Friday, October 31, 2008
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A few photos of Portland's Grand Army of the Republic Cemetery, in the West Hills right next to Greenwood Hills.
The grandiose, George Lucas-esque name comes from the Grand Army of the Republic, a fraternal organization of Union veterans of the Civil War. (The Wikipedia article claims that Lucas did rip off the name, big surprise there). I do so hate to ramble on about zombies all the time, but it is Halloween, you know. And if (as I mentioned in my Burnside Bridge post a while back) we're ever besieged by horrific Confederate zombies, the next logical step would to raise these guys up somehow, and send them once more unto the breach. Honestly, I have no idea why people accuse me of thinking in B-movie plots all the time. I'm really just trying to help, honest. Someday you'll all thank me. I'm sure of it.
Anyway, the GAR vanished with the last Union veteran, and although there are successor groups of Sons & Daughters of Union Veterans, they're pretty small and obscure groups. Because this is a Northern state, and we got over the Civil War a long, long time ago, unlike certain other parts of the country I might name. So these days Metro owns and cares for the place instead, and they have an info page about it. Graveyards.com and Find-A-Grave have a few more photos, and there are a few more in someone's Flickr photoset.
There's a pedestal here that once held a statue of some sort, but it's apparently been gone for quite some time. Metal thieves, probably, or rabid Civil War memorabilia collectors. So if you're on eBay or Craigslist and run across something that really looks like it goes here, let Metro know, ok? (It'd help if I knew what the statue was supposed to look like, but I'm afraid I don't.)
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Just in time for Halloween, here are a few photos from Greenwood Hills Cemetery, a circa-1851 pioneer cemetery in the West Hills, south of downtown Portland. I think visiting on a foggy fall morning worked out a lot better than it did on the recent trip to Nansen Summit. I mean, I suppose cemetery photos with fog and autumn leaves and cobwebs can be, I dunno, a bit formulaic. But still, I think some of them turned out ok.
The monuments here are generally not as extravagant as some you'd see over at Lone Fir, for example, and it's not full of famous people. But Greenwood Hills is kind of interesting in that for a time it was a Masonic cemetery, and a lot of the headstones carry Masonic symbols. I'm told that when one joins up, one swears a rather gory oath not to divulge the secrets of the society, something about having one's throat cut, tongue cut out, etc., etc., rather than spill the beans. And when you move up the ranks, the oath gets even gorier, or so I've heard. History doesn't record whether any of that actually happened to anyone here, but if you happen to be near Greenwood Hills when the zombie apocalypse comes, you can be sure it won't be pretty. Although they might leave you alone if you know the secret handshake, assuming they still have hands.
There's more about Greenwood Hills at Graveyards.com and Find-a-Grave.com. Seriously, those are both for real, I swear I'm not making this up.
See also "So, You're Dead Already" at Blogging a Dead Horse, and someone's extensive Flickr photoset, and a page of transcribed headstone inscriptions.
Somewhere here is the recently restored headstone of a an early 20th century Bosnian Muslim immigrant who died in 1951. I think that's what the story says; the Google translation is a bit rough. If you read Bosnian, or Serbo-Croatian, or whatever the language is called these days, the original article is here.
And no old cemetery is complete without a ghost story (scroll down a bit to find the Greenwood Hills tale). Ok, so if you're as jaded as I am, you're probably going, "oh, a ghost story about a graveyard, now that's a first". But it's a fun tale, with various spooky goings-on, and a bit of history thrown in. Now, I have to say that nothing weird happened when I was there (granted, this was during the day), and the only things stirring here were a few people walking their dogs and chatting on mobile phones. And I certainly don't really believe any of this stuff anyway. But still, what's the point of sneering at ghost stories on Halloween? Where's the fun in that?
Thursday, October 30, 2008
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As I was driving around while putting together the East Park Blocks series, I also stopped to check out tiny Laurelwood Park, at the corner of Holgate, Foster, & 63rd Ave., in SE Portland. I thought I'd take a look and see if there was anything interesting about it, maybe get a bonus post out of the excursion.
Well, it didn't turn out to be that fascinating of a place. It's a little triangular wedge with trees and grass and a few tables. Right next door, though, there's a cool old Masonic lodge building which is now the union hall of SEIU Local 503. Probably because of that, the park sometimes hosts events of a political bent, like a Food Not Bombs event every Wednesday evening. There was also an antiwar protest held here around the time the Iraq war started.
