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A Ferry Landing, a Park, and a Factory: What's in a Name?


COURTESY OF SMILE HISTORY COMMITTEE - An unnamed photographer captured for history the final crossing of the Sellwood Ferry, The John Caples, on December 15, 1925. The nearby barge is loaded with sawdust from the adjacent East Side Lumber Mill. The evening of Thursday, February 25, 2016, when the old Sellwood Bridge was forever closed to traffic and the new bridge was not yet open, was pleasantly strange: Rain free; an almost balmy temperature; and an intermittent light breeze coming up the river.

Tin lantern in hand, I joined hundreds of neighbors on a walk of the dark and eerily silent old Sellwood Bridge. As Westmoreland resident and former Governor Barbara Roberts stated in her brief speech, we had gathered to bid goodbye “to a loyal and dependable old friend.”

I missed the daylight parade and celebration on the new Sellwood Bridge two days later, but the mysterious Thursday evening event was memorable.

It took about forty minutes to walk the length of the crowded bridge, pausing to greet friends as they emerged from, and then disappeared again into, the darkness. The lights of cell phones, flashlights, and camping lanterns twinkled like tiny fireflies, contrasting with the usual relentless sweep of car headlights and weekday rumble of thirty thousand vehicles.

Even in the still air, it was hard to hear Gov. Robert’s words as she spoke from the west end of the bridge, but the bagpipe music that followed was audible on both sides of the river!

It was too dark and crowded to stop at the small alcoves (technically “belvederes”, Italian for “beautiful sight”) on the new bridge, where pedestrians can pause to enjoy the views of the river and read snippets of history on newly-installed interpretive panels. But I did return in daylight to look at the photos and consider the texts, which are necessarily brief. However, one line did not ring true, and sent me to maps and reference materials in search of clarification.

Initially I was puzzled by the names used for the west-side ferry landing. A caption under a photo of the Fulton neighborhood, Sellwood’s counterpart on the west bank of the Willamette River states, “Just downriver from here was a busy area known as Fulton. A ferry shuttled passengers and vehicles across the river until the completion of the [Sellwood] bridge in 1925. The ferry dock, John’s Landing, is still a name recognized today.” It was this final sentence that I believed was not quite accurate.

The “Sellwood Ferry”, named the John Caples, made its final run on the day that the bridge opened, December 15, 1925. It ran from the foot of Spokane Street, straight across the river to a spot on the western bank called Fulton Landing.

This was named for Thomas Fulton Stephens, who had arrived in the Oregon Territory in 1844. He claimed 634 acres, the southern boundary of which is in the vicinity of the intersection of S.W. Macadam Avenue and Taylors Ferry Road. According to Eugene E. Snyder, in his 1979 book, “Portland Names and Neighborhoods”, Stephens imported a pre-cut house from New England, and settled into farming on his claim until his death in 1885. Because he failed to make a will, protracted inter-family lawsuits followed his demise, and his holdings were eventually sold and subdivided.

Continuing my research, I consulted Howard McKinley Corning’s 1947 book, “Willamette Landings”, a history of “ghost towns” on the Willamette River in the steamboat era. At the end of the book is a list of steamboat landings completed in 1940 by Captain Arthur Riggs. In addition to predictable stops in towns like Oregon City and Milwaukie, the vessels landed at wood yards, farms, and flour mills to pick up cargo. Capt. Riggs enumerated several steamboat stops for our section of the river: Ross Island (east shore), Sellwood, and Lambert’s Landing (one half mile above Sellwood). On the west side of the Willamette, he listed Fulton Landing; Stevens [sic] Point, near Fulton; and (added in the 1973 edition), “Johns Landing, just south of the B.P. John Furniture Company site on Macadam Avenue.”

Locating Stephens Point led me to a 2002 NOAA (National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration) navigation map for the Willamette. Stephens Point is shown on the map, but on other contemporary maps its historic name has been supplanted by that of the public space in which it is located, Willamette Park. The 26.5 acre piece of land was acquired by the city in 1929, but it is unclear when it lost its historic association (why not Stephens Park?).

Although both the steamboat landing and the west side ferry landing have lost their connection to Thomas Fulton Stephens, the NOAA map confirms the neighborhood name as Fulton. And while Fulton as a neighborhood place-name may have been overshadowed by the 1970’s development further north known as John’s Landing, that latter name has two historic levels of meaning.

It was now clear to me that the Sellwood Ferry did NOT have its western landing one mile north of the Sellwood Bridge at “John’s Landing”, and steamboats DID stop at Stephens Point. But… could there also have been a boat landing at another point on the river called John’s Landing? Corning’s book had mentioned a furniture factory, and this led to a final bit of research.

The condominiums on the river side of Macadam Avenue north of Willamette Park were part of a redevelopment launched in the 1970’s by John W. Gray, builder of the Salishan and Sunriver resorts. While the first names of Mr. Gray and his architect John Storrs might be assumed as the reason for the development’s name, it was built on the site of a more historical entity, the B.P. John Furniture Company. This was an eight-acre complex of factory buildings located on both sides of Macadam Avenue north of Willamette Park.

According to an online history of the company, the factory’s many buildings included a sawmill, a veneer plant, and dry kilns. This arrangement implies that logs for the furniture were transported by water to a dock and moved into the sawmill. After being cut into usable lengths, the lumber went to kilns where it was dried enough to be recut for furniture.

Logs might also have arrived by rail from the coast range (on at least one occasion, materials arrived at Sellwood’s East Side Lumber Mill after a sawmill in western Washington County burned), but river transportation was cheaper. In addition, rafts of lashed-together logs could be tied to pilings until they were needed. A railroad would have been convenient for shipping finished furniture, and a single rail line still passes down the west side of the river through the Johns Landing development. In addition to the riverside manufacturing plant, there were also four large brick buildings, three to four stories in height. At least one was remodeled by John Gray into the “Water Tower”, with a mix of offices, retail shops and restaurants.

The B.P. John Furniture Company was named after its founder, Bruno Paul John. A German immigrant, he began his manufacturing career in 1891 in Chehalis, Washington, as a very young man. His mentor was John Doernbecher (who left money in his 1920 will to fund a children’s hospital, which was named in his honor). After Doernbecher’s death the company was reorganized, and Mr. John became Vice President and General Manager of the plant. In 1927 B.P. John retired, but a year later he decided to launch his own furniture manufacturing business. He purchased the property on Macadam from the Carman Manufacturing Company, which made furniture and coffins.

The B.P. John Furniture Company survived the Great Depression and World War II at its plant on Macadam Avenue, employing as many as 200 men. In 1953 Mr. John retired for the last time, selling his company to the Nyssen family. They in turn sold it in 1973, and while the Portland plant site closed and the property was purchased by John Gray, the furniture business shifted to Southern California. The B.P. John label on a piece of furniture must have promised reliable quality, as both subsequent company owners retained the original name.

Styles changed in the decades from the late 1920’s to Mid-Century Modern, but B.P. John furniture was still in demand until the factory’s permanent closure in 1991 – a very long run for an American-based manufacturing plant.

I have not yet found a citation that proves that a steamboat or tugboat pulled logs to a dock known as John’s Landing, named after a furniture factory of that name. But I will keep looking, and if any readers have information, please forward it to THE BEE. In the meantime, do pause to read the signs on our new Sellwood Bridge and enjoy the views!