as better drinking water and paved streets and sidewalks.

One of the many accomplishments by this board was the successful request of the City of Portland to create a city park in Sellwood. The City of Portland paid $47,000 to purchase 15½ acres of land owned by Sellwood businessman W.H. Morehouse – and what was previously a horse racetrack, with a beautiful view of downtown Portland – then called City View Park – was, by 1909, converted into the neighborhood’s new Sellwood Park, on the bluff overlooking the Willamette River.

Perhaps surprisingly, that was not Sellwood’s first city park. Johnson Creek Park was bestowed the title of the area’s first park, when purchased for the community the previous year. Located at the eastern end of Clatsop Street at S.E. 21st, that park was created from seven lots in 1908; but it wasn’t until after the Johnson Park Improvement Club was formed that an additional seven lots were purchased, a playground was installed, and concerts were presented during the summer. The Fourth of July celebration at Johnson Creek Park was a most anticipated and well-attended event.

The Sellwood Commercial Club, which billed itself as a social club instead of a business organization, was established in 1900. Within a few years there were more than 100 members to raise money to support Sellwood’s Rose Festival float entry, and fund other community projects.

Money was collected to build an extensive clubhouse and to buy its furnishings at 1325 S.E. Umatilla, used for club meetings, special events and entertaining potential business clients. When the depression of the 1930’s hit, membership dropped considerably, and the Commercial Club’s clubhouse was sold.

A volunteer fire department for the Sellwood area was sorely needed by concerned residents. Electricity was just starting to be installed in older homes and in new construction, but the widespread use of wood stoves and kerosene lamps still created a serious fire hazard for homes and businesses.

A firehouse was built on city-owned property on the S.E. corner of 13th and Tenino, but electric service wasn’t installed in it until 1900. The firefighters still lacked fire equipment, and didn’t even own a fire truck, hoses, or horses to haul a fire pumper to an emergency situation. A Ladies Auxiliary was established to organize dances and events to raise money to purchase such needed supplies.

Still without much equipment, twelve volunteers stepped forward to offer their strong shoulders and common sense to respond to fire in the neighborhood. They were led by top foreman J. E. Reinke. It wasn’t until 1907 that the Sellwood Engine House merged into the newly-formed and professionally-staffed Portland Fire Department.

Merchants began viewing Sellwood as presenting an opportunity to provide new services; and workers moved to Inner Southeast wanting to be closer to these employers. The Portland Woolen Mills, Fruit and Preserve Cannery, and Sellwood Wet Wash offered jobs for women that were never available before.

Roy T. Bishop, once a part owner of the Pendleton Woolen Mills, started the Oregon Worsted Mills, to replace the Portland Mill and the Ross Wool Scouring that once stood on the same spot. Oregon Worsted furnished wool blankets for soldiers during World War I.

For men, the Eastside Lumber Mill Company, owned by John Miller and his sons John Junior and Paul, offered jobs to replace those lost when the the Sorenson and Young Sawmill closed in 1902. By 1920, over 600 men were employed at the mill and the Oregon Door Factory (1910); and the East Side Box Plant was built at the foot of Tacoma Street, near the mill, to make wooden fruit boxes.

The Bissenger Wool Pulley, Peiffer Brothers Tannery, and Wilhelm Brewery along the Sellwood waterfront also provided job opportunities. John G. Wilhelm closed the brewery during Prohibition, however.

The Oregon Water and Power Railway purchased an area near 13th and Ochoco Street, where tracks for the new Interurban were being laid, in order to continue service to Gresham and beyond. Big plans were in hand to build a car barn garage along Linn Street while another set of rails was extended through the newly developed Waverley Golf Club that had just moved its membership from 21st and S.E. Powell. By 1909, Inner Southeast residents had transportation available south to the cities of Milwaukie and Oregon City, and east to Estacada and the resort town of Damascus, where thousands flocked each summer.

The street car barns at Linn and Ochoco along 13th Avenue were completed, adding a further influx of workers and families into the neighborhood. Investors and contractors rushed to build affordable living accommodations, as the Electric Hotel was completed and a host of two-story boardinghouses and apartments were erected close to the street car barns.

