Umatilla Street: First commercial district in Sellwood
Have you ever watched one of those old "Gunsmoke" TV shows, where Sheriff Matt Dillon walks along a dusty street, and steps into the Long Branch Saloon for a drink?
Or when Bret Maverick saunters along a wooden boardwalk, headed for his horse, tied to a hitching post?
Well believe it or not, if you take such a mental walk down the middle of Umatilla Street in Sellwood, you will be seeing what the first settlement in this neighborhood looked like back in 1880's.
Quite a lot has happened over the past 140 years. Umatilla Street was, at one time, the main commercial street for the town of Sellwood and its citizens. Grocery stores, hotels, shoemakers, bakeries, and even the first Post Office in Sellwood, lined both sides of the dusty road. Horses and wagons bustled up and down the slope from the river's edge – as riverboats and sternwheelers unloaded supplies, people, and livestock, along the waterfront.
Umatilla was such an important road that townsfolk decided on building their first school on it, near 15th Avenue, in 1884. Umatilla was such a focal point that the Sellwood City Council held its sessions there, above Campbell's General Store. That was where most of the town's major decisions were made! You could call it a street of progressive thinkers.
Before the town of Sellwood was platted, the countryside was a scantily-inhabited forest of Douglas Fir and Cedar trees. Only a smattering of farmhouses and small dwellings appeared in the isolated area between Spokane Street south to Linn Street. The lifeline for these few inhabitants was the Willamette River. All of their supplies arrived by boat, and any products harvested or ready to sell had to be taken out by boat as well. Umatilla and Harney Streets had access to the best boat landings, so most of the roads leading east and west ended at the river's edge near Umatilla.
It wasn't until about 1886 that prominent businessmen like T.A. Wood and Henry L. Pittock got the idea that it might be a good investment to set up a real estate company and sell some land on the east side of the Willamette. That was when they approached the Reverend John Sellwood (who didn't actually live in the area!) and convinced him to sell the 329 acres he had deed to, so that they could build a town on that land worth talking about. They would even honor the fine Reverend by naming it after him: The town of Sellwood.
Once the streets were graded (but not paved), the land cleared, and building lots advertised for sale in the Oregonian newspaper, a few fast-thinking enterprisers from the other side of the river decided maybe this would also be a good place to sell baked goods, fruit, and vegetables, or perhaps a book of stamps, thus giving birth to the business district of the new town.
As mentioned, Umatilla and Harney Streets ended with the only two waterfront landings available for boats and ships to easily tie up to. So, the most profitable place to operate a store was along the incline up from the river on Umatilla Street. While a few newcomers felt their shops should be built closer to the riverfront, the hub of the new business district was centered between 11th and 15th Avenues. And 15th was where the new Sellwood School was built in 1884.
According to local lore, Edwin L. Corner proclaimed himself as the first buyer of land from the Sellwood Real Estate Company; and, with broad shoulders and determination, he built a home at 7th and Umatilla, overlooking the Willamette River. For the next twenty-eight years he and his wife resided there, and Edwin became Sellwood's first Postmaster.
The town of Sellwood was a city in name only – and, as new shopkeepers built stores, they became a little nervous about how to attract more people to settle in the tiny community. Regularly scheduled steamboat service to the foot of Umatilla and Harney Street was not yet available, and local residents had to rely on the whims of steamboat captains who decided to pull their craft over and stop. If those captains were too busy hauling lumber from the town of Milwaukie, or transporting freight to Oregon City, or loading up fruit from the Luelling Orchards, why would they make a stop at the Umatilla waterfront? It would be even harder to convince prospective home buyers to settle here – or so it seemed.
Most vendors had to wait patiently until the horn from a passing steamboat announced a ship arrival, which prompted a race to the docks for the unloading of the cargo. Transportation by water was so sporadic, at that time, that sending freight to Portland required that the farmers, dairymen, and orchardists go to the river and wave down a passing boat to ship out their products.
It was ultimately the owners of the Sellwood Real Estate Company who came to the rescue of concerned merchants, and provided a private ferry service across the river.
With the advent of the ferry, the real estate company placed ads in the Portland area newspapers and distributed fliers around town announcing that lots were offered for sale for only $10.00 per month – and that patrons interested in purchasing property could board a private ferry, "The Dolly", at the downtown Portland docks, where they'd be whisked down the Willamette River to disembark at Spokane Street.
Eventually the Steamer "Bateman" also made daily landings at the foot of Umatilla for those people living in Sellwood who worked downtown. For residents needing to visit the doctor's office, or to make a business transaction, or just to have the pleasure of shopping or enjoying entertainment downtown, that steamer provided a timely service. For only a dime, passengers could board that boat and arrive at the Washington Street Docks on the west side of the river. The "Bateman" made six trips a day, but often passengers had to share space aboard the riverboat with light freight, farm animals, and restless horses.
