Painting Portland: historical Vista

When I moved back to Portland nine months ago in June 2011, I jumped face first back into my city. I adopted my mom’s old bike that she had used to traverse Portland from SE 20th and Main to Good Samaritan Hospital in the early 1980s. I saw it as my piece of history, reviving the wheels on the same roads 30 years later. Biking and walking the city streets also got me thinking about my place in Portland in the context of its own history. Over the past 161 years since Portland has been incorporated into the state of Oregon (in 1851), buildings have risen and fallen, some have been recognized as historic landmarks, others not. Especially downtown, unexplained old buildings share walls with new high rises.

the facade of the Guild Theatre in downtown Portland, SW Yamhill and 9th Ave.

One prime example of old rubbing shoulders with new is the historic Guild Theatre, now closed, but built in 1948. It lies directly adjacent to Director Park, which was built in 2009 with its bamboo, concrete, and modern  fountain. Observing obvious remnants of the past that remain squashed between new development peaked my curiosity. So, of course, my next course of action was to visit the library, where I checked out scores of books that I paged through, mainly looking at pictures of how the city used to be. It was hard to overlay the current grid onto these old pictures, but I was still enthralled: A vanished past.

And as would be expected of any actively engaged citizen seeking out information about her city’s history, I spent the most time looking at photos of the neighborhood I grew up in: the Wests Hills. I have lived in the Southwest Hills of Portland for most of my life, barring a 4 year stint in Seattle’s Capitol Hill and one year in San Francisco. I attended grade school at a small, parochial school near Council Crest Park and attended high school just down the hill near Portland State University. It was good, these many years: walking stairways and fairy-searching with my mom, running the hills to stay in shape for soccer, and always grateful for the beautiful views of downtown. It’s been like living in the turret of a castle: I’ve always be able to look over my kingdom with pride and my place will inevitably have its own charms, but as an adult, I have, at times, felt isolated from the rest of the thrum of the city. Especially as an avid bike rider, it has been tiresome to traverse these hills, though I have found my own unique routes.

Consequently, this post is one about transition. A transition I have been anticipating and wanting but a major one nonetheless. On April 1st, after an impending cross country train trip, I will be moving to Southeast Portland. Mind you, I will be living only 4 miles away- 15 minutes by car, and 30 minutes away by bike, but nonetheless, I will embarking on a new era in my life. Look forward to future posts about East Side Portland adventures, featuring Laurelhust Park as my new location. But until then, I leave you with a historical look, a farewell ode if you will, featuring my West Hills neighborhood. I am a strong believer that our current selves are products of our past, so to better understand myself and where I am headed now, I seek out the geographical foundation of my upbringing and beyond.

The history of the Vista Avenue corridor has been one of winding, tree-lined streets, large single-family homes, Council Crest’s amusement park, trolleys that drove at 45 degrees up into the clouds, and ever-present views. And many of these elements remain unchanged today. When I was a young girl, walking the sidewalks and stairways of the neighborhood, one of my favorite destinations was where 18th Avenue dead-ended into Elizabeth Street. A strange location, as the street literally T-ed, and if you continued on 18th, you would run right into a wall. The thrilling part of this location is that my mom showed me two marks in the concrete wall, claiming that this was the end of the line of a trolley running up the hill from downtown. Hence, as I passed this location on the way back from the bus in high school, I would always acknowledge it in my mind, wondering what it would have been like to ride a trolley up into the clouds from downtown, instead of the ordinary bus I rode up the hill every day. A trolley was infinitely more charming.

Portland’s cable car line running up 18th Avenue from downtown to the West Hills (image from “Portland’s Streetcars” by Richard Thomas- page 14)

It wasn’t until I checked out the book Portland’s Streetcars by Richard Thompson from the library, did I find out the history! 18th Avenue was the site of a precarious-looking trestle that toted cable cars (like in San Francisco!) from downtown up into the hills. The Portland Cable Railway Company’s storage carbarn was located at the bottom of the hill on Chapman Street, which is the current location of SW 18th and Mill Street Terrace.

