Early Years, 1848 to 1870

Nina Crow
Written by Nina Crow

Portland Waterfront 1848 through 1869

In 1827 Dr. John McLoughlin, the Hudson Bay Company’s Chief Factor of the Columbia District allowed some of his French Canadian fur trappers to settle in the Willamette valley, at what came to be called “French Prairie,” to live out the remainder of their days as farmers. These were men who had spent the time of their youth following the adventuresome occupation of trapping and were now ready to settle down with their native wives and live a normal sort of life, raising families and raising crops. Until this time the entire Northwest of the American continent was one enormous game preserve for the benefit of the British aristocracy. But as more and more vessels braved the hazardous bar at the Columbia river’s mouth, bringing with them adventurers and seekers of fortune, it became obvious to Dr. McLoughlin that the era of the fur trade was coming to an end.

Eva Emory Dye in her book, McLoughlin and Oregon: A Chronicle, puts forth this prophetic conversation between the trapper Etienne Lucier and McLoughlin:

Lucier: “Governor, do you think this will ever become a settled country?”

McLoughlin: “Yes, wherever wheat grows you may depend upon it becoming a settled country.”

From Fur to Farming

Once their yield of wheat became greater than that needed by the settlers themselves Lucier and his fellows incorporated the labor of natives to haul the grain from their storehouse in Champoeg down to canoes on the Willamette. From there it was taken to Oregon City where it was portaged around Willamette Falls and loaded onto barges for Fort Vancouver. From Fort Vancouver it became cargo bound for California, or the Sandwich Islands.

The annoying existence of a sand bar, just below Oregon City, caused by the rushing waters of the Clackamas river, is what kept that early metropolis from rising in prominence as a mighty inland seaport. Only during the spring freshet of May or early June was the river ever high enough to allow ocean-going vessels to pass up river to the wharf below the falls. This caused Oregon City, the first incorporated city west of the Mississippi, and the one-time capital of the Oregon territory, to take a second row seat to the upstart Portland.

The Clearing

All the way from Fort Vancouver on the Columbia to Oregon City, the forest on each bank of the Willamette was either impenetrable, dense trees, or marshy quag. With the exception of a few scant deer paths there was almost no place to set foot outside of the protection of a boat. Men traveling between these points by canoe who were set upon by the “call of nature,” had to do so in a balancing act, hoping none of their canoe mates was a joker of the practical sort. I said “almost no place to set foot” because there was one place set aside for the convenience of the traveler, a place simply called “the clearing.”

Roughly situated between what is now S.W. Washington and S.W. Jefferson streets the clearing was there long before the first white man. It was a place where the natives kept the brush burned back so they could do a little hunting and recreating while traveling between their home on what is now called Sauvie Island (the Manhattan of the Indians, my friend used to call it) and the wonderful fishing offered by the deep pools beneath the Willamette Falls. It was inevitable that someone would claim the clearing as his personal property, some white man that is, since such a thought would have never entered the mind of a native. In 1843 the land was claimed jointly by Asa Lovejoy and William Overton for a filing fee of 25 cents.

After a few months, Overton, who was described by one of the locals as a “desperate, rollicking fellow” grew tired of the thought of building a mighty city and sold his share to an Oregon City merchant named F.W. Pettygrove for fifty dollars worth of clothes, supplies, and cash. (It was rumored later on that Overton was hanged in Texas.) Sometime after the sale, the famous coin toss happened between Lovejoy and Pettygrove, wherein Portland was saved from wearing the name Boston. By the fall of 1845 Pettygrove had built a store and a warehouse, little clapboard houses were going up, and a merchant vessel, the Toulon sailed up the Columbia and into the Willamette to exchange cargo at Portland for the first time without stopping at Fort Vancouver.

Early settlers in Oregon had come for the rich soil of the Willamette valley, the renown of which traveled back to their places of origin. Then in 1841 the first of many transcontinental wagon trains arrived with people, plows, seed grain, and oxen. Farms began growing along the pleasant valleys of the Willamette and Tualatin rivers. Then, as now, and throughout civilized history, wheat was a desirable commodity. Bags of grain made their way to Oregon City and Fort Vancouver by horseback, wagon, and raft to be loaded aboard vessels for the Sandwich Islands or California.

The First Wharf and Warehouse

By 1846 Pettygrove had constructed not only a wharf and warehouse at the foot of Jefferson street, but a road up Burnside Canyon and over the hills to the farmlands of the Tualatin Valley. Whether by luck or by genius, Pettygrove had put together a great machine of commerce: a wharf at the furthest point inland navigable by ocean-going vessels, a warehouse capable of storing sacked wheat and other commodities, and a road to the valley where the wheat fields were located. And this he accomplished just as the planets and stars of good fortune were aligning in the heavens, for in less than two years gold would be discovered in California, an event that would enrich farmers and merchants alike.

As farmers across the country traded in their plows for shovels and gold pans, those who remained steady in their vocation would reap the fortunes of a different kind of gold, for wheat became an even more valuable commodity than what it was already, to the point that it was declared to be the official legal tender of the territory. But the vision of Portland as a boom town and port city of the future must have not been too strong in the minds of either Lovejoy or Pettygrove, for by the end of 1848 both men had sold their shares of the new “city” and the lots were subdivided for new arrivals. In 1849 Captain John Couch stopped in Portland and filled his vessel with lumber, flour, wheat, and other commodities to take to San Francisco, which was experiencing the population explosion caused by the recent discovery of gold. Upon his return to Portland, he built a wharf and large warehouse on land that he owned just north of the new business district. The stars of fortune were aligned for such men, and for the city being built around them.

