A few photos of Kelly Butte Park [map], in outer SE portland. Very few people know about this place, and it appears the city likes it that way. I visited on a warm sunny afternoon, in the middle of summer, on a weekend, right in the heart of a 2-million-strong city, and saw exactly two other people, plus one dog. They were as surprised as I was to run across other living souls in the park.
The city parks department refers to the area, very briefly, as "Kelly Butte Natural Area". Which I guess is supposed to indicate that there aren't any public facilities here. Not anymore, anyway.
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[Updated 9/26/06: This post had a lot of pics from Kelly Butte, but didn't actually have a photo of the butte itself. I thought I'd fix that, so I drove out to Mt. Tabor this morning before work and took the new (properly spooky & mysterious) top photo. Kelly Butte is the dark forested hill in the foreground.]
[Updated 1/1/07: Another batch of photos of the place here.]
[Updated 7/1/09: Yet more photos, this time in semi-glorious infrared.]
[Updated 8/25/09: And even more photos, this time presented as a fancy Flash slideshow, no less.]
[Updated 8/27/11: And a long history post (no photos) I did about the erstwhile Kelly Butte Jail, circa 1906-1910]
Kelly Butte is visible from downtown Portland and all over the east side, and you drive right past it on I-205, Division, and Powell, but getting closer isn't easy. First you have to find your way to the park entrance. A Blackberry with Google Maps is a real help here, and having been here before in the park's better days is an even bigger help. What you want to do is turn off Division St. onto SE 103rd Ave., going south. There aren't any signs pointing to the park, and it's not, umm, an overly affluent area; this may deter many prospective visitors before they ever find the place. Just block out the ominous banjo music you think you're hearing, stay on 103rd, and it'll soon turn into a narrow, rutted road winding up the hill. You'll come to a battered, rusting gate with a heavily vandalized sign listing the park hours. The usual, distinctive wood Portland Parks sign is absent here, and nothing here even gives the name of the park.
So if you leave your car here (locked, of course) and walk past the gate, the road continues to the top of the hill. There you'll find a couple of weedy, abandoned parking lots, cordoned off with lengths of chain link fence. The fences stand ajar, unmarked, neither inviting nor forbidding visitors. There's a stop sign here, for some reason, again heavily vandalized. Next to one of the parking lots is a small meadow area with a nice view of Mt. Hood (
top photo photo #2), with unmarked trails leading off into the forest in all directions. On the surface, the whole area looks like the city simply forgot it had a park out here, or they lost the keys to the front gate one day, or something, and nobody's been here for years, maybe decades.
If you look closer, you can see that a (very) minimal level of maintenance is going on. The grass in the meadow has been mowed recently, and if you wander down to the lower parking lot, there's a pile of dirt with fresh bulldozer tracks in front of... what on earth could this be?>
It's not much to look at these days, but this was once the entrance to the city's Kelly Butte Civil Defense Center. Built in 1956, the city describes it as having been "designed to survive a 'near miss' by up to a 20 megaton bomb and to be self-sustaining for up to 90 days." Here's a 1960 photo of the city's nuclear doomsday bunker, from the Oregon Historical Society. A bit more history at Stumptown Confidential and Urban Adventure League. This page mentions the Kelly Butte bunker as well, while discussing the area's "civil defense" preparedness efforts. Seems they made all these elaborate emergency plans, and then the 1962 Columbus Day Storm hit, and these best-laid plans utterly failed to work, Katrina-style. D'oh!
The bunker figures quite prominently in the 50's CBS docudrama "The Day Called 'X'", which portrays the city evacuating due to an imminent Soviet nuclear attack. It's also a fun time capsule showing what parts of downtown looked like back then, including parts of Broadway near where Pioneer Courthouse Square is now, and the old Morrison Bridge.
Later on, this Cold War relic evolved into the city's emergency/911 dispatch center, until that moved into a new, above-ground building in the mid-1990s. So it's actually only been empty for about a decade or so. I understand the place was never popular with the people who worked here. I remember seeing news reports about workers' "sick building syndrome" complaints about the place, and the inside walls were (and presumably still are) covered in lurid and disturbing murals painted in the late '80s by the local artist Henk Pander.
Once the 911 center moved out, the city tried to find new users for the place, but nobody wanted it. A Oregonian piece back in December 13th, 1992 put it this way:
OLD BOMB SHELTER AVAILABLE AS 9-1-1 CREW MOVES OUT
For Sale or Lease: One concrete bunker.
