Early Towns and Cities


For about a decade, Oregon City was Oregon’s capital and largest city. Oregon City had three things going for it that secured its place in history: it had a prime location at Willamette Falls that provided reliable power for its mills, it had the first courthouse and land office west of the Rockies, and (in large part because of these two factors) it became the end of the Oregon Trail. The residents of Oregon City worked hard to enhance these advantages, but the town’s glory years soon faded as settlers spread out and founded other metropoles with their own competitive advantages. Portland, still affectionately known to locals by its old, perhaps somewhat less than affectionate nickname of “Stumptown,” was a mere upstart in its infancy, one of many towns competing to become the premiere city in Oregon.

Steamboats have plied the Willamette since 1850, and they were the primary means of transporting people and goods over long distances before the coming of the railroads. However, with the notable exception of the unfortunate steamer Claire, which was swept over Willamette Falls in the flood of 1860, there was no easy way to get a boat past the waterfalls at Oregon City. The town of Canemah, now a district of Oregon City, was founded in 1845 as the upper terminal of the portage around the falls, and a wooden-railed portage railroad was built in 1861 from Canemah to Oregon City.

Robert Moore began developing Robin’s Nest across the river from Oregon City in 1840. By 1845, he was operating a ferry to Oregon City and renting tents to immigrants arriving on the Oregon Trail. Robin’s Nest was renamed Linn City in honor of Senator Lewis Linn of Missouri, who spent several years promoting the annexation of the Oregon Country to his fellow congressmen. In 1854, the town became West Linn after a fire destroyed the business district and it was rebuilt a short ways west of its original location.

Attempts began in 1852 to build a canal around Willamette Falls on the West Linn side. Robert Moore’s enterprise at Robin’s Nest grew to include a boat basin and moorage, but no canal. Ben Holladay, owner of the portage railroad, negotiated for a contract to build locks on the Oregon City side but lost. The Willamette Falls Canal and Lock Company of West Linn won the contract in 1868. To receive their $450,000 payment, the canal and locks had to be opened by January 1, 1873. Construction lasted nine months using rock quarried in Carver, the same quarry that supplied the stone used to build several of Portland’s most celebrated structures. When the owners attempted to rent a steamboat to open the locks, they found that all the boats in the area were already rented to Holladay. A boat was found in Washington Territory and brought to Oregon City, only to become grounded at the sandbar at the mouth of the Clackamas River. The boat was freed, cleared the locks, and the money was awarded. Today, the locks are operated toll free by the Army Corps of Engineers.

Where Oregon City’s chief advantage was Willamette Falls, it soon became clear that its biggest disadvantage was the river itself. As Oregon became an attractive port of call for large, ocean-going ships, the river proved too shallow for them. The mouth of the Clackamas River was the worst spot, as a perennially shifting sandbar formed where the two rivers flowed together. It became apparent some other city was destined to become Oregon’s chief port.

Multnomah City, Oswego, and Milwaukie, all located along the Willamette River between Oregon City and Portland, threw their metaphorical hats in the ring, but none of them was able to build a network of roads to tap the population and agricultural production of the surrounding hinterlands. Multnomah City was next to Linn City and was later incorporated into it despite the prediction of Joel Palmer, 1845 partner of Sam Barlow, that it would outlive Linn City. Oswego was started by an Oregon City sawmill operator, and the entire town was sold in 1865 to the owner of the Oswego Milling Company. Milwaukie was founded by Lot Whitcomb and named for Milwaukee, Wisconsin (the spelling variation was intentional). The first steamboat on the Willamette, the Lot Whitcomb, was built in Milwaukie in 1850 by Henderson Leuelling. His brother Seth Lewelling (again, note the spelling) was a noted horticulturist who nursed a wagon load of fruit trees across the Oregon Trail and started one of the first orchards in the Willamette Valley.

There were other contenders for Oregon City’s crown. East Portland was originally inhabited in 1829, making it as old as Oregon City. It was sold in 1845 for $200, incorporated five years later, and became part of Portland in 1891. Linnton, another town named for Senator Linn, was laid out in 1843 by Peter Burnett of Champoeg and Morton M. McCarver of Oregon City. Burnett stated, “I have no doubt that this place will be the great commercial town of the territory.” Hoping to tap trade with the Tualatin Valley, a road graded up Cornelius Pass proved impassable and their venture failed. Burnett went to California to become their first governor. An 1843 pioneer settler of Linnton, James John, moved across the river and started St. Johns in 1865. It became part of Portland in 1915, two years before Linnton joined the growing city. Saint Helens was founded in 1845 at the tip of Sauvie Island in the Columbia River by Captain H.M. Knighton, but a devastating fire destroyed the city’s chances of competing with Portland.

Portland itself was founded by two Easterners, Francis Pettygrove and Asa Lovejoy. Pettygrove was from Portland, Maine. He came to Oregon in 1842 by ship with his sister, Mary, and Mary’s husband, Philip Foster. Mary Foster brought with her a lilac start which survived the journey and is still growing in front of the Foster House on the Barlow Road in Eagle Creek. Lovejoy was an overlander from Boston. He came to Oregon with the Elijah White party of 1842, guided Marcus Whitman east that winter, and returned to Oregon with the Great Migration of 1843, the wagon train that is generally considered to have opened the Oregon Trail.