1850 to 1869

The decade of the 1850s brought on a period of burgeoning growth that transformed Oregon from being a sparsely populated fur farm into a territory with a large enough population to qualify for statehood as the 33rd state in the United States of America. In Portland it was a decade dominated by news of gold rushes, shipwrecks, and Indian wars. For a glimpse into this era: On July 9, 1853, two years after the incorporation of the City of Portland, the New York Times lauded the new born city in an article that began:

“Glancing back but two short years and we see that not a house had been erected on the spot where Portland now stands.” In those first two years when folks mentioned Portland they needed to add the words, “twelve miles below Oregon City.”

Then overnight, it seemed, as the Times article continues:

“The local advantages became apparent–saw and flowering-mills were erected–stores were built–improvements were contemplated and carried out energetically–and at length the citizens at ‘the point twelve miles below the city,’ began to look around them, and felt the necessity of embodying their mutual interest in one laudable effort; and thus the present city emerged from obscurity, until she now stands forth the acknowledged emporium of Oregon. Portland possesses all the requisites for shipping, having sufficient depth of water for trading vessels of almost any size to anchor opposite the city. Three wharves have been erected, all of which are continually in requisition, having vessels either unlading merchandise for our traders, or taking in cargoes of lumber, hogs, chickens, and agricultural produce for San Francisco, or some foreign market.”

Throughout this period news was exchanged between San Francisco and Portland via the regular scheduled voyages of the steamship Columbia. Before the arrival of transcontinental mail service and, later on, telegraph and railroads, mail from the Atlantic coast had to travel by ship to the Isthmus of Panama where it was transported from ocean to ocean overland. News took many weeks to arrive, sometimes being held for many days in San Francisco before being put aboard a ship for the four-day journey to Portland.

In the year 1850 a census of the inhabitants of Portland showed a total population of 821 persons. By 1857 this had grown to 1,280, and by the year 1860 the population had reached 2,917 souls.

Treasure, Turbulence, and Growing like Topsy in the 1860s

At the beginning of the 1860s Captain John C. Ainsworth started the Oregon Steam Navigation Company, which would soon have wharves and warehouses in Portland, and a tight monopoly on Columbia river freight. One of the first cargoes was gold bullion from yet another gold rush, this time in Idaho. In 1864 O.S.N Co. rebuilt an existing dock between Pine and Ash streets. Before this time there were no docks in Portland designed to receive vessels at the various water heights that occurred during the seasonal fluctuations of the river. The new O.S.N. wharf was built with two stories, the upper story being fifteen feet above the lower. The wharf was 250 feet long and cost a whopping $50,000, a lot of money in those days. This wharf was just what was needed on the fluctuating waters of the Willamette. From then on the two-storied wharf was the standard for dock design in Portland until well into the 20th century when river floods were tamed by dams built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and an extensive downtown seawall.

The Portland population figures for the decade of the 1860s show the beginnings of the city’s explosive growth.
1862 – 4,057
1863 – 4,794
1864 – 5,819
1865 – 6,068
1866 – 6,508
1867 – 6,717
1868 – 7,980
1869 – 8,928

The tumults of Indian wars and gold rushes were added to by the distant horror of the Civil War. It was far too expensive to send troops from Oregon across the continent to do battle against the Confederate armies; however, the needs of the Civil War drew regular U.S. troops away from western service, leaving western states exposed to Indian hostilities. Immediately after the withdrawal of U.S. troops, many of the northwestern tribes began to grow warlike and commit hostilities against settlers. To counter these hostilities many local men volunteered for special U.S. Indian fighting regiments. With the slow movement of news, Oregon remained fairly isolated from the war until 1864 when the first telegraph link to the east coast brought daily news. On March 5, 1864, the Oregonian ran an extra edition with news from New York 20 hours old.

During the brief period of about 1860 until 1866, the exploitation of the rich gold fields of eastern Oregon and Idaho brought to Portland large quantities of gold in various forms, from sacks of gold dust to bars of gold molded under makeshift conditions in the mining camps. During this era gold far outvalued any other commodity being exported from Portland. It is recorded that by 1863 $3 million in gold was exported, and in 1864 this figure had doubled to $6 million. At this time the export of flour and wheat was insignificant by comparison, being ranked along with other commodities such as lumber, apples, potatoes, bacon, and barrels of salted salmon. A clear picture of the exports of this period can be seen in the total of the export manifests for the year 1866:

Pork – 72 barrels
Apples – 68,860 boxes
eggs – 1763 packages
bacon – 4376 gunnies
varnish – 124 cases
hides – 4674
onions – 1325 sacks
syrup – 185 barrels
wool – 1671 bales
pitch – 292 barrels
dried apples – 2603 packages
flour – 29,815 barrels
salmon – 2564 packages
staves and headings – 59,203
shooks – 14,972

These items added up to a total of $555,457, a figure to which should be added approximately $200,000 for other cargoes not mentioned in the manifests, such as wheat. By comparison the shipments of gold for that year totaled $8,070,600. If there ever was a “golden age” of Portland shipping that was surely it, for from 1867 on shipments of gold declined steadily. By 1869 the value of gold exported had fallen to $419,000 while all other commodities were on the increase.

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Nina Crow

Nina Crow

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