Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Governors Park expedition

Governors Park

Governors Park

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Some photos of Governors Park [map], in the West Hills right next door to downtown Portland. I'd seen this place on city maps before, but I'd never been there, and I'd never heard or read anything about it. I figured it was a short walk from the office, so I'd pop up there on my lunch hour-or-so and check it out. Well, it's a short but rather steep uphill walk, but hey, I'm young and healthy and all that. If you take the most direct route from downtown, it's also a steep uphill walk along a narrow single-lane one-way street with no sidewalks. Maybe that's your idea of fun, but if not, avoid SW College Street.


ivy, governors park

As with Kelly Butte, the city parks department has very little to say about the place. It "includes natural area", and has been owned by the city since 1894, when the land was donated by Gov. Sylvester Pennoyer [also see here and here] and his wife. So the city's owned it for over a hundred years, and they've done basically nothing to the place in all that time.

This large pdf from the city describes the park thusly:

Governors Park, located in the northern part of the site, is six acres in size and has a stand of mature Douglas fir. This park provides wildlife habitat, marks the top of the hill and creates a gateway into the neighborhoods on each side of it. All of these elements contribute to the urban design and quality of the area.

The "gateway" bit is just design-junkie blather, but the Douglas fir trees at least are real, for whatever that's worth. Several are right on SW Davenport, so if you're from out of town and you've never seen a Douglas fir before, I guess you could drive by here and take a quick peek. Or you could go to any of half a million other locations around the city. Ok, so maybe if you were from out of town, and you wanted to see a Douglas fir, and you were staying with friends in the neighborhood, and had to catch a flight in a few hours so you didn't have time to go anywhere else, maybe this would be your ideal spot. Possibly. If you are, in fact, a Douglas fir, this might be a decent place to put down roots. In case you needed advice on that subject from a clueless mammal, I mean.

Governors Park

Once you get there you'll notice that, like Kelly Butte, there's no sign from the city parks department letting you know you've found it. If you didn't know what you were looking for, you'd probably just assume it's another unbuildable vacant lot like you see all over the West Hills. If you stop and take a look around, like I did, you'll quickly realize that it is basically an unbuildable vacant lot, just one that happens to be owned by the city parks department. There's a trail, probably unofficial, leading into the park from SW Davenport. I followed it a short way into the park before deciding I'd really rather not slip and tumble down the slope. See the slope in photo #4? As far as I was able to tell, the whole park is like that: Extremely steep, forested hillsides, choked to the gills with invasive ivy. Unless there are undiscovered urban delights somewhere in the park that I didn't get to (which I doubt), it looks like Pennoyer saddled the city with a white elephant (albeit a small and obscure one) which it can neither use nor dispose of. The city's response over the last 112 years seems to have been to spend as little money as possible on the place, and send city resources anywhere but here. That's my guess, at any rate.

A trails guide at ExplorePDX describes the park this way:

Undeveloped park has no good routes within it, but the routes in both directions on Davenport have many nice loops with spectacular views of the city and many small parks and long sets of stairs.

Which is true. The surrounding neighborhood is actually much more scenic and interesting than the park itself. I think the phrase "the journey is the reward" is really trite, but it does sort of apply here.

Governors Park

This all begs the question: Why did our esteemed governor donate the land? Did he honestly think it was going to be useful to the city somehow, someday? Or was he shedding a piece of "junk" land he couldn't use, and taking the tax writeoff? Or perhaps he had a house nearby, and the donation was to ensure nobody would ever build a house there and block his view. Or possibly one of his many archenemies lived next to the park, and Pennoyer donated the land so its trees would be protected and eventually grow to block so-and-so's view. That sounds like something he'd try to pull. Perhaps someone knows about this, but it doesn't seem to be on the net anywhere.