Also, there are a couple of tables set up for playing chess, if you're into that, which I'm not. People are often surprised by that -- on a number of occasions I've essentially been told, hey, you're a pretty smart guy, you must be really into chess, right? And I'm not. I think it's mostly that I don't like losing, and I don't like having to study a lot and lose a lot just to be good at a game. That may be why I'm not into video games at all either. The park shows up on at least two lists of regional chess venues. So it sounds like the place really gets hoppin' (by chess standards) on summer evenings, 4-8pm. And as an added bonus, I can offer you an ironclad guarantee that I won't be there, not even as a spectator.
A archive page on the local neighborhood association's site mentions the existence of a "Friends of Laurelwood Park". Most "Friends of" orgs around town have elaborate websites explaining what's so great about their little corner of the world. I can't find one for these guys. Which is too bad, because I'm a bit low on material, and it might've given me more to go on here.
The June 2005 newsletter of the Oregon Brew Crew said their annual picnic would be here. They actually meant Laurelhurst Park, which is much larger and has group picnic areas. It's an understandable mistake, though; no doubt the writer had Laurelwood Brewing on the brain -- although sadly, there aren't any Laurelwood outposts anywhere near here, at least not yet. Mmmmmm..... beeeeeerr........
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Here are a few third-rate photos from Nansen Summit, a tiny park at the very top of Mt. Sylvania, down in Lake Oswego.
Sometimes I just say "third rate" to be self-deprecating, but I really am disappointed in how these turned out. The view is supposed to be the main event here, and I showed up on a glum, foggy morning. It was sunny the day before, and I might've gotten some glorious shots then, but I just didn't have any free time that day. It's doubly disappointing because I was motivated to go track this place down after seeing a number of cool photos of the place. So I'm sure it really is photogenic if you're lucky, and/or know what you're doing.
Here are some selected images from across the interwebs, so you can see what I mean:
- An amazing fogbound sunset (Ash Creek Images)
- Doug Arnold has a bunch of photos, including a great rainbow
- Photos of Comet McNaught from Nansen Summit, on Amanda Fritz's blog
- Multiple meteors (Abraham Online)
- Flickr photos from Ar'alani and Daneski
- A series of paintings titled The Four Seasons of Nansen Summit
A curious thing about Nansen Summit is that it's not a city park, or any kind of public park. Instead, the Mountain Park Homeowners' Association owns and runs it, as part of an extensive network of parks and trails. Mountain Park is an exceptionally large subdivision, primarily developed back in the 70's and 80's. (Their website has a slideshow of groovy "vintage" photos from when the area was under construction.) The fact that this is part of a subdivision also explains the heroic-sounding name of the place. Since this is the extra-swanky part of Mountain Park, all the streets are named after heroic historical figures: Hidalgo, Garibaldi, Juarez, Bolivar, Becket, Masaryk, with Nansen at the very top. Nansen being Fridtjof Nansen, the famous polar explorer, humanitarian, scientist, diplomat, and winner of the 1922 Nobel Peace Prize. It's unclear how being the rich guy with a house at the top of the hill equates with heroism, but there you go. I do think it's kind of ironic that so many of the streets are named for heroes of Latin American history, so that the neighborhood's groundskeepers, maids, and nannies are far more likely to get the historical references than the residents themselves are. Go figure. So anyway, the whole area is private property, but it's not a gated community, and there aren't any big scary signs saying "Residents Only, Violators Will Be Waterboarded", like some of the more fierce subdivisions out there do. Someone put Nansen Summit on their list of 5 Best Places to Picnic in Portland, When It's Not Raining, and they don't seem to have gotten a cease & desist order over that. So you'll probably be OK if you decide to visit, unless you get lost among the winding suburban streets, or you try to put up any political signs, which is Seriously Frowned Upon. I've never really understood why homeowners' associations are so big on banning political signs. I can't see how they reduce property values or otherwise lower the tone, and as "clutter" they're quite temporary and not really unsightly (except the ones for Republicans, obviously). I suppose they just do it because they can. Mountain Park did have a UFO sighting last year, which I guess just goes to show that even the most control-freak homeowners' association can't control everything. If UFOs actually existed, I mean.
