Early Portland: Stump-town triumphant, rival townsites on the Willamette, 1831-1854 by Eugene E Snyder (reviewed 1970 edition)
Every time I move to a new city, I have a voracious appetite for information about the place I now call home. Having recently moved to Portland, Oregon, I’ve set about learning as much as I can about the place as it is now, and as it was in various stages of history. The history and character of Portland and Oregon are very rooted in the American pioneer tradition. Most settlers arrived by wagon train, requiring a class of self-reliance unheard of today.
Early Portland: Stump-town triumphant seemed like the best place to start to read up about Portland’s history, and the book lived up to its title. It’s also easy to read and even entertaining.
Through reading this book, I learned about the early settlers, the promoters and the influence of the Hudson Bay Company on what is now metro Portland. I also learned about the many rival town sites that all claimed to offer superior river and overland access that would facilitate trade between settlers and importers and exporters. Of course we all know now that Portland one this contest, but why? This books lays out the answers. Here’s a quick recap:
Fort Vancouver, on the Columbia just across for present-day Portland, was controlled by the Hudson Bay Company, which focused on monopolizing the fur trade. It had no interest in permitting settlers to destroy beaver habitat. Hence, settlers who arrived in wagon trains were directed to Oregon, not Washington.
Oregon City, south of Portland today, is located at major falls on the Willamette River, had early advantages and prospered for a time. The Oregon trail terminated there, and the falls provided power to grain and lumber mills. But larger ocean-going ships could not reach Oregon City reliably because the river was too shallow most of the year.
Milwaukie (Oregon) was also a major rival to Portland and was somewhat more reachable by ship. In the early 1850s it thrived, with mills and wharves.
The book also covers the settlement of lesser rivals like Linnton and St. Johns (both part of Portland today), St. Helens and others. But they never became viable contenders.
So why did Portland win out? It was simply the furthest up-river on the Willamette that large ocean-going ships could reliably travel to load and unload goods, agricultural products and timber. Because it was well-positioned to trade with San Francisco, Hawaii and other west coast ports, Portland excelled. It also provided road access to the agricultural Tualatin Valley. And some early settlers wisely invested in wharves and warehouses just when they were needed. Portland also occupied a wide plane of land on both sides of the Willamette River, so it could grow with fewer restrains that cities like Milwaukie, which had steep bluffs on one side of the river.
A nice little read
Early Portland: Stump-town triumphant, rival townsites on the Willamette, 1831-1854 is well-written and takes a somewhat analytical, yet approachable look at historical economics, which is fitting as the author has advanced degrees in economics. Anyone with an interest in Portland should find this a good place to get bearings on the history of this unique city.