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Sellwood - History & Profile

On a sunny spring day some 133 years ago, we can imagine that two brothers, the Reverends John and James Sellwood, stood on a level, heavily timbered plateau overlooking the Willamette River dreaming of a community they would build there one day. The 320 acre tract which they acquired soon after their arrival from South Carolina seemed an ideal setting. Strategically located on the shores of the Willamette just five miles south of the bustling towns of Milwaukie and Oregon City, the site was certain to be a lucrative investment.

Though the community they dreamed of would become a reality in some thirty years from that spring day, the demands of their callings kept them from personally being involved in its development.

The minister brothers who were brought to the state by Thomas F Scott, Bishop of the Episcopal dioceses of the new Oregon Territory, were destined instead to spend years in the development of their church in Salem, Milwaukie, Butteville, Oregon City and Portland.

Thomas A. Wood, who also believed in the area's potential, purchased the half section from the Sellwoods in 1882. Wood platted the land along with Oregonian newspaper owner, Henry Pittock, formed the Sellwood Real Estate Company in 1883. They began marketing home sites from $125 to $200 with as little as a ten dollar down payment.

The generous offering attracted buyers immediately, and, within four years, the growing community swelled to several hundred people and was incorporated as the City of Sellwood. Schools, churches and businesses began springing up to serve the growing population.

The pace of activity quickened in adjoining areas as well. Johnathan Bourne, Jr and Julius Caesar Moreland developed the lands just to the north of Sellwood where City Park Race Track was built. It was situated near the present Sellwood Park. The track was enormously popular and was considered one of the finest on the west coast, drawing hundreds of people each race day and attracting further attention to the Sellwood community.

Imagine the changes that took place in the span of just a few years. The forested plateau gave way to the logger's ax and as the city was laid out, streets were carved in a grid pattern from the river's edge east, intersecting other streets running north and south, parallel to the main county road known today as S. E. 17th Street which served as the main artery from Portland to Oregon City.

Sellwood Lumber Company milled the timber for new houses many of which were occupied by company employees. As the city evolved, it took on the complection of an industrious working man's community, drawing residents from a host of trades supporting Sellwood and neighboring communities as well as those supplemental to the surrounding farm economy.

A dock was built at the foot of Umatilla Street to accommodate the growning commercial river traffic including the Steamer Wauna which made regular trips daily between Sellwood and Portland. A series of saloons, smithies, shops, hotels, and other enterprises soon sprang up on the street forming the city's first business core. By then the community had its own newspaper, electric power, and volunteer fire deparment as well as a hospital established by Dr. John Sellwood, the son of Rev. James Sellwood.

Sellwood had evolved into the area's most active mercantile hub by the time it was annexed to the city of Portland in 1893. In many ways the first ten years of growth left Sellwood with one of the most unique personalitites among city neighborhoods. Unlike most others, the charming village atmosphere we experience today is due to Sellwood's beginnings as an independent self sufficient city.

The Sellwood Improvement Association organized in 1894 helped to stimulate many further developments.

The early 1900'a demonstrated how energized the ex-city and infant neighborhood had become. The Eastside Mill and Lumber Company was formed by a group of businessmen who capitalized on the robust building boom which occurred in many areas on the east side of the river after the nation's depressed economic period of the late 1890's. Portland Railway, Light and Power Company extended a streetcar line through Sellwood along 13th Street to Waverley Golf Junction where passengers could transfer to Oregon City and Estacada. And in 1905 a large cable ferry,
the John F. Caples, began its service from the foot of Spokane Street to the opposite shore on the west bank, giving Sellwood access to the heavily trafficed Macadam Avenue and the steam locomotives which traveled south from Portland.

At one point, there was 80,000 square feet of car barns between Linn and Ochoco Streets which serviced a large percentage of the city's streetcars and was probably the single largest source of employment in Sellwood.

Oaks Amusement Park, the oldest continously operatng amusement park in the nation, was developed in 1905 to the north of the neighborhood immediately below the Sellwood bluff bringing an added excitement and gaiety with its thrilling rides, melodious merry go round, roller rink, extraordinary fireworks shows and a veriety of concessions which served temptingly exotic treats. The band stand at Oaks saw such notable performers as John Philip Sousa.