Ok, so forget about UFO's, that's not the only excitement to be had here. Being the top of Mt. Sylvania, it turns out Nansen Summit is the business end of a large "dormant" shield volcano, one of many volcanoes and lava domes in the amusingly-named Boring Lava Field (Others include Mt. Tabor, Kelly Butte, and Rocky Butte.) An article titled "The Catlin Gabel Lava Tubes of West Portland, Oregon" (which first appeared in the September 1974 issue of The Ore Bin, a journal run by the state Department of Geology & Mineral Industries) describes the area thusly:
The Catlin Gabel lava tubes occur among a cluster of cinder cones and associated lava flows of Pliocene to late(?) Pleistocene age (between about 5 and 1 million years old) that occupy an area of approximately 25 square miles on the west side of the Portland Hills (Figure 1). Lava tubes have not previously been described in Oregon lava flows older than Holocene (last 10,000 years). Mount Sylvania is the largest of the Pliocene-Pleistocene volcanoes in the map area, but at least four and possibly as many as eight other volcanic vents and associated lava flows lie to the northwest as far as Germantown Road, 12 miles north of Mount Sylvania, and one other lies to the southeast. These volcanoes are probably the westernmost of this age in Oregon. The area covered by lava flows and vents was first mapped by Trimble (1963), who assigned these rocks to the Boring Lava, a geologic unit first named by Treasher (1942) after a cluster of volcanoes around the town of Boring about 10 miles southeast of Portland.While we're at it, the summit, or perhaps just the northeast corner of the summit, is the top end of the Arnold Creek Watershed, from whence the creek flows until it joins Tryon Creek, which flows into the Willamette, then the Columbia, then the Pacific Ocean. Which you can't quite see from here, even when it's sunny.
Tuesday, October 28, 2008
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This stop on our tour of the East Park Blocks takes us to North Portland's Omaha Parkway, on N. Omaha Avenue between Killingsworth and Rosa Parks Way. If you look at a map of the city, it appears that Omaha Parkway is actually slightly to the west of the park blocks downtown. It's still on the east bank of the river, though, so I'm going to assert that "East Park Blocks" is still a reasonable name. Otherwise I'd have to try to think of a different name, and I don't want to.
It's possible that Omaha Parkway doesn't share an origin with the others, which would explain why it's not on that list. A page at Rootsweb describes it like this:
Omaha Ave. Albina addition, (1891) From Killingsworth Ave. north to Portland Blvd. [until 1891, known as 1st & 2nd Aves.]. before 1915 became N. Omaha Ave.
N. Omaha Ave. Albina addition, (1915) From 157 Killingsworth Ave. (1932) 5 east of Greeley north from Killingsworth to Winchell. [until before 1915, known as Omaha Ave.].
This indicates that the street (or some parts of it) existed prior to 1891, when Portland absorbed the old city of Albina. Doesn't mention anything specifically about park blocks though.
When I'm feeling pedantic (which is regrettably often), I sometimes wonder about a place, "Who waters the grass?" This 1989 Oregonian article says the Parks Bureau waters the grass at Omaha Parkway, or at least they did 19 years ago. And they almost didn't then, due to the Parks Bureau's perennial lack of funds. The place used $2500 worth of water over the course of the summer, in 1989 dollars. Article describes the parkway as a "median strip".
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The Ainsworth Blocks (our next stop on the East Park Blocks grand tour) are on NE Ainsworth St. between MLK & 37th, the only east-west set of park blocks in town that I know of. They're narrower than the others, almost just a glorified median, but they're also much longer than any of the others, roughly two miles in total. If the Ainsworth Blocks extended much further west, they'd intersect with Omaha Parkway, and the east end is not-quite-due-north of Reed College Parkway. Which may be evidence of a plan, or it may just be basic Euclidean geometry -- any lines that aren't absolutely parallel will eventually intersect somewhere. So whatever.
The place is also known as the Ainsworth Linear Arboretum, the brainchild of a local group called "Friends of Trees". They've got a great deal of info about all the diverse trees that have been planted along the Ainsworth Blocks. Some in the blocks themselves, some along the street on either side, even some in yards facing the blocks.
Beyond that, I haven't found a lot of references to the place. There's one related Oregonian story, indicating that the Ainsworth Blocks lost some trees in a big 1997 winter storm. That story refers to Omaha Parkway as "Omaha Blocks", which also lost trees.
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The next stop on our tour of Portland's East Park Blocks takes us to Stanley Park (or "Ralph Stanley Park Blocks"), running the length of NE Cascades Parkway, due east of the airport. The east end is the little traffic circle right next to IKEA, you can't miss it. These are really the odd blocks out, as far as East Park Blocks go. I almost didn't include them at all, but I figured, what the heck. The main thing is that they're quite new, only created in 2001, which could make them nearly a century younger than some of the others. They're also the only ones in a commercial area, all the others being in residential areas. It's not a remnant of an incomplete early 20th century urban plan, like at least some of the others seem to be. Instead, it's part of an early 21st century urban plan ("CascadeStation"), one that's only recently started to bear fruit.
As a recently escaped longtime suburbanite, I have to say there's nothing about Stanley Park that really grabs one's attention. The area looks like any other chunk of modern big-box suburbia, and the park itself looks like standard-issue strip mall landscaping, not much different than what you'd encounter outside a Barnes & Noble in Tualatin, say. If I didn't know already, I wouldn't have guessed it even had a name, much less that it's considered a "park".
