“Welcome to the theater of majestic beauty the Great Northwest!”
Captain William Clark, November 2, 1805
Good Deal for a Quarter
It all started in 1843 when Massachusetts lawyer, Asa Lovejoy and Tennessee drifter, William Overton parked their canoes on the bank of the Willamette River. Overawed by the beautiful surroundings, Overton envisioned a great future for the mountain-ringed, timber-rich land. But Overton had a problem. He didn’t have the 25 cents needed to file a land claim. So he made a deal with Lovejoy. In exchange for a quarter, he would share with Lovejoy his claim to the 640-acre site known as “The Clearing.”
However Overton was a drifter at heart, and soon the tedium of clearing trees and building roads bored him. He drifted on and sold his half of the claim to Francis W. Pettygrove.
Lovejoy and Pettygrove now shared the land claim, but the budding township could only have one name. Lovejoy was insistent that they use the name of his home town, Boston. Pettygrove was equally determined to name the site after his native Portland, Maine. To resolve the issue they flipped a coin. Pettygrove won 2 tosses out of 3. “Portland” was the name, and Portland was founded in 1845.
Lovejoy and Pettygrove were confident that Portland would become a prosperous port because of its deep water and abundant resources. What they didn’t foresee was how prosperous it would become and what industries would spur its early growth.
A Seedy Start
Portland’s shady history began in the late 1800s. Joseph “Bunco” Kelly, a hotelier, became notorious for his side business: kidnapping young men and selling them to ship captains. In fact, many of the hotel operators and bar owners in the area relied on this Shanghai practice to supplement their incomes. But Kelly was the best at it. He would intoxicate potential crewmembers by the dozen and deliver them to waiting ships. The unlucky men would awake stranded at sea and be forced to work aboard the ships for indefinite periods of time.
Another interesting character in Portland’s early history was “Sweet Mary,” the proprietor of a brothel. She operated her brothel on a barge that went up and down the Willamette River. Her floating business was technically outside everyone’s jurisdiction, allowing her to elude city laws and paying taxes.
The turn of the century marked a new phase in Portland’s growth. The railroad arrived in 1883 and seedy business was replaced by the growing lumber industry. Portland also benefited by providing goods for California’s and Alaska’s Gold Rushes.
Lumber baron and philanthropist Simon Benson became concerned by the number of intoxicated workers in town. When he asked workers why they drank in the middle of the day they replied that there was no fresh drinking water downtown. To meet the need Benson commissioned 20 elegant freshwater drinking fountains to be built. Beer consumption dropped by 25% once the fountains were installed. These fountains are still present in downtown Portland today.
In 1905 the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition fuelled further growth.
The Origin of the Term “Skid Row”
The term is no longer used by the media and is considered politically incorrect because of its negative connotations. However the term is still widely used understood to designate the area of any town where conditions are particularly poor.
The term originated in Portland and other logging towns in the Pacific Northwest. Faced with the difficult chore of dragging felled trees out of the forest to the mill, loggers built “skid roads” roads paved with “skids,” usually railway ties or heavy wooden planks. The loggers discovered that the logs were far easier to move down the roads if the “skids” were greased, and the saying “grease the skids” became a popular metaphor to describe speeding up a process.
“Skid Road” also became associated with the part of town where the loggers typically lived. These areas were characterized by bars and flop houses, the “skid roads” were magnets for poor, often alcoholic, transient workers, said to be “on the skids.”
Burnside street, now Portland’s busiest street, was used as a skid road. Loggers would “skid” logs down Burnside and load them onto boats on the Willamette River. Over time the term “skid road” evolved to “skid row.”
Today Portland is a thriving metropolis with a population of 529,121. Service industries now dominate the economic scene, accounting for over 80% of jobs in Portland. Portland’s picturesque surroundings have become a drawing card for tourists rather than a resource for export.
If you want more information about this area you can email the author or check out our North America Insiders page.