The original inhabitant of what was to become Portland was William Johnson. He settled there in 1842, but he had no intent to establish a city and soon moved across the river to start a sawmill on Johnson Creek. On their way to Fort Vancouver in November 1843, William Overton and Asa Lovejoy pulled their canoes ashore on the western bank of the Willamette long enough to claim 640 acres in Lovejoy’s name. Overton become the proprietor for Lovejoy, who remained an absentee owner. He took half the claim as his payment and promptly sold it to Pettygrove for $50. Pettygrove had been a successful merchant in Maine and was enjoying similar success in the Oregon Country running the Red House Store in Oregon City and a warehouse in Champoeg. In 1844, he built a log house on what would become the Portland waterfront.

Lovejoy and Pettygrove platted their new city in 1845. Both men wanted to name it for their respective hometowns. Following a dinner in the Oregon City home of Francis Ermatinger, an HBC employee and Treasurer of the Oregon Provisional Government, a penny was flipped. Pettygrove won and saved future Portlanders from being known as New Bostonians. Portland’s first settler was Captain John Couch, who built a wharf and allowed the young city to begin to live up to its name.

Lovejoy remained in Oregon City and sold his half of the townsite to Benjamin Stark in 1845. Daniel Lownsdale, who had built a tannery in 1847 where Civic Stadium is located today, bought out Pettygrove for $5000. Lownsdale eventually owned all of Portland. Pettygrove moved north into present-day Washington and founded Port Townsend.

Under Lownsdale’s influence, Portland actively sought to attract businesses and customers to patronize them. Merchants sent delegations to The Dalles and Eagle Creek to distract immigrants from Oregon City, and a road was blazed from Portland to Foster’s Farm in Eagle Creek so they wouldn’t have to pass through Oregon City at all. Portland grew so fast that tree stumps were left in the middle of the roads because no one could spare the time to tend to their removal. Local residents quickly found they could jump from stump to stump and stay above the muddy, unpaved streets — hence the name “Stumptown.” They went so far as to whitewash the stumps to make them more visible.

In 1853, a corduroy road was completed up Canyon Creek to tap the growing populations in the Tualatin and Yamhill Valleys. This access to prime farmland was key to Portland’s success, as it allowed the town to become the hub of transport and commerce in the area. In 1855, a fruit peddler from Yamhill by the name of Aaron Meier brought his merchandise over the road. Twelve years later he teamed with Sigmund Frank to create Oregon’s oldest retail house, Meier and Frank.

The late 1860s began a cultural heyday in Portland. Theaters such as the Oro Fino and New Market opened. Henry Pittock bought the local newspaper, the Oregonian, and built a fine mansion. Harvey Scott was his editor. Scott was against free silver, free high schools, and women’s suffrage. In one of those truth-is-stranger-than-fiction twists of history, Scott’s outspoken sister, Abigail Scott Duniway, became the state’s leading suffragette and the first woman to vote in Oregon.

While the cultural scene in Portland was developing, the waterfront was crammed with rooming houses, saloons, bawdy houses, and an underground of professional shanghaiers. By 1873, Chinese were arriving by the boatload, a seemingly endless supply of cheap labor. That same year a fire destroyed 30 city blocks.

The late 1870s saw the start of a business boom. Portland saw the construction of banks, warehouses, wholesale grocers, brokerages, commission houses, corporations, and transportation companies. Captain Ainsworth owned the Oregon Steam Navigation Company; Henry Corbett ran the California Stage Line; Simeon Reed and William Ladd owned seventeen farms. By the turn of the century, Portland was the terminus for steamboat transportation on the Willamette and Columbia, a major port in transpacific shipping, and enjoyed the services of three transcontinental railroads.

From its original one square mile along the Willamette’s west shore, Portland spread south across Marquam Creek and Palatine Hill and west up Marquam Hill and into the West Hills. Judge Philip Marquam, builder of the Grand Opera House, earned a reputation as “the father of good roads” in Oregon. Marquam Hill was originally the property of the Oregon-California Railroad, but a land swap brought the University of Oregon Medical School to the hill and made room trackside to build Union Station.

Portland really began to boom when it started to annex settlements on the east side of the river. In 1891, East Portland and Albina were added. A real estate development named for Reverend Sellwood was annexed in 1893, and further east was Ladd’s Addition. North of Portland came St. Johns in 1915 and Linnton in 1917.

The expansion to the east side of the river soon overwhelmed the capacity of the ferries that had been established, necessitating the construction of bridges to connect the two halves of the growing city. The first was built in 1887, and there are today no fewer than eleven spans crossing the Willamette between Oregon City and the Columbia River. One has two separate lift spans, one for highway traffic and another for railroads. Another was so artfully designed that San Francisco copied it to build the Golden Gate Bridge.

The crowning glories of Portland’s boom years were two adjacent structures built of the same rock as the Willamette Falls Locks. Pioneer Post Office replaced the original log post office built in 1849, and next door was the Queen Anne Chateau-style Portland Hotel, considered a minor masterpiece when it was finished in 1890. Sadly, it fell into disrepair and was razed to make room for Pioneer Courthouse Square, a public space greatly beloved of modern Portlanders.