I first heard about the place in an was Urban Adventure League post from 2007. Those guys always seem to be a step or two ahead of me, and it beats me how that keeps happening.
But at least I can tell you a bit more about the place, in case you're interested. The Port of Portland owns Stanley Park, since the whole area started out as sorta-surplus airport land. You wouldn't expect the port district to have a "park system", and I doubt it's their intent to have one, but they have at least two parks anyway: Here, and McCarthy Park out on Swan Island. I suppose if you own and develop enough land, as they do, you're inevitably going to end up landscaping bits of it here and there.
CascadeStation was created to cash in on the new MAX Red Line, so far with mixed results. Here are two stories about the park from around the time the Red Line opened, in which we learn the park's named in honor of the project's lead developer, who died shortly before the Red Line opened.
And then the new MAX Red Line to the airport opened on, umm, September 10th, 2001. If I was superstitious, which I'm not, I'd almost wonder if there was a curse or something.
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This stop on our tour of Portland's East Park Blocks is Roseway Parkway, on NE 72nd between Sandy & Prescott, which places it due north (wayyy north) of Firland Parkway. That sure doesn't seem like a coincidence, although I don't have concrete evidence that this was part of a plan.
These are the widest East Park Blocks out there. I'd guess they're about as wide as the park blocks downtown, although I'm notoriously bad at guessing sizes and dimensions of things. The trees are smaller, and the place has a curiously orchard-like feel to it.
Forget connecting the north & south park blocks downtown, you urban visionaries out there -- if you want a real challenge, try hooking the Roseway & Firland Parkways together. Actually no, I'm not seriously proposing that. I'm not sure what the point would be. Even if there was a good reason, it'd cost way too much, which I think is the same reason it didn't happen to begin with.
Some links about the place:
- Oregonian: 2003 tree-planting party. Described as a "parklike strip".
- The Roseway Neighborhood Association apparently tends to call them the "72nd Avenue Park Blocks".
- A detailed planning doc about the area, including much about the parkway.
- International Day festival held there
- Urban Adventure League beat me to it, as usual. And Firland, and Omaha, too.
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This stop on our tour of Portland's East Park Blocks takes us to Firland Parkway, along SE 72nd Avenue between Holgate & Foster. This is the first chunk of East Park Blocks that I visited, because it's the only one on the list that appears on most city maps. I searched the net a little about the place, and came across a thread in the Foster Powell Neighborhood group on Flickr: "An Olmstead designed park in FoPo?". Which intrigued me, as you might imagine. I'm still not 100% sold on the Olmsted connection, but any parkway like this can at least be fairly called "Olmsted-inspired". For whatever that's worth, I mean. That's the sort of term you use when you're trying to sell real estate, or lure a Starbucks to the neighborhood. Sort of like "FoPo", come to think of it.
After reading that thread and researching further, I came to realize there were a bunch of other stretches of park blocks around town, and a new project was born. It seems these things always start small...
Anyway, Firland Parkway seems like a pretty quiet place, in a (perhaps surprisingly) quiet neighborhood. I did come across a couple of posts about a plant swap held at the north end of the parkway. That's about it for excitement. Which I imagine is how the neighborhood likes it.
I was initially puzzled about why Firland Parkway shows up on maps when the other don't, but I think I've finally figured out the reason. After consulting PortlandMaps, it seems that most of the East Park Blocks are just part of the rights-of way of the streets they're on. Legally speaking, they're merely extremely wide medians, and aren't "properties" in their own right. Firland Parkway is one exception. Why, I don't know, but here are the PortlandMaps pages on the two long blocks that comprise the place. While we're being pedantic and tedious about this, I should note that the city auditor's office is listed as the legal owner of both parcels, rather than the Parks Bureau. This isn't actually all that unusual. You also see the city property manager listed as owner a lot too. Again, I don't know why; it just sort of is that way.
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This stop on our tour of the East Park Blocks takes us south, to Reed College Parkway, which as you might imagine is right next to Reed College. And the parkway runs the length of SE Reed College Place, in case the location was still at all unclear.
Well, you'd think it'd all be very clear, but the city sometimes mistakenly calls it the "Reedway Blocks". Reedway is an entirely different street, east-west instead of north-south, and which doesn't have any park blocks along its entire length, as far as I can tell.
Of all the East Park Blocks around town, Reed College Parkway may be the closest to how they were all intended to turn out. Large, genteel houses line both sides of the street, and stately old elms run the length of the parkway. It's really quite nice, although I don't know what you'd have to do to afford a house here. The parkway isn't the only thing that gives the area such a patrician, old money feel, but it certainly helps.
