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Southeast's transportation history hidden along MLK/McLoughlin Viaduct

Portland’s Inner Southeast neighborhoods have focused on all forms of transportation, ever since pioneer developer James B. Stephens set up the first ferry service across the Willamette River here in 1846.

From ox-drawn Conestoga wagons to horse-drawn street cars; automobiles to bicycles; from skateboard parks and a short-lived airfield in Westmoreland Park – the area has embraced all forms of transportation.

The new Highway 99-E Viaduct, just north of the Ross Island Bridge, features a series of annotated historical photographs within those castle-like kiosks along the span. While there is no space for vehicles to pull over to enjoy them, you can see them on foot by accessing the sidewalk at either end of the viaduct, or via walkways accessed at S.E. Grand Avenue and Division Place, just beneath the two southernmost kiosks.

by: RITA A. LEONARD - The pedestrian ramp to the Highway 99-E Viaduct, just north of the Ross Island Bridge, from S.E. Grand Avenue and Division Place, gives a preview of one of the kiosks in which Inner Southeast transportation history is depicted and detailed for those walking by. Theres another one visible in the distance.At the same access point there are also two large permanent displays of ten of Portland's bridges, showing each one’s profile and date of completion.

The history of our transportation gives a unique perspective on development of the Inner Southeast neighborhoods. Prior to the bridges, boats and ferries crossed the Willamette River to connect east and west bank communities, and to bring picnickers to Ross Island. And these informative displays help tell the story….

After the Civil War, Portlanders hoped to develop railroads to connect local agricultural land to out-of-state markets. Under the control of financier Ben Holladay, pictured on the viaduct, the Oregon Central Railroad completed its first twenty miles of track on Christmas Day, 1869. Rail service soon expanded south to Salem, then to California by 1887, when the Southern Pacific Railroad acquired the line. Ownership passed to the Union Pacific in 1996.

Historic photos on the viaduct show that streetcars connected Inner Southeast neighborhoods – first with horse-drawn vehicles, then with electric-powered trams. These provided access north to Albina, which was the original business district in “East Portland”. Many immigrants came to work at the streetcar barns, rail yards, and local farms, helping to develop east-bank communities. Much transportation history centers in Brooklyn, where the railroad roundhouse was located.

Brooklyn , or “Brookland” as it was originally called, originated in 1851 when pioneer Gideon Tibbetts staked his donation land claim there and built a house and gristmill. In 1868 he granted access to Oregon Central Railroad, and divided the area into lots for homes and businesses.

Streetcar service expanded around the turn of the 20th Century, as the city consolidated Portland, East Portland, and Albina in 1891. Riders could visit Oregon City or North Portland, or visit Oaks Amusement Park and the horse-racing track formerly located in and near today’s upper Sellwood Park. Streetcars flourished until the rise of the automobile, but two World Wars, and a lack of urban transit policy, contributed to the streeercars’ demise in the 1950s. The Rose City Transit Co. and TriMet buses became the preferred mode of public mass transit.

The City Car Barns at S.E. 17th and Holgate Boulevard (today home to TriMet) serviced the streetcars during their heyday. Completion of the Ross Island Bridge in 1924 connected Highway 26 with the coast and eastern Oregon, but destroyed Brooklyn’s “downtown square”.

Brooklyn originally extended somewhat north of Powell Boulevard. Pioneer businessmen Johan Poulson and Robert D. Inman created the Inman-Poulson Lumber Mill and an export business, advertised in 1924 as the largest in the world. Sawdust piles (known as “hog fuel”) from the mill grew to mountainous size.

A photo of this “Mount Osborne” displays a towering pile used as a stunt slope by the Mazamas and other climbing organizations. Some of the sawdust was used to fill in the low areas of Brooklyn Creek & Slough, where residents used to swim, fish, and tie up their boats. The fill eventually settled, causing the original viaduct to become unstable, leading to its recent replacement. An historic photo on display along the new viaduct shows a surprising network of Brooklyn's original waterways.

The sawdust pile also fueled the nearby riverbank Portland General Electric Powerhouse, Station L – PGE's largest power plant in 1923. Mount Osborne disappeared in 1954 after the mill closed down. Some of the original PGE buildings are now integrated into OMSI, which can be seen from the viaduct, along with the brand new Oregon Rail Heritage Center.

As Portland grew, new roads and more bridges became necessary. The Federal Works Progress Administration underwrote a viaduct over the Southern Pacific Railroad tracks near S.E. Division Street, and the Oregon State Highway Department completed the Union Avenue Overcrossing in 1936-37. This was one of Oregon's largest reinforced concrete structures, which became known as the MLK-Grand Viaduct.

Sam Hill, creator of Maryhill Museum in Goldendale, Washington, was an important local developer, and a promoter of hard-surface roads around the Pacific Northwest. He is shown in a photo from 1917, attending the opening of the Vancouver-Portland Interstate Bridge across the Columbia River, the first span of which is now 96 years old and considered overdue for replacement. By 1923, the first paved highway connecting Canada to Mexico was completed. This was at first called the "Road of Three Nations", but later referred to as US 99E – and in the 1950’s was upgraded to be Interstate 5. Detailed sketches of 1933 bridge railings, shown on the new viaduct, reveal classic Gothic arch panels. These were designed by Conde B. McCullough, Oregon's State Bridge Engineer from 1919 to 1937. He felt that engineers should use the landscape for inspiration in their designs; he preferred the durability of reinforced-concrete structures for bridge work, since they are cheaper to maintain. McCullough designed the railings on the viaduct eighty years ago, which are retained on the new structure.

With automobiles on the scene, a three-story brick building was built in 1914 at S.E. 11th and Division – home of Portland's Ford Motor Co. assembly plant. Up to 250 workers toiled there, turning out Ford Model A’s & T’s for those who could afford them. However, the Great Depression, and reduced consumer demand, caused the plant to close in the mid 1930’s.

World Wars I and II caused a slowdown in automobile manufacture, while ship-building at Henry Kaiser’s Portland and Vancouver shipyards took on new importance in the 1940’s as part of the national war effort. For a brief time, a section of what was not yet Westmoreland Park, along McLoughlin Boulevard, was used as an airfield. The site was named “Broomfield Air Strip”, to honor a local fallen World War I serviceman who had attended Reed College.

Today’s Highway 99-E Viaduct includes historical transportation photos in each of its four castle-shaped kiosks, providing a quick “trip through time” of Portland’s transportation istory – for those who are willing to get there by foot!

A graphic representation at the ground entrance to each ramp lists the completion dates of ten Portland bridges, while the walkway above offers many transportation-oriented views: The Springwater Corridor Trail, the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail construction, the Oregon Rail Heritage Center, the OHSU aerial tram across the Willamette River, and the mid-river construction of the new transit bridge just south of OMSI.

A visit to these informative and nostalgic kiosks is well worth a stroll along the new viaduct!