Portland is the city of roses, hipsters, and championship sports, and is renowned for hosting the largest urban forests in the country. A top ten green metropolitan in the United States, our city is the second-largest in the Pacific Northwest, with nearly 660,000 people calling the PDX area their home, behind only Seattle in population. Positioned on the Columbia and Willamette Rivers, and beneath Mount Hood, it’s no surprise that nature lovers are attracted to our eco-friendly location. 

Which begs the question: how was our city of Portland founded? 

Fur Trade Invasion 

For centuries, the Portland metro area housed traditional villages of numerous tribes. During the early 19th century, upwards of 30 different sites were documented in and around the Portland Basin. Groups formed communities and summer encampments that ran along the Columbia and Willamette rivers. 

In the early 19th century, the Lewis and Clark Expedition passed near the site of the Columbia River. After their exploration, fur traders needing opportunity wandered into the state. Led by John Jacob Astor, the Pacific Fur Trading Company made landfall in what is now Astoria in 1810, effectively establishing Fort Astoria. Rival company, the British Hudson’s Bay Company, put up their own post at Fort Vancouver, across from modern-day Portland. Managed by John McLoughlin, the fur trader’s historic home is now part of the national park system. 

The fur craze brought numerous settlers on the Oregon Trail, which stretched to the sound end of our city. The trek over the next 50 years saw plenty of foot traffic, with half a million hopefuls making the journey. Settlers quickly laid claim to 2.5 million acres of tribal lands, proposing and passing both the Indian Removal Act of 1830 and the Oregon Donation Land Act of 1850. 

A Penny For Portland 

portland name was decided by a coin tossA woody stop along the trail, Portland was once referred to as “Stumptown”, due to the dense forestry. The city was officially founded in 1843; since “Stumptown” didn’t sound like a very attractive tourist destination, a coin flip two years later decided the city’s fate. Business partners Asa Lovejoy and Francis Pettygrove called heads and tails, respectively. Pettygrove won the toss. Because he hailed from Portland, Maine, the name was proposed and implemented. Lovejoy admits he would have named it after his home city Boston. The original Portland penny is still intact in the lobby of the Oregon Historical Society. 

Besides “Stumptown”, our city has been referred to under numerous other names, including the Clearing, City of Roses, P-Town, PDX, Rip City, Bridgetown, Silicon Forest, and Little Beirut. 

Port Town Business

In the 19th century, Portland was a successful port town, and earned a reputation as one of the most dangerous on the West coast. Saloons, bordellos, gambling dens, and boarding houses were all established on the waterfront. Passages were constructed beneath Old Town (or present-day downtown Portland) known as Shanghai Tunnels — hallways meant to move goods from the docks into basements that are still intact today. Because the varied industries created numerous opportunities, the end of the century saw an influx of Chinese and Japanese immigration. In particular, the blossoming Cantonese-Chinese community used the port as a key routing center for the migration of workers across the Pacific Northwest. 

On the outskirts of Old Town, landowners were purchasing vast parcels of land, utilizing property around West Hills and Mount Hood. Vast amounts of areas were annexed surrounding populated communities. Additionally, our city is renowned for the second-largest collection of cast-iron architecture in the United States, with a  sizable concentration along the waterfront built during this period. 

Another Gold Rush 

Initially, a gold rush was initiated after the discovery was unearthed at Sutter’s Mill. Miners created a great demand for fruit, lumber, and wheat, exporting the goods from our city to the nearby regional market of San Francisco. Instead of the gold fields, newly minted Oregonians shifted their focus, finding they could profit more on the exporting of both food and lumber to neighboring California miners. 

Again, another business opportunity occurred with the arrival of the Northern Pacific Railroad. President Henry Villard shifted the terminus of the trunk line from Tacoma to Portland. The transcontinental connection permitted shipping directly to the east without relying on trans-shipment from San Francisco. Villard also financed the Portland Hotel. Originally known as the Hotel Portland, the elegant accommodations offered stay to locals and visitors alike by constructing the latest architectural trends in New York and Boston. At the time, many buildings were constructed using native lumber milled throughout the state, fashioned after both Greek and Gothic revival architectural styles. 

Early Festivals 

Marking the 100th year anniversary of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, our city staged its only world’s fair in 1905. The festivities lasted 4.5 months. Staged across the 400-acre fairgrounds located on the northwest edge of town, the festivities attracted 1.6 million paying visitors, with roughly half a million migrating from outside the Pacific Northwest. The exposition brought much attention to the area. 

Two years later, the first official Rose Festival became one of the first electric parades in the world. The novelty of the electricity would eventually wear off, but the Festival is still conducted to this day. 

Further Industry & Population Boom 

World War 2 saw even more industry established at the port. Industrialist Henry J. Kaiser founded three shipyards — two in our city, and one in Vancouver, Washington. The Northwest shipyards produced 752 ships during this time period. At the very peak of the industry at the end of 1942, the area employed 97,000 workers, including many migrating from outside the state. The boom furthered the social history and economic fortunes of our city. Prior to the war, the population was 340,000, and nearly doubled post WW2. In the midst of the conflict, Portland State University was founded in the metropolitan area. 

Want to learn more about our area? Check out “The Top 8 Writers With Oregon Ties.

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