Of course, being next to a rather, er, alternative-minded college, it's not all tea and crumpets on Reed College Parkway. Or rather, when it is tea and crumpets, it just might be performance art, like this 2007 TBA event. (In the article, the parkway is described as a "tree-lined expanse of grass", not as a park. FWIW.) An OregonLive blog post has more about the conceptual art tea party, with photos.
I can answer the perennial "who waters/mows the grass" question this time. Recent meeting minutes for the Eastmoreland neighborhood association shed a little light on the not-quite-a-city-park, not-quite-a-street-median status of this and the other East Park Blocks around town. Like most of them, Reed College Parkway is owned by the city's Transportation Bureau, and in this case they're responsible for watering the grass, but the Parks Bureau has the job of mowing the grass. It's all clear now, yes?
An East County News piece about area residents unhappy with the current arrangement. Our mayor-elect suggests that the locals form a "Local Improvement District" and tax themselves extra to help maintain the place, because the city just doesn't have the money.
Miscellaneous other bits:
Every tourist guidebook to Portland blabs on and on about the Park Blocks downtown. As a result, they aren't really prime blog material here, photogenic as they may be. But as it turns out, the downtown Park Blocks have a number of vastly more obscure cousins scattered around Portland's east side. I've never seen any collective name used for all of them, so I thought I'd go ahead and christen them the "East Park Blocks", by analogy with downtown's North & South Park Blocks. (Although now I'll probably run across another one, on the west side this time, and it'll be back to square one again...)
Most of the East Park Blocks are in residential areas; I think the idea was that a stretch of park blocks makes an area a bit more genteel, and creates a boulevard suitable for promenading about in one's horse and buggy, wearing one's Sunday best. Which doesn't happen much anymore, and doing the equivalent from a car just isn't the same. Still, I figured since they're designed to be enjoyed from a moving vehicle, that's what I'd do. I made a big loop around town, driving up and down each stretch of these park blocks in turn. Most of these photos were taken while I was driving, which isn't exactly "safe", and Legal says I can't encourage anyone else to do it, but I think it captures the effect properly this way.
I've seen indications that at least some of these park blocks are the scattered remnants of an early 20th century master plan, a plan that for the most part went unimplemented. From the city's Recreational Trails Strategy:
The historic foundation for this trail system strategy is the 1903 plan developed for Portland by John C. Olmsted. He identified desirable sites for parks and proposed that they be connected by parkways and boulevards. Although many of the sites were eventually secured, Terwilliger Boulevard (which he helped design) is the only substantial parkway that was created. Some fragments of boulevard (Ainsworth and Reedway Blocks, Firland and Roseway Parkways) were constructed as parts of subdivisions, but most of the Olmsted vision of interconnected parks was not implemented.
I'm not totally sure this is accurate, though. Another two docs, also from the city, discuss the 1903 Olmsted plan, and the various parkways and park blocks do not appear anywhere in the text or in any included maps. I suppose they could've originated in the 1912 Bennett Plan, but I couldn't find enough detail about that to be sure one way or the other. I'd imagine the Oregon Historical Society would have copies of the original plans, which would settle the matter definitively. I haven't gotten around to doing that, though, so I'm going to have to call this a "maybe" for now.
If there was a master plan, it's hard to argue it was a realistic master plan. Now, I realize it was the early 20th century, the days of all-out civic boosterism and Teddy Roosevelt-style bravado, but two of the existing stretches of park blocks are way out on 72nd Avenue, one in NE Portland and the other in SE, separated by a few miles. If the original plan was to have a continuous Olmsted-esque parkway the whole distance, that would've been a pretty damn expensive undertaking, way out at the far edge of the city. To give you some idea, the Portland city limits only extended to roughly 82nd avenue as recently as the 1980s. (The 1980s expansion further east is still bitterly resented in some quarters, but that's a story for another time.) I'm not convinced it would've been a good idea to build out the full plan anyway (again, assuming there was a plan). If the intent was to create leafy, green, stuffy, respectable upper-middle-class neighborhoods, that idea met with mixed success, at best. These days the parkways' surrounding neighborhoods are all gentrifying to varying degrees, but most were decidedly blue-collar areas for much of the 20th century. Which is fine, of course; it's just not what the original planners intended. Given John Olmsted's comments about Milwaukie's "sordid little houses", which I mentioned in my Elk Rock Island post, I think it's fair to assume that urban planners of that era were a snobby, elitist lot, with little care for the needs of the icky toiling classes.