By then, Sellwood was growing rapidly, with new industries and retail shops opening so fast that residents needed a newspaper to convey information and happenings in the community. Charles Ballard, the owner and editor of what was initially (and thereafter repeatedly) the Sellwood Bee, offered the first issue of his newspaper to the public on October 6th, 1906. After a brief interlude when the owner moved the paper down the road to become the Milwaukie Bee, Ballard returned to the community and set up shop along 13th Avenue south of Tacoma Street.

By 1907 THE BEE had been sold to Charles M. Thompson and, with the assistance of C. T. Price, continued printing one of the community’s most important newspapers for the next 14 years. Today THE BEE is one of the two longest-published community newspapers in the City of Portland. (Exceeded only by the St. John’s Review, which is older by half a year.)

Near the end of the first decade of the Twentieth Century Dr. John Sellwood built what was claimed by locals to be the first Portland hospital on the east side of the Willamette River. Completed in 1909, the Sellwood Hospital was staffed with eight nurses, and provided quarters for thirty patients. Within the next few years an addition was built, and a nurse’s quarter was established with quality training.

The Hospital was sited along the north side of Harney Street between 13th and 15th Avenues, next to Dr. Sellwood doctor’s quarters, and close to the St John’s Episcopal Church, which he had helped to establish at the end of the block.

Overcrowding at Sellwood School (today’s Sellwood Middle School) was a source of worry for Principal Clifford A. Strong – a concern also held by the Sellwood Board of Trade; Strong lobbied school officials for a more efficient building. By 1910 a new four-story wooden structure was under construction, as was a state-of-the-art playing field and playground for outdoor activities. The Parent Teachers Association helped secure and provide books for the new library that was using a vacant storefront across from the school on Umatilla Street. Opening day was on February 10th, 1905. A Boys Club and the Sellwood Study Club were organized and the first branch of the Y.M.C.A. was established at the corner at 15th and S.E. Spokane (which is now Portland Parks’ Sellwood Community Center) for after-school programs.

When the City View Race track closed to make way for Sellwood Park, new merchants began opening shops along 17th Avenue to replace the saloons and beer gardens that had flourished along Umatilla Street.

E. S. Bottemiller opened up what became known as Bottemiller’s Grocery Store on Harney Street – then known as Douglas Street.

When William Welch took over the rental stables belonging to Robian’s Beer Garden he began placing orders and making house deliveries by horse and wagon. Welch’s Grocery and Meat Market would become a mainstay for Westmoreland residents for the next 40 years until he sold his shops, but he continued to dabble in the real estate market in Sellwood. The W. S. Saloon on the southeast side of 17th and Umatilla, across from the Sellwood Hotel, was still serving customers – and George Gottschalk, who survived the harrowing 1906 San Francisco earthquake, moved his family into an old run-down tavern on the southwest corner. With the help of his brother John, the new establishment was christened the Gottschalk Café.

Other shops along 17th included the Sellwood and Johnson Feed and Hay Store, Sellwood Wet Wash Laundry Company, and the E. B. Rose Blacksmith Shop.

As 1909 came to a close, Sellwood was progressing by leaps and bounds. A new neighborhood to the north called Westmoreland was just getting its start east of Milwaukie Boulevard at the Bybee streetcar intersection.

Led by the Columbia Trust Company, twenty-five modern homes were built, along with paved streets and sidewalks. Growth continued in Westmoreland with the opening of the Llewellyn Public School at S.E. Henry and 14th Street – and the old Midway School, at Milwaukie and Ellis Street, was closed not long after.

A new commercial district was finished at the intersection of Milwaukie and ByBee, near a metal and stone arch structure built to welcome newcomers to Westmoreland. The Portland Crematorium was one of the city’s first and most controversial funeral homes, offering funeral options as early as 1907.

A new decade and century which started with such uncertainty turned out to be among Sellwood’s most prosperous and growing years, energizing the growth and development elsewhere in Inner Southeast Portland, with bright prospects for the future.