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Sellwood steamboats and ferries: Public transportation, over a century ago


COURTESY OF WILDER MCCLINTOCK COLLECTIONS - The First Fleet of Shaver Transportation Company, shown tied up at the Washington Street Docks. Shaver Transportation has been providing tug and barge service along the Willamette and the Columbia River since 1880. There are today many ways to reach the Westmoreland-Sellwood neighborhood – by car, bus, MAX, or bicycle. Public transportation still plays a role.

In the 1890’s, a streetcar ran down Milwaukie Avenue and 13th, and later the interurban rail line ran along the riverfront where the Springwater Trail is now, stopping at Golf Junction at the south end of Sellwood.

But during the early years when Sellwood was a small settlement clustered around the waterfront, the most reliable way in and out of the area was by boat. The Willamette River was the major transportation route in the state – and schooners, riverboats, steamboats, skiffs, and launches used the river for transferring trade goods, delivering freight and supplies, and for passenger service and general leisure cruises. It was a virtual highway that the farming community, business district, and residents along the Willamette River relied on for their livelihood.

During 1850’s, the towns of Oregon City, Milwaukie, and an upstart village called Portland, were vying with each other for the supremacy of trade in the Northwest and the town that could offer the most efficient shipping lanes would be declared the winner. Because of its deep harbor year ’round, the village landing at Portland was crowned the champion.

Trade was brisk along the river, as ships and privately-owned boats competed against each other in transporting goods to the docks and wharves of Portland from communities and towns south of the Rose City.

Lumber from Willsburg and Milwaukie was shipped by schooner; produce, hops, and potatoes from Oregon City were conveyed by steamboats and side-wheelers; wheat harvested from the Tualatin Valley arrived by steamers and ocean vessels.

Occasional stops at smaller landings – like Sellwood, Stevens Point, “Mocks Bottom” near Albina, and Jennings Landing, attracted the shippers traveling between Oregon City and Portland.

The small communities and farms that fronted along the Willamette River worked hard to clear and level the land, to encourage boats to stop at their landings. Big shipping companies like the Peoples’ Transportation Company, and Oregon Steam Navigation Co., concentrated on dealing with large orders of wheat and produce that could fill the massive steamers docked on the Portland waterfront. Their owners usually worked on long term contracts between the shipping companies and large farmland owners. Small shopkeepers, family-owned farms, and single passengers relied on smaller craft like riverboats and launches to take their goods and themselves to their destinations.

Commuters wanting to travel down river had to attract boats rather like taxis – by waving a cloth flag attached to a stick! The boat’s pilot would guide his craft cautiously over to the landing, a price would be negotiated between the passenger and the captain, and a wooden gangplank was laid out. Ladies with long flowing skirts and feathery hats, accompanied by formally-attired men, would have to carefully make their way aboard ship, usually traveling with flopping fish or squealing and bawling livestock, until they arrived at their desired social function downtown.

For busy farmers who couldn’t afford to wait long hours for an available craft to transport their crops or fruit to market, simply leaving a note attached to the white cloth signal was sufficient information for most ship-owners. The note would stipulate where the provided product should be dropped off, giving instructions to bill the consignee for the transport cost.

A. G. Graham operated his sternwheeler, the “Latona”, from Oregon City to the docks along Portland’s riverfront, and many of his customers included the small merchants along the riverfront towns along the way.

His fee for passengers was typically 35 cents one way, and 50 cents for a round trip. In the summer of 1885, Mr. Graham made daily stops at the Joseph Lambert Farm Landing to haul cherries picked from the Lambert orchards just north of Milwaukie – where the Waverley Golf Clubhouse now stands.

In his biography “Dad’s Memory Locker”, A.G. Graham reports, “Lambert had six attractive daughters who took the steamboat transport to Portland for social events and shopping.” Apparently the 45-minute cruise provided quite the romantic trip for the girls, because A. G. was so infatuated with one of the young ladies that he later proposed to her: Mary Lambert. They married on April 25th, 1888, with the wedding performed at the Lambert house, and they made their home along the hills of Oregon City, where Mr. Graham could keep a careful eye on his shipping competition on the river.

City ordinances were written establishing ferry landings at the foot of Pine Street in 1859, Stark Street in 1867, and Front Street in 1870, for vendors and suppliers to have easier access to the downtown section of Portland. The separate town of Sellwood wasn’t incorporated into Portland until 1893, so city policies didn’t apply there at that time, and the community established its own landings.