In the present day, the whole parkway concept has kind of fallen by the wayside. The idea of setting aside public space to look at but not actually use is deeply unfashionable now, and we don't do it anymore. (Well, with one notable exception that we'll get to later on in the tour.) The Portland Parks website has little icons on the page for each city park indicating what features are available: For "hiking", there's a couple of people hiking. For tennis, a guy with a tennis racket. For "natural area", there's a duck, a maple leaf, and a magnifying glass. They don't have pages for any of the places we're visiting on this tour, but if they did they'd need to cobble up a "genteel" icon, maybe a couple promenading in Victorian garb, the man in top hat and tails (and perhaps sporting a monocle), the woman in an elaborate period gown with an enormous hat made of endangered birds.
In any case, the list of parkways in the Recreational Trails doc isn't completely accurate. They missed a couple, and got the name wrong on another one. A doc explaining the city's 2002 Parks Levy does a better job -- understandable, I guess, since there was actual money on the line. But they still missed one, for reasons which will become clear a bit later on.
I was initially going to stuff everything into this post, but six embedded Google maps in a single post seemed excessive, so I decided to break it up into a multi-post series instead, so this post is just an intro.
Here's the list, starting at the southernmost and proceeding counterclockwise into North Portland:
Tuesday, October 21, 2008
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Today's adventure takes us out to funky little Elk Rock Island, in the Willamette River down near Milwaukie. I don't do islands very much here, since I don't own a boat (not yet, anyway), but this one you can actually walk to. Elk Rock Island is really just a part-time island, when the river level's high enough. The rest of the year it's sort of a peninsula, connected to the mainland by a stretch of weird undulating bedrock. But even then, it still kind of looks like an island.
Getting to the island is a little confusing, and it doesn't help matters that there aren't any signs for it. Not any that I noticed, at least. Although it's a Portland city park, you'll need to head down to Milwaukie if you plan to get there by land. It's a bit south of where River Road branches off from McLoughlin. If you're coming from the north, when you veer off toward River Rd., you're initially on 22nd Ave., and you briefly cut over on Sparrow St. before you're on River Rd. proper. Where everyone else turns left, you want to turn right. Continue down the hill on Sparrow. You'll go under a low trestle, and shortly after that Sparrow ends where it joins with 19th Ave. The not-very-grand entrance to the park is here. But before you park here, check out all the “No Parking” signs. I get the distinct impression that someone (neighbors? the city?) really, really doesn't want you parking here. So you can go park somewhere else and walk back, now that you know where the entrance is. Or you can do like I did, and somehow manage to not notice all the scary “No Parking” signs, park here anyway, and wander off into the forest. Maybe you'll be as lucky as I was, and only realize you were parked illegally just as you're driving off. Or maybe you won't be.
Ok, let's assume that you're at 19th and Sparrow now, and not in a car, by whatever means. Perhaps you biked here, and spent the last paragraph sneering at my vehicular travails. There's still no sign of any island at this point, so you just need to get on the trail and walk a bit further. There really is an island (or semi-island) here, honest.
Incidentally, the ho-hum forested area you're walking through here is called “Spring Park” (or very rarely “Keller Park”, as on the above Google map). Unlike the island itself, Spring Park is part of Milwaukie, and a pair of official maps indicate that the North Clackamas parks district runs it. If you're curious about the place for some reason, or you just can't get to the island because the river's too high, here's a 2004 Oregonian article on Spring Park, and a more recent article at the Oregon City News. Also, here's a photo from Spring Park, with a typical bit of the foliage:
But I digress. Once you're out of the woods, you'll see either a.) something like the top photo, or b.) something like the top photo but with more water. If it's option a, you've come to the weird undulating bedrock I mentioned earlier.
Apparently this little plug of land here is a remnant of a very old volcano. "Very old", by local standards, means about 40 million years. Most surface rocks around town are a "mere" 10-20 million years old. These rocks, known as Waverly Heights Basalt, (see this doc from the state, "Geology of the Portland Area"). are about the oldest rocks you can see without leaving town and driving a fair distance, or digging down a fair distance. Which is kind of sad really; just like recorded human history doesn't go back very far here, the oldest rocks we've got aren't too impressively old either. You won't find any dinosaur bones here, because they died out a good 25 million years before the aforementioned volcano appeared and then eroded away. Well, this is all true unless you're one of those creationist wingnuts, in which case the Waverly Heights Basalt rocks are 6000 years old, just like everything else, and all of modern geology is a godless commie liberal pinko gay terrorist plot, and modern geologists hate freedom. In which case you probably ought to leave this blog immediately and never come back. And do it quick before you read anything else that upsets you. And you probably ought to leave the island too, while you're at it, and go build yourself a Y2K bunker in some godforsaken, faraway red state.
