Monday, January 15, 2018

Madrona Park

Next up we're paying a visit to North Portland's Madrona Park. I really do try not to say "you probably haven't heard of it" (and I was avoiding the phrase before it was cool), but this really is a pretty obscure one. It's due north of the Skidmore Bluffs, on the far side of the Going St. road cut, and it has sort of a view of the river from the south end of the park, and there's a small playground and a couple of basketball half-courts at the north end, and those have an unusual origin we'll get to in a bit. The rest of the park is just overgrown brush and trees, though. Supposedly the park's named after a particular madrona tree somewhere in the park, but I don't think I have any photos of it. Or at least there aren't any "This way to the famous madrona tree" signs, so who knows? The city's 2016 guide to official heritage trees doesn't mention any trees here, so maybe it isn't all that special, or the tree just isn't there anymore.

Since the scenery isn't that remarkable, we'll do like we often do here & play amateur historian for a bit. The city notes the land for the park was donated by Amos Benson, son of timber baron Simon Benson. You might know the elder Benson as the namesake of Benson bubblers, Benson High School, the Benson Hotel, Benson State Park at Multnomah Falls, the Simon Benson house on the Portland State campus, and probably a bunch of other things I'm forgetting. Though not as famous, Amos did pretty well for himself too, and a huge historic house of his can be seen next to the new city park at N. Polk & Crawford. So you tend to assume the donation was another act of noble civic-minded philanthropy, but that's not quite what happened.

To get the full story, we have to dive into the library's Oregonian newspaper archives again. Here's the September 16th, 1921 article on the donation of the park. It describes the park's semi-accidental origins:

This property and a few acres north of it was purchased by Mr. and Mrs. Benson from the Portland Gas & Coke company at the time that the county board of commissioners was endeavoring to locate the Greeley-street extension through the property. The gas company began litigation to stop the roadway and the property was then acquired by Mr. and Mrs. Benson for the sole purpose of permitting the roadway to be constructed without the delay that would ensue as a result of any legal battle.

The tract which has been given to the city is a sightly one, overlooking the river and Swan Island. It connects with the proposed boulevard system extending around the city, and is a valuable acquisition in that it will give a park to a section that now has no recreation spot. No playgrounds will be installed, it was announced.

Park Superintendent Keyser noticed the tract and its desirability as a park site. He conferred with Mr. Benson and as a result the donation was made.

Benson owned the land rather briefly before the big philanthropic gesture. Here's a September 14th 1917 article about the proposed Greeley extension, in which Benson is described as a major promoter of the project. Benson, it seems, had no interest in the area except for his precious road, and he quickly pawned the surplus land off on the city as soon as they expressed an interest in the place.

Wanting the land is not the same thing as having plans for it, and it appears the city never had any ideas around what to do with the park beyond not installing a playground. A 1933 guide to city parks said the park was undeveloped but had views over the city airport, which was still on Swan Island at that point. The park's next appearances in the news were due to repeated citizen complaints. A 1937 complaint to the city council stated that the park was continually being torn up by cars, spraying dust everywhere. Then there was another complaint the next year, possibly by the same person, informing the city that the park hadn't been cleaned since 1933 & was overrun with poison ivy. Neither article indicates the city promised to do anything about the park's condition, and the string of complaints seems to end at two, so either the original complainant gave up in 1939, or his annual complaints stopped being newsworthy.

The park itself rarely figured in the news over the next couple of decades, but for a while after World War II the surrounding neighborhood sometimes went by "Madrona Park", I guess that being the sort of name that sells real estate (such that Seattle has a Madrona park & neighborhood of its own, which I had to weed out of search results). It inspires thoughts of nice respectable real estate, on nice level land, laid out in a nice conventional grid. Which is doable in this part of North Portland, but not without a little unsavory help. In 1947 the Oregonian explained how the city used garbage to fill in uneven terrain in the Madrona Park area and other eastside neighborhoods. The article begins “Some of Portland’s best families are living on old potato peelings, coffee grounds, and egg shells.”, which is a pretty great lede. It goes on to explain that improving the landscape with garbage is being done scientifically, not randomly, so there's no cause for concern. I'd never heard of this before, so at some point the city must've stopped bragging about this scientific feat. I was also surprised not to see any angry letters to the editor complaining about the paper hurting property values by publishing this, or wondering if doing this was safe; it would be decades until anyone thought to ask how buildings on top of garbage would hold up in an earthquake. For those of you who don't have a local library card & can't get to the original article, here's a list of spots around town that got the scientific garbage treatment between 1923 and 1947. Some of the intersections listed don't exist today, but presumably did back then:

  • Guilds Lake (now industrial NW Portland), the original site, used until the entire lake was filled in.
  • A former gravel pit at NE 33rd & Fremont
  • Marquam Gulch, now Duniway Park
  • A gravel pit around 37th-38th Avenues & Klickitat & Siskiyou Streets, in the ritzy Alameda neighborhood. You can actually kind of see this one in Google Maps if you turn on terrain view, since it has an even slope stretching over several blocks instead of a steep bluff like the rest of Alameda.
  • Another old gravel pit south of Rose City Golf Course at NE 65th & Tillamook, a few blocks from one of the painted intersections I like to track down now & then.
  • 20th & 21st, Belmont & Yamhill, now Colonel Summers Park
  • Penn St. gulch, to provide a road to the Swan Island airport. I'm guessing this is today's Going St. but I'm not entirely sure.
  • A sand pit somewhere in St. Johns.
  • A gulch at Alberta & Greeley, which would put it right under an Adidas building just north of Madrona Park here (the park, not the neighborhood).
  • A gravel pit at Alberta & 39th, which I think puts it under the Alliance High School campus.
  • A gulch in Overlook park.
  • lastly, the old Mt. Hood Railway cut at 90th & E. Burnside, probably under the religious school that was built there shortly thereafter.
  • The article explains that all future garbage would be sent to the new St. Johns Landfill, which operated until 1991 and is meant to become a park someday.

The park did make another brief appearance in the news in in the summer of 1952, when it hosted one of 3 municipal forest fire lookouts to keep an eye Forest Park across the river, in response to a huge forest fire that had occurred there recently. In other parts of the state, old fire lookouts have been converted into amazing AirBnB rentals, but probably nothing that cool ever existed here.

1964 saw the one big change that's happened to the park over its history, when the city leased a chunk of it to Bess Kaiser Hospital next door for use as a parking lot. Curiously I have not been able to find a single news item about the original lease deal, and not for lack of searching. It's possible they kept the deal really quiet, since since turning parks into parking is rarely a popular move. It's also possible the database search feature is missing links here and there, which I already had grounds to suspect. At some point in the 80s or 90s, I'm almost positive there was an article about city workers coming to look for Madrona Park & not being able to find it, and realizing the part they were looking for was under a parking lot. It would have been easier to lose track of a park back then, in an era of paper records & no GIS systems. I could have sworn the article was about Madrona Park, but no such article shows up in search results no matter how I query for it, so either the search feature's broken or I'm broken, either of which is possible.

By 1968 the hospital wanted to expand further and offered to buy the whole park outright for $33,000. The city turned them down this time, admitting the park was lightly used but was part of the plan for a "Willamette Crest Greenway" connecting Overlook Park to the University of Portland. Most of this land is in public hands now, but it's been 50 years and the proposed greenway hasn't quite happened yet. It still sounds like a good idea, though.

The hospital closed in the late 1990s, and the campus was bought by Adidas in 1999 to be rebuilt as their new North America headquarters. It seems strange now, but less than 20 years ago the paper described the surrounding neighborhood as "struggling". I was about to say this was recent, because 1999 doesn't seem that long ago to me, but I suppose it kind of was. The city's lease arrangement continued with the new neighbors, though the parking lot became basketball courts and a playground, and apparently there is or was a skate park somewhere in the area too.

Which brings us to the present day, and now you know the complete history of yet another weird and unimportant place in Portland, or at least you know a few random anecdotes about it. Plus there's a chance you can now tell your fancy rich friends that they live on garbage, which is always great.

Monday, January 08, 2018

Multnomah Creek Railroad Bridge

Ok, it's time for another installment in the ongoing Columbia Gorge bridge project. This is the one where I take photos of bridges around the Gorge while confused tourists stare at me because an amazing waterfall is right over there behind me and I'm taking photos of an ugly old bridge. Sometimes they bump into me because they're too busy staring at the waterfall. This happens a lot around Multnomah Falls; not only are there hordes of tourists to perplex, but there's a bunch, ok, a batch, of bridges there, and the best spots to take photos of most of them put you right in the way of literally everyone else on Earth, or so it seems. So we've already visited the famous Benson Bridge up by the falls, and the historic highway bridge next to the lodge, and the equally historic (but unloved) viaducts on the highway just east and west of the falls. And we still aren't done; this time we're looking at the 1907 Union Pacific railroad bridge just downstream from the old highway bridge.