After doing a bit of reading about the guy, I'm not inclined to think he acted out of noble, selfless civic-mindedness. His usual M.O. consisted of populist appeals to the baser instincts in human nature, most prominently his anti-Chinese campaign [Also see the telegram his note is in reply to.]. Chinese-bashing was 1890s Oregon's version of today's Mexican-bashing, with the same arguments about the jobs of US citizens being undercut by cheap foreign labor.

In his inaugural address, Pennoyer touched on a wide range of subjects, including such uncontroversial ones as preventing the fraudulent sale of margarine as butter, and restricting salmon fishing for conservation purposes (which we didn't listen to, of course). But then he has to go and say this sort of thing about Chinese immigrants:

Irrevocably devoted to their paganism idolatry, superstition and practices, they are entirely unassimilative with our people, blind to the progressive spirit of our race, unappreciative of our institutions and deaf to the demands and influences of Christianity, and their presence amongst us is only corruption of society, debasing to morals and degrading to labor. Can the State do anything toward ridding itself of these undesirable aliens?

Throughout his career, he combined vicious racial attitudes with relatively progressive, anti-elitist rhetoric about monopolies, labor, the railroads, and so forth. This mix seems odd to us today, but it wasn't at all unusual in 19th and early 20th century politics. Even into the 1960s you'd see this sort of thing in Southern states -- see Orval Faubus for one well-known example. It's sad to say this, but up until quite recently our Democratic Party was often not a party of high and noble sentiments.

Some articles about Pennoyer's peevish, vindictive meddling with the police and water bureaus, his efforts to block construction of the first Morrison Bridge, and even his partisan feud with President Benjamin Harrison. He was also the first to propose a state income tax, which you can regard as good or ill, depending on your own inclinations. He litigated a couple of feuds all the way to the US Supreme Court: Pennoyer v. McConnaughy, and Neff v. Pennoyer. The latter case is apparently a dreaded law school staple, and it's been feared and reviled by generations of aspiring lawyers. The judge in both cases was prompted to give him the nickname "Sylpester Annoyer".

I wouldn't have voted for the guy back then, and granting him any form of official commemoration in this day and age is kind of an iffy prospect, IMHO.

The park's merely called "Governors" park, plural, no apostrophe, so the place is not really a monument to ol' Sylvester, specifically. Although as memorials go, a useless, misbegotten scrap of land with a weird story behind it would seem to be a fitting tribute. The Annoyer does, however, have a small street named after him. Pennoyer St. currently runs for about a block in the Corbett neighborhood, but another segment of the street will open in the South Waterfront area, so in the near future a lot of rich people will boast Pennoyer St. as their ultra-ritzy home address. The surrounding streets are named after early governors of Oregon 1845-1877. Pennoyer's the exception here. In fact, he was governor at the time. Eugene Snyder's authoritative Portland Names and Neighborhoods suggests that city officials were trying to suck up to the esteemed governor. No word on whether it worked or not.

Governors Park

Updated 9/1/06: I was at the Central Library downtown today and among the reference books I came across an unwieldy set of binders containing the city's Historic Resource Inventory, dated May 1984. Here's what the book had to say about Governors Park:

0-204-01292 [I imagine this is an ID number of some sort.]
1292 SW Davenport St.
Grover's, Tax Lot 32, 5.32 acres
Quarter section map # 3227
Negative 762-22 [the id of the photo on the Governors Park page, I assume. The copy in the binder is b/w and grainy, but perhaps the original is more high-res. Still, the photo showed trees and grass, maybe less overgrown than what's there in 2006, but not hugely different.]

The park item gives a mini-bio of Gov. Pennoyer, and then continues on about the park:

Pennoyer was Pportland's mayor from 1896-1898 and donated a six acre tract in the West Hills for a city park in 1894. Another acre was given by the couple in 1898, and another in 1901. Governor's Park (named after Governor Pennoyer) was deeded to the city under five deeds all for park purposes only. Three of the deeds were from the Pennoyer's [sic], thr first of which restricted the property to a public park only and the other two deeds were additions to said park. It was further stipulated that the park was to be named "Governor's Park". The fourth deed was from the First National Bank of Portland, Oregon as an addition to Governor's Park. The County subsequently conveyed the same property to the City for park purposes only. There is no reversion clause in the deeds.