If you're still here, and you can pick your way across the mini-moonscape, you'll get to the island proper. As you can see, it's not really all that big. The city says it's 13 acres, although I don't know if that's at low water or high water. The city classifies it as a “natural area”, and it's supposedly home to herons and bald eagles, although I didn't see any while I was there. Like most city parks, has trouble with invasive species, so the city conducts controlled burns from time to time. I didn't see any evidence of that either. A couple of recent Oregonian articles about visiting the island, in which we learn it's a nice place to enjoy winter wildlife, if the river doesn't kill you. There's also a 2003 article, "Saving an Island Oasis", and the island also featured in an Oregon Field Guide episode a few years back (which sadly isn't available online).
The center of the island is densely forested and crisscrossed by a number of trails, but I found it much more interesting to walk the circumference of the island, which is quick and easy and you're much less likely to get lost that way.
As you're walking around, you might notice a low stone wall right on the water, along the western shore of the island. You can kind of make it out in the above photo – I'd have tried to get closer and take a better picture if I'd known what it was. The island's a quiet place these days, but it was quite the happening spot way back in the early 20th century. The stone wall is all that's left of the Rock Island Clubhouse, a rowdy "dance hall" that used to, uh, grace the island, back in the old days. Sounds like it was quite an operation, complete with booze, broads, police raids, the whole deal. And then the whole place burned to the ground.
The Milwaukie Library's list of newspaper stories about fires & fire departments mentions the November 23rd, 1916 fire that destroyed the "Clubhouse" on the island. The land bridge was probably underwater that late in the year. I don't know if the place was operating at the time, but just imagine being all-out sloppy drunk on a scrubby little island in the Willamette, during a dark and probably wet late November, and then the whole place catches on fire. That doesn't sound like very enjoyable.
Nothing anywhere near as exciting happens on the island these days (that I'm aware of), although there does seem to be an occasional paintball problem here. (Note that the state legislator behind that proposed law is also a founder of the Friends of Elk Rock Island.) Oh, and there was a stabbing back in 2001 after a drunken party got out of hand. Also, the The Portland Spirit ran aground near Elk Rock Island back in 1997, which the Coast Guard blamed on sloppy navigation and a misplaced buoy. FWIW.
The neighborhood on the Milwaukie shore (back where you may or may not have parked) is still called "Island Station", named after a long-vanished streetcar stop, which presumably was here for people heading to go drinkin' and dancin' and carryin' on. A page about a current rails-to-trails project mentions the old Island Station streetcar stop, and includes an period photo.
For more history and background and tales about the island, you really want to check out a really excellent post about the place, at Wobbly Little Legs. Quite honestly, it's much more interesting than the post you're reading now. It's even got a cool ghost story. If you're only going to click on one link in this post, this is the one you'll want to click on.
More photos at Fidgets by Jeff. A local newspaper article about the annual Audubon bird count, with a mention of the island. Someone mentions they'd lived in Portland for 38 years and never knew Elk Rock Island was here. It hasn't quite been 38 years for me (yet), but I know the feeling. A mention in a pdf about "Portland's Forgotten Greenspaces". And a mention from a dog's perspective, sorta, with photos, at To Aire Is Divine.
Also, there's a letterbox around here somewhere, if you're into deciphering cryptic clues, which I'm not.
Across the river, you might've noticed the high cliffs that drop straight down into the river. Those cliffs are Elk Rock proper. The island gets its name from being near Elk Rock, not from being Elk Rock. That probably confuses a lot of people. As for the "Elk" in the name, a Native American legend holds that this was a good spot to stampede a herd of elk over the cliff.
On the left (=south) side of Elk Rock is what looks like a dry waterfall. Apparently that is a real waterfall, albeit a seasonal one. I had no idea there was a waterfall this close to town. It may be that when it's flowing, the river is also so high you can't walk out to the island, and so the falls don't get a lot of exposure. I don't really know. I've only come across a couple of photos so far of the falls, in this recent newsletter from Willamette Riverkeeper, and it's just a small black-and-white photo on page 10. There's a better photo of the falls on Flickr, apparently taken from the Portland Spirit around this time last year. But last year was an especially wet autumn. It certainly wasn't going when I was there. So clearly, this calls for further investigation on my part, at some point when the falls are flowing.