With its current tenant about to move, one of Portland's most despised properties is about to become available -- the 9-1-1 center at Kelly Butte.
Originally designed as a Civil Defense bomb shelter, the 18,820-square-foot center offers many uniquely unattractive features. Largely underground, the dark and gloomy center has no view. Employees work under a weird mural of partially standing columns.
``It reminds me of what's left over after a major nuclear attack,'' said Marge Hagerman, a secretary who also thinks the mural is ``sort of tropical. I don't know what the intent was.''
Last spring, a ``sick building syndrome'' felled workers in droves with nausea, headaches, sore throats, rashes and a metallic taste in their mouths.
Despite ventilation changes and special cleaning, another wave of sickness hit months later, bringing ambulances to the center four times.
So far, the city is marketing the property internally. In a memo to bureau officials, Fred Venzke, facilities manager, suggests the center might make a good records warehouse, indoor shooting range, community activity center or computer center.
``Facilities Services would be happy to show you the site and discuss its many possibilities,'' he said, noting the center has a 110-ton air conditioning capacity, emergency power and showers.
If the city can't find any takers internally, the center could end up for sale to the general public.
And the price?
``We haven't even addressed that,'' said Diana Holuka, city property manager.
As for what it's like inside now, see here.
But in the world of fantasy, the bunker's even more interesting. While scanning the interwebs, I came across a document titled Portland: The World of Darkness, which is a guide to the city for some sort of fantasy/horror roleplaying game. It says, of the Kelly Butte bunker and the era that spawned it:
In this time of Cold-War paranoia, vampires were able to increase their holdings within the territory, constructing backalley deals with the local politicians and constructing secret “bomb-shelters” that became havens that would potentially last a thousand years; delightfully, most of these constructions were kept secret. When the paranoia revolving around nuclear weapons settled into a more fatalistic attitude, the shelters (and the vampires who inhabited them) were forgotten by the public.
So someone's finally outdone the "Shanghai tunnels" guys in trying to give our fair city some exciting urban mythology. It doesn't seem all that farfetched when you look at the thing up close, either. The place would be a perfect vampire lair, and you're surrounded on all sides by an area the city's basically written off. You could do whatever you liked, and it almost certainly wouldn't make the paper. It's like an all-you-can-eat buffet for the undead. But maybe I've just watched too much Buffy or something. Still, vampires or no, you will want to visit during daylight hours only. It's probably really creepy here at night, plus the park technically "closes" at dusk. I think. There was spraypaint all over that part of the sign.
When I was little, my dad's company installed systems inside the bunker for the city's emergency communications bureau. I'm not sure now whether I ever actually went inside or not, but I remember the outside area pretty vividly. Back around the time the 911 center moved, around 1994-95, I was living in SE Portland and thought I'd visit the park as an adult to see what it was like. It's changed far more since 1994 than between then and the 70's, and it hasn't changed in a good way. In '94 the upper parking lot was open to park visitors, there were picnic tables here, and other park amenities, I think there were basketball hoops, or maybe a horseshoe pit. Nothing fancy, and the place wasn't exactly overrun with visitors, but it felt like a regular city park, and didn't have the derelict, back-of-beyond feel it has now. I don't know what happened here. Maybe this is the place where the parks department absorbs its budget cuts, so they can keep the fountains on in the Pearl District. It's like they've put the whole place in suspended animation, waiting for the condo tower crowd to take an interest in the surrounding area. Here's an angry letter to the Portland Tribune by an eastside resident infuriated about the ongoing decline in local park facilities in SE Portland. The "Division-Powell Park" he mentions is another (older?) name you occasionally see for the park.
[Updated 12/29/06: The Mercury's Blogtown has a couple of posts about the butte today. Post #1 links to this humble blog (yeehaw!), while the second post has actual photos from inside the bunker. Kewl. For the record, I didn't take those inside-the-bunker pics, but whoever did, I doff my hat to you, good sir / ma'am. It's a real shame that Cheney wasn't home, though.
I've been meaning to go back to the butte for a while now. I half-seriously considered going up there a few days ago, on the winter solstice, to maybe set something on fire or whatever. I'm not a religious person, or even a spiritual person, but I thought it might be cool, and by cool I mean photogenic. Sadly, I'm far too law-abiding for my own good, plus it was nothing but meetings all day at the office, plus it was cold and dark, plus I don't really like fire very much, plus I decided it was a stupid idea, so I stayed at home and watched TV instead. But hey, it'll probably be a bit warmer on Walpurgisnacht, April 30 - May 1, so there's still time to organize a proper event. No Morris dancing, though, please. Thx. Mgmt.]
