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In 1843, Tennessee drifter, William Overton and Boston lawyer, Asa Lovejoy were floating down the Willamette River in a canoe when they came upon the beauty of the place we now call Portland. They beached their canoe where Chinook Indians had tied up their canoes in years past and made camp. They marveled at the beautiful mountains with the rich potential of the many trees.

Overton didn’t have the quarter to file a land claim, so he sold half of his 640-acre site to Lovejoy for 25 cents. They began to clear the many trees, build roads and build the first buildings. Overton built a road to the westward hills and after a while, he decided to move on selling his half of the share to Francis Pettygrove. In 1845, James Terwilliger filed his claim to the south of Overton’s. Capt. John Couch filed his claim to the north.

Portland got its name when Asa Lovejoy and Francis Pettygrove flipped a coin in 1845. Lovejoy was from Massachusetts and wanted to name the new settlement Boston. Pettygrove was from Maine and wanted to name it Portland. Pettygrove won the coin toss two out of three times and the rest as they say is history. 

Pettygrove and Lovejoy built a log store on their claim on the southeast corner of Front and Washington. Terwilliger built a blacksmith shop on his claim. Couch built a ferry dock on his claim for the canoes. In 1845, there were four streets and 16 blocks had been cleared and platted. Pettygrove hired George Bell to manage his store and Mrs. Bell was the first white woman in the community.

Before the canoe ferries were started, settlers had to use a swimming horse to cross the river. David Lownsdale opened a tannery where Civic Stadium stands at 20th and Morrison Streets. John Waymire established the first sawmill in 1847. His team of Missouri oxen hitched to a lumber wagon served as Portland’s first transportation system. Lot Whitcomb operated a lumber mill at Milwaukie where he built a really fine river vessel which he named the “Lot Whitcomb”. It was launched on Christmas Day in 1850 by Captain J.C. Ainsworth.

The first school was opened in 1847 by Dr. Ralph Wilcox. The first public school was opened in a public hall in 1849 by Rev. Horace Lyman. The first church, the West Union Baptist Church, opened in 1844 near Portland in the log cabin home of David Lenox. In 1848, a Methodist Church was established with Rev. J.H. White as minister. Portland’s first Post Office opened in 1849 in a small log cabin building at Front and Washington streets. Thomas Smith was appointed the first Postmaster on Nov. 8, 1849

By 1850, about 800 residents made their home in Portland, and the steam sawmill’s whistle could be heard at Fort Vancouver. There were 14 steamers docking at Portland’s wharves, and there was a log-cabin hotel and a newspaper, the Weekly Oregonian. Congress passed the Oregon Land Act, which entitled every man or woman to 320 acres. Portland was incorporated in 1851 and it has grown into the second largest city in the Northwest. People who settled in this region made their living from fish, lumber, wheat and cattle, and Portland became a major transportation center because of its proximity to Railroads and Rivers.

In spite of streets that were deep mud in the winter and deep in dust in summer, Portland began to grow rapidly. Board walks were laid around them. The stumps were whitewashed to make them more visible. The first frame home was built by Captain Nathaniel Crosby from lumber brought around the Horn from the state of Maine. It was located at Front and Washington. A hospital was opened by Dr. Broy and Dr. Ralph Wilcox. Four boxes of Portland apples brought $500 in San Francisco.

Had it not been for a woman’s intuition, the first Territorial Governor would have been Abraham Lincoln. Mrs. Lincoln refused to be separated from eastern cities by weeks of rugged wagon travel and rather than separate, Abe Lincoln turned them down. Joe Lane then became the first Territorial Governor.

W.S. Ladd, who made his way to Portland in 1853 from Vermont, teamed up with Tilton to open the first bank north of Sacramento and the first bank west of Salt Lake City in 1858. By 1864, the population had risen to 6,068 and there were 1,982 children enrolled in Portland schools. Portland received its first telegraph message with news of the victory of Union troops at Richmond. Harvey Scott was Portland’s first librarian, operating a private enterprise with paid memberships in 1864. There were 1,500 books and a good collection of newspapers and periodicals.

Other small communities began popping up: Linnton was platted by M.M. Carver and Peter Burnett. James John built a store in the newly platted St. Johns. The community of Goose Hollow was so named because most of the women raised geese while their husbands farmed or hunted gold. The town of East Portland was platted in 1861.


Portland began to grow and expand after the Civil War, building docks for shipping lumber, fish, wheat and produce to San Francisco and the rest of the world. Farmers were demanding better roads to haul their goods to Portland for shipment. Railroad history in Oregon began when Ben Holladay started building the Oregon & California Railroad in 1869. After running out of money in 1872, Henry Villard took control of the project and got as far as Ashland. In 1887, the line was finally opened to California, after the Southern Pacific took over construction.


During the rainy months, the streets turned to mud and makeshift wooden sidewalks were built to get people out of the mud.


In the early days, Portlanders had to walk, ride a horse or ride in a horse-drawn wagon to get around town.


On Sept. 15, 1871, Portland Street Railway Company came into being. The resourceful Ben Holladay built Portland’s first horse-drawn streetcar and operated it along First Street. 


City & Suburban Car Barn at 23rd & Savior, June 20, 1892 the last day horses were used.


The town of East Portland was a growing concern by 1898.

By the end of the 19th Century, Portland had 90,000 residents and it was the largest metropolis in the Northwest. Portland had the busiest port up the coast from San Francisco. The Alaska Gold Rush and the Railroads began to make Seattle boom. Portland’s leaders decided they needed to do something to promote growth so they decided to hold the World’s Fair here in 1905, when the Lewis & Clark Exposition took up residence along the waterfront in Northwest Portland. Three million people came to Portland’s Party and many of them decided to stay. Portland’s population doubled in the next five years.

Last updated 03-25-13


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