The railroad bridge's one semi-notable feature is the wooden sign that gives rail distances to various cities from this point: Going east it's 173 miles to Pendleton, 305 to Spokane, 393 to Boise, while westbound it's 35 to Portland, 177 to Tacoma, 210 to Seattle. If I ran the railroad (which I don't), I would've at least mentioned that this is also a very old rail line, built in 1879-1882 as part of the nation's third transcontinental railroad. Basic math tells us that if the railroad's older than the bridge, there must have been an earlier bridge here. I've never seen any info about the original, but I'm sort of guessing it was your basic wood trestle sort of thing, maybe built in a rush to get the railroad up and running, and it needed replacing after a few decades of Gorge winters. I see that the current railroad bridge on the Sandy River dates to around the same time as this one (1906), so maybe there was a wider project to go back through and modernize the rail line, or it's just that the original bridges all wore out about the same time.

The library's old newspaper database didn't have much to say about this bridge here, which is why I had to guess a lot in the last paragraph. I only came across one semi-interesting bit of trivia connected to the bridge, and it's of a bit more recent vintage: A 1970 Oregonian article about recent improvements at the falls mentions that at one point there were floodlights next to the railroad bridge which illuminated the falls at night. The article says the wiring for the lights was destroyed by a storm in January 1969 when a "glacier" of ice filled the creek from the river all the way to the falls, at one point forming an ice layer up to 40 feet thick & 60 feet wide, damaging the nearby lodge. The state hoped to put the floodlights back into operation before long, but I couldn't find any subsequent mention of the floodlights being restored, and the falls aren't lit at night now, and have never been lit as far back as I can recall, and an image search for "multnomah falls at night" comes back with some artsy long exposure photos but no lights, so I'm sort of guessing the restoration never happened.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Instagram cat photos of 2017

Taz says hi #cat #neko #catsofinstagram

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A recent tradition I've come up with here is that the last post of the year is always a bunch of cat photos. This year I took a lot of cat photos but somehow only posted two to Instagram, so this is a shorter post than usual, but I think they make up for quantity with quality, especially the top one.


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Wednesday, December 20, 2017


So it turns out that today is this humble blog's twelfth birthday. For good or ill, it's finally old enough to get shoved into a junior high locker by larger, cooler blogs. Ten years seemed like a milestone, and nine seemed sorta-milestonesque for some reason, but twelve just seems like it's been around forever. A couple of observations on yet another anniversary:

  • I barely got anything done here this year. 2017 will have -- by far -- the fewest blog posts of any year so far, unless I go on an unprecedented binge in the next week and a half. I've done "keepalive" posts repeatedly just to keep the tradition of at least one post per month going. In those I usually lay out reasons why I don't seem to have any time for this stuff anymore, work responsibilities & an open source project usually being the leading culprits. I'm not sure that's entirely it, though. I've repeatedly found myself opening up Blogger, pulling up a draft post & poking at it for a while, and thinking "Ugh, this is too hard". I don't know if this counts as actual writer's block, or it's just that I did all the easy posts first and I'm left with a collection of posts that need a lot of research and wordsmithing. It's possible I may just start deleting stuff that doesn't look interesting enough to be worth finishing, I dunno.
  • Another reason, certainly, is that 2017 was not a normal year. I spend far too much internet time staring at the latest horrors out of Washington DC. I usually grab my phone first thing every morning to check Twitter and see what Bigly Brother is ranting about now, and generally figure out what's gone from bad to worse while I was asleep. In the very first post here, I called then-president Dubya a "drooling idiot". Twelve years later, he's been replaced by someone far worse, which I would not have believed was even possible back then. I mean, 45 hasn't lied us into a war yet, or cratered the national economy, so Dubya's still the worse president of the two, at least so far. But 45 is likely the worst human being to ever hold the office, and he has plenty of time to pass Bush in the worst president category.

In any case, I have a couple of relevant todo items for next year, which I prefer not to jinx by calling them resolutions. The big one is to spend less time on social media, since it generally doesn't lead to increased happiness, and retweeting the latest awfulness does very little to stop it. Second item is to use at least some of that time here instead. A year ago or so I wrote down an item for 2017 to figure out what I wanted to do about this humble blog going forward. I thought about it for a while & realized I didn't want to stop doing this, but didn't manage to actually do much of it last year. So next year I'll try to make the time. I'd like to wake up on January 1st 2019 with an empty drafts folder, and never again complain about having a pile of unfinished posts, but based on how the last year went I'm only going to call that a stretch goal.