It's not hard to come up with fun ideas for what to do with the bunker. If I was to become a James Bond villain, or a superhero, it might make a good lair. It's not all that huge, so it'd be more of a starter lair, or a pied a lair, so to speak. Or if we're going to stop being geeks for a moment, one obvious possibility is a museum of the nuclear age. It could explain how the bunker worked, do a bit about Cold War paranoia, and present nice Portland-friendly platitudes about why The Atom Is Not Our Friend. Sure, you'd occasionally lose a school bus or two off the narrow windy road to the top, but the survivors would get a good education.
Something else looked different here this weekend, and it took me a while to figure out what it was. Until late last year, there was a rather tall communications tower right here, but city had stopped using it and recently decided to remove it due to, you guessed it, vandalism trouble. The local reaction seemed to be along the lines of "Hmm, something looks different. Oh, the tower's gone? Huh. Ok. Whatever."
The bunker's not the only human outpost up here. If you look at the Google map I linked to above, you'll see a large covered tank on the west end of the butte. If you switch the map off of the satellite view, you can see the western third or half or so of the butte isn't part of the city park, proper. Seems this this is a large and very obscure Water Bureau facility. A few brief mentions of it pop up here, here, and here. I don't know if the surrounding area is open to the public or not. I don't see why it wouldn't be, since the water's all underground here like it is out at Powell Butte, but I've never heard of the place before, and I don't see any obvious entrances on the map, unless you count the little driveway that connects into the back of the parking lot behind the evil megachurch next to 205. I imagine there might be a nice view of downtown from the west end of the butte, possibly. The water bureau's website does offer a few photos of deer at the facility, which is kind of cool, I guess, unless you live next door to the place and have a garden.
[Updated 9/13/06: A new post on the Water Bureau's blog talks about the bureau recently repainting the Kelly Butte Tank. The post includes a photo of a few people standing in front of the freshly painted 10M gallon tank, which gives you an idea just how big it is. Seems the previous paint job on the thing was done with lead paint. On a drinking water tank. Nice. Granted, it was on the outside of the tank, but still...]
In years past, Kelly Butte also hosted a jail and an associated rock quarry, not to be confused with the similar and much-better-known facilities further north at Rocky Butte. The Rocky Butte jail didn't close until some time in the 80's, IIRC. This page from the county Sheriff's Office indicates the Kelly Butte jail was operating at least as late as 1924. Another page I saw (which I can't locate now) stated the quarry was on the west side of the butte, so possibly the water tank we see now fills the hole dug for the quarry. That would seem logical, anyway. I don't see anything that looks like an old jail building, though. By all rights, there ought to be an extensive complex of gothic ruins here, forgotten and overgrown by vines, but I don't see anything like that on the photo. Maybe the vines are just really leafy and completely obscure the thing from the air. Yeah, that's the ticket.
Directly to the south of the park proper, between it and SW Powell, there used to be an old drive-in theater. Like most of its brethren, the 104th Street Drive-In has been gone for a long, long time, but the cool old 50's era sign is still there, looking just a little more rusty and weatherbeaten every year. The theater's old screen, meanwhile, lives on down at the 99W drive-in down in Newberg. These days part of the area is a large RV dealership, and part is devoted to some sort of industrial use.
Oh, and did I mention the butte's an extinct volcano? It's true. It's just one part of the extensive, and amusingly named, Boring Lava Field (named after the nearby town of Boring), which is responsible for a large number of old lava domes and cinder cones across the wider metro area. The USGS has more here. More recently, the butte was also affected by the area's repeated ice age floods as recently as 13000 years ago.
This last photo was taken on one of the many unmarked, unmapped trails crisscrossing the forest. The forest is quite dense, and you could easily get lost if you don't keep track of which way you're going. A few spots look like someone has been camping there recently, fire pits and everything. I imagine this would be a good, and extremely secluded, place to have a homeless camp. The forest here is great and everything, but it doesn't take long before you start to feel like leaving. It's not that it feels unsafe, exactly, it just feels like you're intruding into someone's living room. So it's back down the path, trying not to get lost, and back through the broken fences and rusty gates, down the overgrown old road to where you parked, and you're off to your next adventure. Assuming your car's still there.