History of Oregon by Oregon Historical Society
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Subtopic : Sawn Lumber and Greek Temples: 1850-1870: Town Beginnings

Themes: Transportation, Economics, Towns and Cities

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Plat of Portland-Washington County
OHS Map 185

The Oregon landscape of the 1840s had a number of scattered Indian communities, and other small settlements of diverse population at places such as The Dalles, Astoria, and Salem. Most of the immigrant population that had come from the Midwest was engaged in farming, especially in the Willamette Valley. But a number of immigrants brought with them skills and trades that were suited to city life, and towns and cities began to develop in Oregon at a very early date.

The need to import manufactured goods by sea and the development of an agricultural surplus for export dictated the establishment of port facilities at some point on the Columbia River system. An early contender was Oregon City at Willamette Falls. Here John McLoughlin, chief factor of the Hudson’s Bay Company post at Fort Vancouver, surveyed a town site in 1842-1843, a single street parallel to the river and flanked by nine blocks of building lots. While some sailing vessels had reached Oregon City, it soon became apparent that the rapids at the mouth of the Clackamas River and other shoals were major obstacles to navigation. Still, Oregon City flourished during the 1840s as a milling and trading center and seat of local government, supported in part by its fond hope of becoming a major seaport.

Several other landholders promoted townsites that they hoped would become major port cities. An essential aspect of the city-building impulse was the platting and selling of land. Developers subdivided their property into small parcels of blocks and lots and dedicated streets for a permanent public right of way. The purchase and development of lots by ship owners, exporters and importers, and merchants helped propel the development of prospective port cities. Among the contending townsites were Linnton (1844; now part of Portland), Milwaukie (1848), and St. Helens (1850). It was a combination of circumstances that brought Portland to prominence as the regional port during the 1850s and 1860s: a good road to the highly productive wheat fields of the Tualatin Plains, sufficient level land for port facilities, a site near the head of navigation for sea-going vessels, and entrepreneurship.

Portland’s rise was rapid. The initial townsite was platted by Asa Lovejoy and Francis Pettygrove in 1845, with streets paralleling the west-side riverbank, between today’s Washington and Jefferson streets. To promote their town, Lovejoy and Pettygrove sold lots inexpensively and even gave them away to some who agreed to build a cabin. Pettygrove built a warehouse, wharf, and store at the foot of Washington Street in 1846, along with the town’s first wood frame house.

Portland’s status as the head of navigation and an up-and-coming port city was forwarded by two notable early captains, Capt. John Couch of the brig Chenamus, who established a land claim just north of the Pettygrove claim—the site of Portland’s present Skidmore/Old Town Historic District—and Capt. Nathaniel Crosby, Jr., of the bark Toulon, which began regular trading with Hawai’i. Capt. Crosby erected a prefabricated house in Portland in 1847. The lumber had been cut to measure in Boston and shipped to Honolulu, then aboard the Toulon to Portland—an instant New England dwelling in both style and materials. Although a number of similar prefabricated houses were shipped to California from the East Coast during the gold-rush period, this was an unusual occurrence in Oregon. Capt. Crosby’s imported house was a novelty, not a trend-setter.

The blocks in Portland’s first town plat were 200 feet square, with streets 60 or 80 feet wide and standard lots 50 by 100 feet. The hundreds of subsequent additions to this first plat showed a myriad of variations to the pattern, but the narrow streets and 50 by 100 lot size became common features citywide. Later plats in the Portland area also tended to adhere to the cardinal points of the compass rather than the river orientation of the first survey. Plats for other early Oregon townsites show a similar tendency to use a basic grid that is oriented to an existing stream or road. With the rapid surveying of the state in the 1850s and 1860s, town plats quickly shifted to a north-south orientation. The patterns of development fostered by townsite plats have proven to be enduring aspects of our built environment.

© Richard H. Engeman, 2005.

Themes: Transportation,Economics,Towns and Cities

Regions: Willamette Valley,Columbia River,Portland Metropolitan Area

Date: 1840s-1860s

Author: Richard H. Engeman

Essential to town-building was the need to plat and sell land. Developers subdivided their property into small parcels of blocks and lots and dedicated streets for a permanent public right of way.

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Related Documents

Front & Stark Streets, 1852

Auburn, Oregon, c.1861
c. 1861

Couch & Co. and Allen, DeWitt & Co., Portland

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