Anyway, happy blogoversary & assorted other holidays.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Anchor Monument, Kelley Point

When a blog post lies around in Drafts for ages, it isn't always because I'm too busy, or I'm procrastinating, or just lazy, or what have you. Sometimes it's because, try as I might, I'm unable to find any useful information about the subject of the post. Several years ago I did a post about North Portland's Kelley Point Park, where the Willamette River flows into the Columbia. At the far tip of the point you'll find the anchor shown above; it's either an old but real anchor or a sculpture of an anchor, and I don't know which because there wasn't a sign or a label or any indication of who made it or who put it there, much less why. The usual practice here is that public art gets its own blog post, apart from the one about the park it's in, so I duly created a draft post for the anchor. But all these years later I still don't know anything about it, and it's not for lack of searching.

My one and only hypothesis goes something like this: The park was originally created in 1973 by the Port of Portland, after dumping a bunch of soil there from a dredging project. I bet the anchor dates to around that time, before the city took it over in 1984. I bet they just sort of thought the tip of the point deserved something decorative, and an anchor was the obvious choice for a park owned by the local port district. Maybe they just made the anchor in house & didn't really think of it as fancy public art, which would explain why it's not in any of the usual inventory databases. They may not have even kept records about it. That's just a hypothesis, mind you. If I ever find out what the deal is, I'll update the post, though I wouldn't hold my breath waiting around for that if I were you. And as always, feel free to leave a note here if you know anything more about it.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Tunnel Point

Ok, next up we're visiting Tunnel Point, a little scenic viewpoint on I-84 at the west end of the Columbia Gorge. It's only accessible to westbound traffic, so I've driven past it countless times on my way home to Portland from somewhere else. It just never seemed compelling enough to stop for, until I realized I'd never been there, and then it became a must-do. There's an interesting view of the Gorge from here, plus a navigational light, a railroad tunnel on the far side of the freeway (thus the name "Tunnel Point"), and an old historical marker that explains this is roughly the furthest point upriver that the George Vancouver expedition got to back in 1792. There aren't any trails starting here, so there's not much of a reason to stick around once you've taken in the view. Still, there's some interesting (at least to me) history here that that the marker doesn't mention.

Before the freeway went in, Tunnel Point was a huge rock formation jutting out into the river. Two photos shared by the Oregon State Archives show what it used to look like before it was deemed to be in the way of progress. Or more precisely, it was right in the way of a modern new highway route that became I-84. So the whole rock was dynamited and quarried and hauled away as building material for the new road. I'd never heard of this before and it isn't obvious (to me, a non-geologist) that the cliff face across the freeway is a recent creation. So I was skeptical at first. If you look at the area in Google Maps with terrain view enabled, though, it becomes clear that the landscape here isn't quite natural.

An odd thing about the original Columbia River Highway is that although it was a marvel of early 20th century engineering, it was also obsolete essentially from the day it opened. As the only paved road heading east out of Portland, it was quickly choked with traffic, and the road's twists and turns made it a white knuckle experience, not the relaxing scenic drive it was meant to be. Less than twenty years after it opened, Portland civic boosters were already calling for rerouting and modernizing the road. A May 5th 1935 Oregonian article explained the many benefits of a water-level route for what was then called the Bonneville Highway, in honor of the new dam. Costs were initially estimated at just under $5 million.

An April 4th 1937 article gushed about the proposed new water-grade highway route, and this time featured several sketches of what the modern highway of the future would look like. These generally resemble what was actually built, but the initial 1937 plan would have put a deep, narrow road cut through Tunnel Point rather than leveling it entirely. I haven't located a record of exactly when or why the plan changed, but it probably had to do with switching to a four lane design, or realizing the original road cut design was a recipe for near-constant rockslides. At this point the price tag had risen to $12 million.

Construction began in 1938, but was suspended in 1942, presumably due to World War II. So for the next five years, visitors to the Gorge were treated to the sight of a half-finished, semi-abandoned highway to nowhere. Construction finally resumed in 1947, and a October 5th 1947 article reminded the public that the new(ish) highway was going to be really great, and the state really was going to see it through to completion this time, honest. The article includes several photos, including one looking west from Crown Point in which you can still see Tunnel Point before it was completely leveled. (Though an October 1941 article mentioned that Tunnel Point quarrying was already in progress at that time.) This article did not mention a price tag.