This still doesn't answer the question of what the park was intended to be for, and raises others. For example, if the city's math is right, the total acreage donated adds up to be at least 8 acres, significantly more than the 5.32 reported in 1984, or the 5.41 reported on the current Parks website. The discrepancy is not explained. The only clue is the "no reversion clause" bit, which tells us that even though the deeds restricted the land to be used solely for park purposes, the land wouldn't revert to the previous owner if the city didn't abide by the deed restrictions. Either the city's math was wrong back in '84, or some of the land is now under some of the surrounding houses. The latter wouldn't really surprise me. Otherwise, why would they bother mentioning reversion at all?

It's interesting to note the use of the apostrophe in "Governor's", and Pennoyer's insistence on the name. Looks like the first donation was a gift to the city shortly before he ran (successfully) for mayor, and he insisted it be named after his recent, very powerful position, so everyone was clear on who had provided this wonderful new park for the public's enjoyment. Talk about a self-serving donation. Sheesh. The city and the mapmakers no longer use the apostrophe, suggesting that it honors all governors, not jut the one weird bigoted wingnut who donated the land.

At least that's one way to read this. The description I quoted above also wrongly adds an apostrophe when referring to Pennoyer and his wife, calling them the "Pennoyer's". So I'm not sure how much faith we can place in the apostrophe in "Governor's" either.

The city's notes on some surounding properties include these tidbits:
  • The area was "originally" part of the Thomas J. Carter donation land claim. There's a Carter St. in the vicinity, honoring the area's first European landowner.
  • The park spans the address range between 1291 and 1411 SW Davenport.
  • At one time, the area was part of a farm operated by the Sisters of the Holy Name, who also operated St. Mary's Academy.
  • The area was developed as single-family housing in the late '30s thru 1942.
  • Before development, the area was full of fruit orchards.
  • The area was developed by Milo McIver, who purchased the land from the nuns.
  • McIver also extended SW Davenport, extending it east from its original terminus at the park.
Amusingly, Milo McIver (a one-time state highway commissioner) has a park named after him as well. It's a state park out near Estacada, and is vastly larger than Pennoyer's pet project here, although the state refers to the place as little-known. It's perhaps best known for hosting 1970's Vortex I hippiefest, sponsored by the state government to get the hippies out of town during the American Legion convention. They could have all the sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll they wanted, so long as they didn't protest the war. And the hippies fell for it, and even now they go on about what a wonderful event it was. Stupid hippies.

Updated 7/7/08: I was looking back over some of my old posts, and it occurred to me that the photos for this post didn't really measure up, by my present-day standards. So I figured I'd hoof it up to the park and take a new batch, and generally take a look around, and update this post accordingly. So, ok, the new photos are here now and I think they're a big improvement. (The original two are still here, right after the first paragraph.) Not much new to say about the place, though. Nothing's changed, as far as I can tell. I didn't go any further into the park than I did last time around, although not for lack of wanting to. Unless there's a still-undiscovered secret way into the place, I just don't know how you'd go about it without tumbling down a steep ivy-choked hillside. Then you'd have to call for help, whether by mobile phone or that old-fashioned "shouting" business, and wait to be rescued, and then have to explain to the waiting TV news cameras that you were at the park either a.) blogging about it, or b.) visiting because you saw it on some random blog out on the interwebs. Either way, it would be awfully embarrassing. In any case, the rest of the photos are on Flickr here.

Updated 3/14/11: Thanks to the Multomah County Library's magical Oregonian Historical Archive, a bit more info about the park can be relayed. We're at least going to learn more about the stated reasons behind the park, whatever the actual ones might have been.

A September 9, 1898 article describes the then-new park. The article isn't very legible due to the page not being entirely flat on the scanner, but it describes the park as "very sightly", with great views of the city & the Cascades, with occasional glimpses of Pennoyer himself toiling away on his farm next door. The article predicts the park will become a favorite, and suggests it will get streetcar service in the near future.