In the present day, the area across the river is part of the Dunthorpe neighborhood, an ultra-ritzy old money area that's home to the city's power elite, along with a number of pro basketball players, a couple of privacy-obsessed Hollywood actors, and even, supposedly, Linus Torvalds himself. Along with the Riverdale neighborhood a bit further north, the Dunthorpe area has so far managed to avoid being annexed by the city of Portland, or any of the other surrounding cities. Because, you know, only the little people pay property taxes. (No offense intented, Linus, if you read this.) So you have a weird situation where both the island and Elk Rock itself belong to the Portland Parks Bureau, but lie well outside Portland city limits.
Perhaps, if you read this humble blog regularly, you've noticed my tendency to get all nitpicky about exactly who owns a given chunk of land, what the place is officially called, and that sort of thing. It seems the Elk Rock area is really kind of a wonderland for my pedantic tendencies. There's the ownership vs. city limits thing I just mentioned. And as I noted earlier, the park on the Milwaukie mainland side goes by two different names, for reasons that remain unexplained. Then there's the island itself, which is called either "Peter Kerr Park" or "Elk Rock Island Natural Area". And then there's a 3 acre parcel across the river that includes Elk Rock itself, the near-vertical cliffs high above the river. This is called either "Peter Kerr Property", "Peter Kerr Natural Area", or even "Peter Kerr Park", or (according to PortlandMaps) plain old property ID# R331706. I don't have a property ID for the island itself, since on top of being outside Portland city limits, it's also over the Clackamas county line, and so the city doesn't have useful GIS data for it.
The city parks bureau doesn't have a lot to say about either the island or Elk Rock proper. They do appear as part of the city's Natural Vegetation Survey, wherein we learn that the terrain at Elk Rock is officially "Extremely Steep". That page refers to both parcels as the "Peter Kerr Property".
Calling the whole area the "Peter Kerr Property" is not entirely off base, actually, since the whole area once belonged to Mr. Kerr, a Scottish immigrant and Gilded Age grain magnate. Besides these nature bits the city eventually ended up with, he also had a formal house and gardens up on the bluff. Those now belong to the Episcopal Diocese of Oregon and are known as the Bishop's Close. The house is now the bishop's official residence, and the grounds are open to the public. I think I was there once as a kid. Maybe I'll go take a look around sometime, I imagine probably not until next spring when the flowers return. The Oregon Historical Society has an extensive Kerr family collection, with a bunch of old photos and so forth, and if I was a real historian I'd probably go use that as a resource.
Fortunately, the Kerr estate does get a mention in a book by a real historian. A book I actually own, no less. MacColl's The Growth of a City spends a few pages on the Kerr estate, including a telling quote from John Olmsted, the designer of the estate. In a letter to Kerr, Olmsted explained why the planned manor house shouldn't be located on the bluff's edge, as Kerr had originally intended:
With respect to the new house site, my feeling was that in spite of the manifest advantages of a site close to the bluff, the distant view would be more agreeable from a site further back from the bluff, because in that case you could provide a picturesque foreground on your own place and could so manage the plantations as to conceal the sordid little houses of the town of Milwaukee across the river, while still retaining in full view the wooded hills beyond the magnificent view of Mount Hood.
Sordid little houses. And he didn't even spell "Milwaukie" right. Feh. I have no idea whether Kerr himself shared these sentiments, but when it came time to donate parts of the estate for park purposes, the land went to Portland, not Milwaukie, which would've been the geographically obvious choice.
So you can't see the ex-Kerr digs, but a number of huge houses are visible across the river. One of the more prominent ones, located slightly downstream of the island, has a ghost story associated with it.
Also across the river, and invisible from here, is Elk Rock Tunnel, a 1/4 mile railroad tunnel under Elk Rock that's currently used by the Willamette Shore Trolley. The idea behind the Willamette Shore Trolley, as I understand it, is not simply to give old people something to get all nostalgic about; it also keeps the rail right-of-way alive in case they ever decide to run the Portland Streetcar down to Lake Oswego. More on the trolley/streetcar situation at Portland Transport.
Speaking of elk, here's the Wapati IPA from "Elk Rock Brewing", which I understand is a store-brand label for either Fred Meyer or Safeway, I can't recall which. Either way, I'm told that the beer's brewed by Pyramid here in town. So the name probably refers to this Elk Rock, although it's not depicted on the label. If you were going to bring a six pack and hang out here (which is technically illegal, this being a Portland city park and all), this would be the logical beer to bring along, assuming it's any good. Mmmm.... beeeer....
Um, in any case, once you're done circling the island, the way back is the same way you came in, and then it's off to the next adventure (or in my case, off to the office and the next fun meeting). That is, unless the city towed your car while you were out wandering the island, or the river rose in the meantime and now you're marooned here, possibly until spring. In which case the adventure is just beginning....