Portland sits near the confluence of two of the West’s mightiest rivers, the Columbia and the Willamette. Local Native Americans (referred to in general as the Chinook people) have lived along these rivers for millennia, finding the area rich for hunting, fishing, and trade. At an ancient campsite south of Portland, human hair and a cache of animal bones have been dated to 10,000 B.C.
Sauvie Island, northwest of the current city limits, was the site of a Native American village whose name inspired William Clark to christen the nearby river the Willamette in 1805. Clark explored the mouth of the Willamette and viewed the future site of Portland, noting that the area “is in fact the only desirable situation for a settlement on the western side of the Rocky Mountains, and, being naturally fertile, would, if properly cultivated, afford subsistence for 40,000 or 50,000 souls.”
In 1825 the Hudson’s Bay Company established Fort Vancouver across the Columbia River, bringing French and Scottish trappers into the area, some of whom retired around what would eventually become Portland. The city was officially born when two New Englanders, Pettygrove from Portland, Maine, and Lovejoy from Boston, Massachusetts, flipped a coin at a dinner party to decide who would name the 640-acre claim they co-owned. The state-of-Mainer won and decided in the winter of 1844–1845 to name it after his birthplace. The original claim is located in the vicinity of SW Naito Parkway.
Unsurprisingly, given its location, Portland’s early growth was fueled by shipping and trade. The California gold rush of 1849 and the building of San Francisco demanded lumber, which was routed through the fledgling port city on the Willamette River. At the same time, Oregon Trail settlers brought agriculture to the Willamette Valley, and mining and ranching developed throughout the inland West. Each industry demanded a coastal city for trade, and Portland became that mercantile and shipping center for much of the Northwest. Portland thus quickly transitioned from a sleepy village, nicknamed “Stumptown” for the massive tree stumps remaining after the forests were cleared, to the largest trade and population center in the Northwest.
Portland’s primacy was solidified when the Northern Pacific Railroad arrived in 1883, linking Portland and the Pacific Northwest to the rest of the country. Three years later, Portland and San Francisco were linked by rail. Grain poured into Portland from the Columbia basin and as far away as Montana. By 1890, Portland was one of the world’s largest wheat-shipping points.
The first bridges were built across the Willamette in the late 1880s, and the city spread eastward. Portland’s population increased fivefold between 1880 and 1900.
During the 20th century, Portland enjoyed steady growth. In 1905 the city felt like throwing a party and hosted a world’s fair–type event called the Lewis and Clark Exposition. An estimated 3 million people attended this centennial celebration of the famed Corps of Discovery expedition, establishing Portland as the gateway to Asia for American business and trade. Already a fast-growing city, Portland positively boomed in the years following the exposition, with its population nearly tripling in just five years. By 1910, Portland had grown to a metropolis of a quarter million people, making it the largest city in the Northwest.
The world wars brought major economic expansion to Portland, much of it related to resource exploitation. In the early years of the century, logging of the great forests of the Northwest began in earnest; by World War II, Oregon had become the nation’s largest lumber producer, with many of the wood products passing through Portland’s rail- and shipyards.
Also during World War II, military shipyards and light manufacturing brought the city another flood of immigrants. A large number of these new residents were African Americans, the first influx of nonwhite settlers in Oregon’s history (it was only in 1926 that the state legislature repealed an 1859 law excluding blacks from the state). The influx of workers to the shipbuilding factories was so great that an entire new city, called Vanport, was created in 1944 to house them. Unwisely built on a Columbia River flood plain, in 1948 a wall of water burst through a dike and destroyed Vanport, killing 18 people and leaving almost 20,000 homeless.
From the 1960s onward, Portland, and western Oregon in general, has seen a new migration of settlers. Educated, idealistic, and politically progressive, these newcomers from the eastern states and California served to tilt the city’s political balance toward a liberal and environmental stance beginning in the 1970s and continuing through today.
by Judy Jewell and W. C. McRae from Moon Oregon, 8th Edition, © Elizabeth & Mark Morris and Avalon Travel