Sellwood remained a town of simple means and services, with only three stores, one church, a school, and over 100 homes scattered around the area. In 1887, a turning point for the citizens occurred when Sellwood city leaders met for the first City Council meeting on March 12th. Board members were elected, and J.C. Cunningham was announced as the first Mayor of Sellwood. J.W Campbell, who ran a country store on Umatilla Street, offered the services of his upstairs for regular meetings.
The Sellwood city government lasted five years – until city leaders decided running even such a small town was too complicated for volunteers, and they opted to have the town become a part of the City of Portland in 1893.
Portland took over the responsibility of paving the streets, delivering clean water, and providing streetlights where needed. However, the local businessmen were not convinced that all the community's needs were yet being met. The Sellwood Commercial Club was established to create committees and push for special needs, particular to merchants and shop owners of Sellwood.
In 1910 dues were collected, and an impressive four-square style structure was built along Umatilla street just east of 13th Avenue. The Commercial Club building was the perfect place for members to gather and socialize – playing cards, smoking cigars, and entertaining clients new to the area.
Lodging was at a premium in the early years. Spectators arrived from downtown or elsewhere to attend horse racing or baseball games at City View Park (now Sellwood Park), but later in the evening when they went looking for a hotel, they found that very few were available.
Available accommodations included small one-story houses constructed by residents who intended to use their own homes as boarding houses, or just for extra rooms to rent.Frederick Bundage had rooms to let, and Mrs. Mary Thomas offered meals and a bed at her residence – which she preferred to call the Sellwood Hotel. Randell's Saloon and Boarding House was the best-known structure in the neighborhood, and had rooms available, adjacent to the veranda running the length of the building.
The only establishment that actually resembled a hotel in Sellwood at that time was the St. Charles Hotel, located at the end of 17th Avenue. This two-story wooden building served mainly the workers from the community of Willsburg, just a few blocks east of Sellwood. It also accommodated overnighters who had partied too long at the bars and taverns nearby.
When Mrs. Thomas took over the St. Charles a few years later, she renamed it The Sellwood Hotel. Of note, boarding houses served as restaurants, offering meals in a common room located on the main floor for an additional fee.
In the 1920's, nurses from the Sellwood Hospital – then sited on Sherrett Street – were offered boarding during their nurse training in a small bungalow just east of 13th Avenue.
"Merchant row", between 11th Avenue and just past 13th, was the business hub of the area. Residents flocked to shops such as the Sellwood Bakery, the Umatilla Meat Market, the Adams Candy Company, Martin Larson the Barber, or Hirschberg's Shoe Shop. They could have their picture taken at Olen Royce's photo hall.
Stores and shops changed names through the decades. Hugh Knipes took over Campbell's Grocery, and it became a landmark there for the next thirty years.
To see what the old false-fronted business buildings looked like during this period, stop by today's Portland Puppet Museum at 906 S.E. Umatilla Street. This structure was originally the Home Grocery Store, built in 1910 – and its modillion cornice, with bracketed hood, gabled roof, and horizontal siding, is just what many high-end storefronts used to look like along Umatilla Street.
J.P. Zirngiebel, who amassed a fortune by painting signs around the Portland, settled in the neighborhood, and built one of the first two-story commercial buildings here at 13th and Umatilla. Small businesses like Berlin Davis' Shoe Shop, and Erickson's Hardware and Repair, occupied the bottom section of the Zirngiebel building, while doctor and dentist offices were located upstairs.
Residents of Sellwood could now make appointments with Doctors Howard A. Young, R.S Sterns, or G.J. Fanning, to avoid travel by ferry to the west side of the river for such services. For dental needs, H.C. Fixott and H.M. Brown were available for new patients. Sometimes nervous patients were soothed by the music offered by Eugenia Brown, who taught music classes to young students just down the hall.
Charles Ballard came to Sellwood in 1906, and opened the first newspaper, which he called the Sellwood Bee. The name was probably inspired by the McClatchy newspapers in California – the Sacramento Bee, the Modesto Bee, and the Fresno Bee, all of which still exist today. The newspaper later had the names Milwaukie Bee, Sellwood-Moreland Bee, and since around 1991 – when its distribution increased to include much of Inner Southeast – just THE BEE.
But in 1906, Charles had to convince the townspeople to subscribe to his newspaper. Money was tight, and for any newspaper to be successful it had to provide information worthy of paying for. As editor, publisher, and printer of the newspaper, Charles set up his printing press off of the front of his house along Umatilla Street, in the heartland of the merchant district. Soon he began distributing the latest gossip and local news to the local residents. What better place to collect the latest scuttlebutt than where boats docked, freight traveled up and down the street, and farmers and locals gathered to eat, drink, and socialize. And, of course, the merchants of the locality would be the first advertisers. Consulting those early pages, we find ads for the era's major businesspeople. . .