The first new segment of the highway opened to the public in 1949. In an August 7th 1949 article, the Oregonian explained that the shiny new highway really was as great as promised, and tried to reassure concerned readers that the new road still offered scenic vistas and had not ruined the Gorge as feared. In fact, the article explained, a couple of new vistas had been created, including the Tunnel Point viewpoint. In total, around 150,000 cubic yards of rock were excavated from Tunnel Point to make it what it is today.

The navigational light was a later addition. It was built in 1965 to replace lights further upriver at Rooster Rock, which had been destroyed by the winter floods of 1964.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Gorton Creek Bridge

While I was visiting Gorton Creek Falls (which we saw in the previous post) I took a quick peek at the small, circa-1919 Gorton Creek Bridge nearby. One of my numerous ongoing projects here involves tracking down old bridges from the original Columbia River Highway, and this is yet another of them, albeit maybe not one of the crown jewels. Still, the project wouldn't be complete without finding it, so here we are.

As I mentioned in a post about the Shepperds Dell Bridge a while back, the state highway commission had around 4 bridge designers working on different parts of the highway. This one was designed by Lewis W. Metzger, who's also credited with the nice little arch bridge at Eagle Creek, and a larger one at Moffett Creek that I haven't gotten around to posting about yet, plus a few others I haven't visited, and a couple that no longer exist, like one in Hood River that was demolished & replaced in 1982.

The highway commission biennial report for 1916-1917 mentioned that this bridge was budgeted at $2500, which is about $53,600 in today's dollars. Which seems pretty cheap for a concrete bridge that's held up for nearly a century. (The most expensive item on the list was $250,000 for the now-replaced Center Street Bridge in Salem. Metzger worked on that bridge too, so I imagine the Gorton Creek project was a bit of an afterthought.)

A downside of building a no-frills bridge is that it was made just wide enough for early 20th century cars, and it lacks sidewalks. In practice this isn't a huge problem, as this stretch of ex-highway is lightly traveled and the bridge is short so you can just wait & walk across when nobody's coming. On the other hand, ODOT is in the middle of their big-budget Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail project, which aims to create a shiny new bike-friendly, tourist-friendly route from Portland out to the Dalles or so. This bridge is on the route, but ODOT felt it wasn't up to the job, bike-wise, so in 2015 they started looking at adding a new bike/pedestrian bridge next to the current bridge. Construction was targeted at fall 2016, but eventually began in August 2017, and it's not clear now whether they're adding a bike-only bridge in parallel, or replacing the whole thing. If it's the latter, it wouldn't be a major loss in terms of sheer beauty or historic preservation, let's be honest here. In any case, the latest project newsletter indicates construction is ongoing, so evidently this area wasn't heavily impacted by the Eagle Creek Fire.

Gorton Creek Falls

I was taking another wary glance at my vast Drafts folder and realized I had a number of unfinished posts about places around the Columbia River Gorge. I feel like I ought to finish them up now, as a small record of what the Gorge was like before the Eagle Creek Fire.

So first up are some photos of Gorton Creek Falls, in the Wyeth area east of Cascade Locks. I took these in July 2015; it was the first time I'd ever been to this particular waterfall, so I went by the description of the hike, and instructions on how to find the trailhead. (Note there's also a remote & difficult Gorton Creek Trail that goes nowhere near the falls, so it's best not to confuse the two hikes.) The one thing to watch out for is an intersection with the east-west Gorge Trail not far into the hike. There are signs for various trails heading off to the left and right at this point, but the trail going straight ahead is unmarked for some reason. The unmarked trail is the one to the waterfall. It starts out as a nice well-maintained trail, but before long you'll be clambering over rocks and tree roots as you make your way upstream to the falls. It's sort of the same category as Oneonta Gorge that way, except that you don't absolutely have to wade through the creek. I made it without getting my feet wet, but this was in late July during a dry summer, and your mileage may vary. It was kind of fun, and the falls were worth the effort. I didn't say as long as I'd have liked to, though, because a sign at the parking lot said a Northwest Forest Pass was required, and I couldn't figure out where to pay my $5, so I kind of rolled the dice and hoped I could get out & back before they ticketed or towed me. Luckily that turned out ok, but again, your mileage may vary.

There's no such thing as an undiscovered hike in the Gorge anymore, but Gorton Creek was surprisingly uncrowded when I was there, probably just because it's just that much further from Portland than the more famous Gorge attractions. If this was located where Oneonta Gorge or even Eagle Creek is, it would probably be packed all summer.