The current state of affairs at SW 18th and Mill Street Terrace. 18th Avenue dead ends ahead when the hill shoots upwards dramatically. Behind the photographer is a tunnel traveling underneath Hwy 26. Photo Credit: Google Maps Street View

A modern onlooker would never guess that this uninspiring, quite penned-in intersection used to be the location of a grand cable car operation. “With a grade of 20.93 %, this cable incline was the second steepest in the country,” says Thompson in his book (page 14). Since the infrastructure was too steep for any other form of transit, it was in-use for 14 years before being abandoned. I speculate that my mother’s piece of history was accurate, as 18th Avenue dead-ends downtown near where the present Highway 26 crosses it, but it picks back up further up the hill on Jackson Street, continuing until it dead-ends again at Elizabeth. This upper area is the exact location of the trolley stop my mom pointed out to me so many years ago. I am tickled by another remnant of this trolley line- Cable Street, paralleling 18th Avenue downtown by Mill Street Terrace.

Vista Avenue in the early 1900s. From page 22 of Walter Fortner’s book entitled “Portland.”

I also love these photos of Vista Avenue (yesterday and today), which show the epitome of why the street is named “Vista.” Even today, Vista Avenue is “filled with beautiful houses and rose hedges” leading to Portland Heights (page 22 of Portland by Walter Fortner). It appears as though those two grand houses on the right in the picture are still located at the same address! I can only imagine the thrill of riding in  the car pictured in the turn of the century photo, top down, wind blowing in my hair, the view of Portland’s “Vista” laid before me as I take my joy ride.

view of SW Vista taken in 2012. Photo Credit: Google Maps Street View

I have walked up and down this street more than I can even count, from Northwest Portland or downtown when the 51 bus wasn’t running, to and from my job at the GAP on 23rd and Burnside when I was 18, to meander for exercise, or en-route to a thrilling stairway walk. I can inextricably link my childhood to memories of traversing this magnificent thoroughfare. Enjoy comparing the pictures I have provided from both 2012 and perhaps somewhere near 1912.

The Council Crest amusement park in the foreground with the area’s three major mountains accounted for. Picture credit:

One of my favorite parks in the area is Council Crest Park, which I have written about in a previous post. This magnificent park, located at the highest point in Portland, has been a source of inspiration to me for many years, beginning as a tree-climbing location, then a running destination, and now as a place to write and sometimes even a place to teach! A little known piece of history about his park, however, is that it was once the location of an amusement park, built on the hill overlooking the city in 1907. The park was named “the Dreamland of the Northwest” and was a popular destination of higher class citizens of the West Hills. It remained operating until 1929, when it was disbanded. The City bought the parcel of land in 1936 to create the Park and it is now a popular destination among walkers, hikers, bikers, bird watchers, and other recreation enthusiasts. It is a shame that the Council Crest Trolley is no longer in service, as it would make the journey up into the Hills more enjoyable.

As with any life transition, emotions are bittersweet. I will be moving across town to a new neighborhood, where I will have the chance to explore new hidden wonders of our city. But at the same time, I will miss the easy access to Marquam Nature Park and trails where I can entirely submerge myself in the woods. I have never moved to a different neighborhood within the same city, and I think I will be soon convinced that this is the best arrangement for moving. The chance to discover new things and integrate oneself in a new area but at the same time, continue what you have already started. And I will have to remember that my favorite places will only be a quick walk, bike ride, car ride, or bus ride away. Thank you for exploring and celebrating the West Hills with me and now we are on to a new adventure!

mountains are almost always in view from the West Hills! The Council Crest trolley line which remained in service until 1950. The conductor would display this sign on his car depending on the clarity of mountain-viewing that day. Photo credit:


3 thoughts on “Painting Portland: historical Vista

  1. Pingback: Escape from Portlandia | in the midst

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