Possibly one of the first breweries in the Pacific Northwest was the Mount Hood Brewery. located at 9th and Marion Streets. Built about 1910, the brewery played an active role in Sellwood until prohibition. Presently, this site is occupied by a local ice cream company.

Sellwood set an example in the area of community affairs for the entire City of Portland. By the early 1900's the Sellwood Bee recognized the names of over twenty fraternal, social and civic groups. The first branch of the Portland Library Association was established there in 1905. Sellwood Park was the site of the first public swimming pool, operated by the City Park Bureau, in 1910. The YMCA of Portland developed its first branch in the Sellwood area in the same year. Within a few years the Park Bureau began the first city community center, located at the corner of 15th and Spokane, which to this day serves hundreds of people with numerous classes and a wide variety of activities.

Such positive additions continued as the neighborhood matured. The business center shifted to S. E. 13th Street along the newly constructed trolley line, and the original commercial buildings along Umatilla gave way to single family homes. The new brick and mortar structures along 13th Street were truly impressive, creating a monument to the new business district at its prime.

The Sellwood Bridge which spans the Willamette River was constructed in 1925, but even at the onset the two lane structure which provided quicker access to Sellwood was considered inadequate and added less to Sellwood's commercial advantage than expected.

The community maintained its prosperity for years. Yet, as time passed the prospects for further expansion seemed uncertain. The years just after World War II, however, ended the uncertainty. Sellwood was due for a contraction.

Many of Portland's satellite business districts sank economically as the downtown core area attracted a higher and higher percentage of their customer base. Whether this change was due to a shift in customer buying patterns alone or was also caused by a more mobile buying public who shopped at greater distances from home is unclear. The result, however, was that neighborhood establishments experienced serious downturns, and districts like Sellwood saw shop upon shop fail.

Th dark days of Sellwood's retail and business recession would continue for more than a decade, but a dramatic turn-around would occur in the early 70's, The gas shortage of 1972 - 73 coupled with continued commitment to the conservation movement of the 60's renewed interest in close in urban living. A counter culture spirit in retailing brought the small specialty shop and boutique into popularity, and a national love affair with historic preservation brought such retailers back into older districts such as Sellwood.

Once again the neighborhood was abuzz with activity. Rehabilitation was going on throughout the community, both commercial and residential. Realtors referred to the neighborhood as "Saleable Sellwood" as its popularity increased. Families and young professionals alike rediscovered the many qualities of the neighborhood the residents of years back were so proud of.

If you take a stroll through Sellwood today, you will see what an important part history plays in the neighborhood's present day fiber. Building upon building displays a plaque which identifies its date of construction and the original use the building put to or the name of the original owner.

It's quite appropriae that Sellwood's 13th Street has become known as Antique Row. Some two dozen antique shops do thriving business in the neighborhood celebrating the past with wonderful arrays of furniture, household goods and memorabilia from days gone by.

Perched above the entrance to Oaks Park on Spokane Street you will find the Sellwood Historical Museum which is housed in a quaint wood framed church originally located in Milwaukie and moved to its present site in 1961 by the Sellwood - Moreland Improvement League (SMILE) . Interestingly, the church, which was built in 1851, was the first assigment of Rev. John Sellwood soon after his arrival in Oregon. To this day, SMILE owns the church while the city owns the property upon which it stands. This small spot of history has been and remains, popular with the public for weddings, receptions and family gatherings.

Much has changed over the years. The streetcars, ferries and steamers are gone, as are the sawmills and lumber companies. The remaining car barns are now occupied by a local container corporation.

But the little community which years ago boasted to be the first neighborhood to have completely paved all of its streets and sidewalks has had its additions too. Restaurants, a marina and upscale condominiums and apartments have been built on its riverfront, and a lush public park has been developed at the foot of Spokane Street opening the river to Sellwood residents.

And what remains is a vitality and spirit passed down from generation to generation which keeps Sellwood as one of our most interesting neighborhoods today.

by Dave McGowan
Sales Associate
Moreland Branch Office
The Realty Group Inc
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Updated 10.05.2014 |