If you needed someone to move your furniture, or you needed to order a load of coal or wood to heat your home, William Copenhafer was the man to call. The Sellwood Transfer Company offered baggage freight, and also moved furniture and heavy pianos that could be transported from the ferry at the foot of the river and unloaded into your new residence. These are among the businesses that first advertised in the new newspaper's pages.
During the height of the Sellwood housing boom, most of the heavy hauling was done by horse and wagon. In the 1920's, a new cement garage was built to house the gasoline trucks that soon replaced the horses; these buildings also doubled as a storage place for residents who did not have a garage to shelter their car or boat.
Umatilla Street hit its peak when the new brick building of the Sellwood Bank opened on the corner of 13th and Umatilla, and just further down the block parents rejoiced when Sellwood's first free public library was opened for students to use. It also became the city of Portland's first branch library two years later.
In the 1920's, Sellwood was bustling with activity as the nation's economy reached an all-time high. Employment was plentiful, contractors were busy building new homes east of Milwaukie Avenue, and more stores were opening along 13th Avenue. Umatilla merchants also enjoyed the increasing sales the new era brought – but when the first Sellwood Bridge opened in 1925, while it indeed was a boon to the community, it signaled a downtrend for businesses on Umatilla Street – in what many now considered the "older district" of Sellwood.
Automobiles became the new means of transportation, and Tacoma Street – which had previously dead-ended above the river at the lumberyard, now connected to the new bridge and became the main thoroughfare for autos traveling to and beyond Sellwood. Stores and shops along Umatilla began contemplating moving north to Westmoreland where customers seemed more plentiful.
The Sellwood Bank, once a mainstay along Umatilla street, moved two blocks north to the corner of Tacoma and 13th Avenue (now the location of OnPoint Credit Union). Harry Gibbs, the new owner of the Sellwood Transfer Company, decided exposure would be better in the newer Westmoreland district, and relocated the company in 1930. Even the Sellwood Bee newspaper set up in a new office along 13th Avenue, abandoning its roots along Umatilla.
After the stock market crash in 1929, many of the retail stores and shops were forced to close because so many customers were out of work and couldn't afford to buy daily items – or else they bought goods on credit, but weren't able to pay those bills. Business along Umatilla picked up briefly with the start of the Second World War, but when most of the men of our nation enlisted in the armed services, there was nobody in Sellwood or Westmoreland to man the small merchant shops. More than 40,000 women were recruited to apply for high-wage jobs at the Kaiser shipyard in North Portland. That left local merchants unable to hire a qualified person of either sex to fill the empty positions at their shops.
The once-bustling Umatilla Street, originally full of activity with people coming and going, had turned into a quiet residential neighborhood by the late 1950's. Only the screams and laughter of children playing or bicycling the streets could now be heard there.
Parents tending to their yards and gardens, or having summer outdoor get-togethers, were the sounds replacing the daily noise of delivery trucks, and the shouting vendors announcing the "special of the day" to passing patrons. Old buildings and storefronts, like the original Sellwood Bakery, opened in 1898 by S.C Lyle, were torn down.
While other false-front structures were replaced by modern stylish duplexes and new homes, a few small concrete buildings were built to house small businesses or mail order companies. The only sign of vibrant shops and stores left in Sellwood in 1960 were those operating at the major intersections of 13th and 17th.
Gone today are the busy days along the Umatilla waterfront where the small settlement of Sellwood first began. One can now only imagine the sound of horses' hooves drumming along the planked street of Umatilla Road, reminding us of times past – or the shouts and curses of teamsters struggling to bring wagonloads of supplies up the sloped road from the river.
For those living here now, one of the few sounds of that distant past still heard is the mournful steam whistle of the "Holiday Express" steam engine making its annual Christmas run up and down the Springwater Corridor between Oaks Park and OMSI.
The nostalgic sound of that whistle gives us a glimpse into our past, when the Bateman Steamer signaled its arrival into the little port of Sellwood, and merchants hurried to the Umatilla docks with wheelbarrows and empty wagons, ready to unload merchandise or get mail to sort and deliver at the post office.
However, some businesses open today do still have long roots into the past. Wilhelm's Portland Memorial has been in operation for well over a century, Oaks Park (established in 1905) is now the oldest continuously-operating amusement park in the United States, and in your hands, as you read this, is the one of the two oldest neighborhood newspapers in the Portland region – THE BEE, publishing since 1906.