One of the small landings where the “Laton” might have stopped was at the foot of Umatilla Street in Sellwood. Umatilla and Harney Streets were the preferred landing points for commerce coming into and out of this small settlement along the east bank of the Willamette River. Cargo and supplies could be unloaded at either clearing near the river, and transported by horse and wagon up the steep incline into town.

Gala events, dances, band concerts, and fund-raising parties took place almost every weekend among various neighborhoods in those days, and Sellwood was a lively community hosting many social events. In 1891, the steamer “City of Quincy” picked up hundreds of spectators at Morrison Street Docks downtown and disembarked at the Spokane Landing in Sellwood, where passengers eagerly came to view the horse racing at the City View Park – now Sellwood Park.

THE BEE, after it was established in 1906, advertised a special Sunday dance aboard the launch “Blue Bird”, moored along the Sellwood Ferry Slip. Young and old around the city were encouraged to ride the streetcar to Spokane Street, and sway to the music of Meyer’s orchestra. For only 25 cents, young folks could come and go as they pleased there, from 7:30 to 11:30 p.m.

Postal officials also took advantage of the cheap shipping prices – mail was delivered to Sellwood by boat twice a day. Postal clerks met the crew along Umatilla Landing, where they exchanged outgoing mail for incoming mail, and hustled the newly-arrived letters and packages back to the Post Office on 13th and S.E. Umatilla Street, where it was sorted and then delivered.

As a point of interest, during the late 1890’s, some two dozen engineers, river pilots, captain, and sea personnel lived along the Sellwood shoreline.

Floods caused major damage to Portland’s waterways in 1853, 1854, 1862, and 1890, tearing houses from foundations, and sending logs, debris, and even barns barreling down the river and crashing into the bridges. While the Sellwood waterfront was well protected from rising water because of its sharp incline, transportation to Sellwood and other points was temporarily halted at these times until the water level receded and ferry service could be restored.

In 1924 the weather was so cold that ice formed along the Willamette, creating a blockage on the river for all river traffic. The Oregonian reported that a Sellwood resident, a Mr. Rinhart, drove his Model T Ford from Spokane Street across the frozen surface of the Willamette River to the west bank, where the Sellwood Ferry was docked, trapped in a coating of ice. (In the bitterly cold January of 1979, chunks of ice were again seen floating down the Willamette River in Portland.)

In 1882, Oregonian newspaper magnate Henry L. Pittock, along with fellow business prospectors F.O. McCown and C.P. Church, purchased 321 acres of prime Sellwood real estate from Reverend John Sellwood. Under the leadership of the Sellwood Real Estate Company, lots were advertised for sale at bargain prices. A ferry named “The Dolly” was retained by the company to transport prospective buyers from the downtown area to view the land, and the sprawling commercial district that was developing along Umatilla Street. As new housing was constructed, Sellwood became a desirable neighborhood for families and merchants; but residents still felt the little town lacked sufficient services. Citizens voted in 1893 to have the separately incorporated town of Sellwood annexed into Portland, so that fresh running drinking water, sewers, and sidewalks, could be provided in their frontier-looking town. Yet Sellwood still lacked a suitable dock or regulated ferry service into the community.

When the Sellwood Board of Trade called for improved ferry service, they elected prominent citizen and businessman J.M. Nickum to head the Sellwood Ferry Committee. Bonds were approved by the Portland populace, and contractor Ben Smith was hired to build a new boat that would be suitable for the Spokane Street Ferry Landing.

Captained by W.F. Hodges, and engineered by William A. White, in September of 1904 the new Sellwood Ferry was official launched, and christened the “John F. Caples”, in honor of one of the state’s and Sellwood’s most esteemed lawyers.

Besides being an elected District Attorney for Multnomah, Washington, and Clackamas Counties for six years. The honorable John F. Caples had also been a delegate to the Chicago Convention that nominated Abraham Lincoln for the Presidency.

This ferryboat was owned and operated by Multnomah County for twenty-one years, shuttling wagons, passengers, and later autos, across the Willamette River to the Fulton River Landing from 6 am to 8 pm daily. The final days of ferry service in the community ended with the opening of the Sellwood Bridge on December 16th, 1925.

On that cold wintry morning, dedications proceeded, with speeches by the County Commissioners and Portland Mayor Baker. The song “America,” was sung by students of Sellwood School, accompanied by the Benson High School band – and a final tribute to the simpler days of the Sellwood Ferry was presented by Walter C. Kenworthy.

The romantic days of steamboat commerce and river travel have faded, but public transportation still remains important in Sellwood, much as it was in the frontier town it began as, along the Willamette River.