A few days later, on September 11, 1898, the paper ran a long article giving an overview of the city park system. It describes the park:

Governor's Park is quite a recent addition to the city's public lands. Two acres of this were presented by Sylvester Pennoyer, December 29, 1894, at the time he went out of office as governor, and he added another acre to it June 28, 1898, just before he left the mayor's chair. It is a small but sightly piece of land on Portland Heights, sloping toward the north, with a tiny view of the city and the river from its summit. Cedar and maple are scattered over the hillside, crimson-berried dogwood crowd downward into the gulch, and one towering fir rises grandly toward the clouds. In order to reach this park one must take the cable up Portland Heights, getting off at Spring street, where the car turns westward, walk two blocks east, one block south, and take the winding path that goes around the hill toward the east. Then turn south and descend to Davenport street, which ends abruptly at a big gate. On the other side of this gate is Governor's Park.

October 28, 1911 saw a proposal to rename the park "Pennoyer Park" after the now-late governor. The article mentions that a daughter of his proposed to donate a memorial fountain in his honor should the name change be accepted. Previously, on February 17, 1909, the proposal was listed along with various others that have mostly not come to pass: Renaming City Park to Jefferson Park (after rejecting Lewis & Clark) -- the park later became Washington Park. The Park Blocks would have been called "the Park Way North" and "the Park Way South". The Plaza Blocks got their current names at this time, and the little parks in Ladd's Addition were proposed to be Ladd Circle, Maple Square, Cypress Square, Orange Square, and Mulberry Square. Other than Ladd Circle I don't know if these names were adopted or not.

November 1, 1911 saw a rather hysterical article titled "RUIN OF SITE FEARED", subtitled "BOARD TO TRY TO SAVE GOVERNOR'S PARK". There was a proposal to extend Davenport through the park, and people were afraid the park would soon be carved up by additional streets. Subsequent articles indicate that the proposal was denied at the time.

By January 5, 1912, local residents were becoming impatient with the city's inaction with regard to the park:

PARK IMPROVEMENT ASKED. - Citizens of Portland Heights and vicinity have petitioned the Park Board to take immediate action to improve what is now known as Governor's Park. Nothing has been done with this property, which was given by the Pennoyers years ago. The petition is signed by H.D. Chambers, L.B. Menefee, and W.D. Mercereau as a committee from the Heights Club.

There's no record of the city acting on this petition, and mentions of the park taper off after 1912. An overview of the city park system on July 30, 1933 describes it as "Four acres, picnic grounds, underbrush cleared out for hiking, beautiful view, overlooking city to east". So not much happened in the 21 years after the petition, but the park appears to have had more amenities in 1933 than it does now.

There are only two mentions of the park in the Oregonian after that. One is -- supposedly -- on April 29, 1939, but I don't see it anywhere on the page, which is mostly devoted to religion stories. And then it appears on October 25, 1970 on a combination parks map and Frank Ivancie campaign ad. And after that, nothing.

It's really kind of a sad story. It appears that hopes were really high for the park in the beginning. But then the city never got around to improving the place, and within a few years it fell off everyone's radar. And it's remained there ever since, over a century at this point.


Anonymous said...

Hey, thanks, very interesting. I live in the neighborhood and never knew all this!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post. I live in the neighborhood and sought out this park yesterday. Not even a sign there so I wasn't sure I even found it! Such a shame it's so neglected. I live in the neighborhood and would like to see the city put some effort into this park. Any idea who I can lobby?

Anonymous said...

You are hilarious. Thank you for the entertaining history and take on this peculiar park. Saves me a trip.

Peter said...

Governors Park rocks every were is green and pleasant outstanding blog

Jimmy Lindsay said...

I lived in the neighborhood growing up. We used to build mountain biking trails in the park. I'm sure there's some evidence of those trails under the ivy.