The City of Albina and the Eliot Neighborhood

The following is an excerpt from Portland’s Adopted Eliot Neighborhood Plan 1993 pages 9 – 11.

The following discussion is from several sources. “History of the Albina Community,” a document produced by the 1990 Comprehensive Planning Workshop graduate students at Portland State University (PSU) formed the basis for this discussion. The workshop is a core requirement in PSU’s Master of Urban Planning Program. The students have graciously allowed the Albina Community Plan staff to use their work product in this planning effort. The Portland Bureau of Planning published the entire history report in 1990. It is available to those interested by contacting the Bureau. An article on Thomas Lamb Eliot by Stew Rogers that appeared in the November 1991 issue of the newsletter of the Eliot Neighborhood Association provided another source. In addition, a paper by Susan G. Hartnett “From Albina to Eliot: The Transformation of a 1887 City to 1991 Inner City Neighborhood” provided additional valuable information incorporated here.

The first inhabitants of the area that came to be known as Albina were the local Indian tribes. The Albina area falls within the tribal grounds of the Clackamas tribe, whose lands extended from the Willamette River east to the Cascade mountains.

Little is known about the tribes in the Albina area. We do know that most of the Indians living north of Willamette Falls were Chinookan-speaking salmon fishers and that they occupied large semi-permanent villages. As with most Native American peoples, their way of life was destroyed by the coming of European American settlers, with their plans for expansion as well as their diseases.

Many of the original European American settlers reached Albina via the Barlow Road, which ended on the east side of the Willamette River south of Albina. The boundaries of the city of Albina at its founding were roughly those of the present day Eliot Neighborhood. In many ways the history of Albina is also the history of Portland’s Eliot Neighborhood. The names of these pioneers can be found today on Eliot’s streets.

In 1840, Willamette Valley settlers wanted to build a ship which they could sail to California and sell at Yerba Buena. A company of rune men was formed to build the ship on the east side of Swan Island. The ship “Star of Oregon” was the first built in Oregon. It was fifty-three feet eight inches long and measured ten feet nine inches at the beam.

Downstream from the `Albina Yards’ is the site of the “bone yard”, the place where out of service steamboats were moored. Two ferries operated between Albina and Portland, one from the foot of Albina Street to Union Station and the other from Russell Street to Fifteenth Street.

The history of Albina and Eliot reflects the great economic opportunities available and exploited by early movers and shakers in Portland. Many of Portland’s pioneers acquired property through free land grants as provided by the Donation Land Act of 1850. The Act granted free land to Settlers who would agree to live upon and cultivate their claims for four consecutive years. The Act gave 320 acres to every male citizen over 21 years of age who arrived in Oregon before December 1, 1850. A married couple was granted 640 acres. After December 1, 1850, single men were granted 160 acres and couples, 320. December, 1855 was the expiration date for this offer of free land.

Albina was located on a donation land claim owned by J.L Losing and Joseph Delay. The land was later sold to attorney William Winter Page, who in 1872 sold the land to Edwin Russell, manager of the Portland branch of the Bank of British Columbia, and George H. Williams, former senator and U.S. Attorney General. Today, Northeast Russell Street and Williams Avenue bear their names.

The original town site of Albina, platted in 1872 by Williams and Russell, was close to the waterfront on the bend in the Willamette River. Russell and Williams named the town for William Page’s wife and daughter, both of whom were named Albina (which the family pronounced “AI-BEAN-ah”.) Russell had controlling interest in the venture, but it was Williams who laid out the general dimensions of the community. In 1872 Albina was a virtual wilderness without any graded streets and with heavily forested land beyond it to the east and north. When Russell went bankrupt and fled to San Francisco in 1874, James Montgomery and William Reid acquired the property and began developing residential sites.

The City of Albina was incorporated in 1887. Before its consolidation with Portland and East Portland in 1891, Albina was one of a series of independent river towns seeking prominence on the Willamette River. In 1880, the population of Albina 143; by 1888 it was 3,000 and by 1891 it had reached nearly 6,000. Its brief history is basically that of a company town, the company being the Oregon Railroad and Navigation Co. (OR&N), which owned the extensive Albina railroad yards.

The two main factors in the rapid growth of the east side were the opening of the Morrison Bridge in 1887 and the proliferation of the street railways. This improved transportation spurred speculators to promote subdivisions for the middle-class. These subdivisions were sited on high ground away from the rough, ramshackle waterfront. Housing in Boise Neighborhood dates from 1888 and in Woodlawn from 1889. Arbor Lodge and Piedmont were heavily promoted for housing development in the 1890s.

In April, 1887, the Oregonian observed that Albina was growing rapidly and quoted William Killingsworth, a major residential real-estate investor in Albina: “Albina has been selected as the place to build industrial enterprises ” The selection of Albina was made by Portland’s west-side powers in the banks, transit and utility companies, with the support of local government.

Russell was the main street in the old city of Albina. The intersection of Russell and Williams Avenue became the center and the principle buildings of the early years are located here. Industrial developments by the riverside, the widening of Interstate Avenue and the freeways have nearly erased the oldest section of Albina.

Upper Albina became one of the most fashionable centers of the greater Portland area. The centrally located retail area was bounded by Mississippi and Williams Avenue. The central area of Albina is in what is now Eliot Neighborhood. Only scattered buildings remain of the old upper commercial center. By the Second World War, Mississippi, Russell and Williams Avenue were solidly lined with three and four story brick commercial structures. Albina’s growth was further spurred when, in July of 1888, electric cars began crossing the new Steel Bridge. A second line was opened on the bridge’s upper deck the following year. For much of the next half-century Albina housed a succession of immigrant populations. They were attracted to the area by its affordable housing and location close to industrial and commercial employment centers. Early immigrants had been Scandinavian, Russian-Germans and Irish workers. Following the Second World War the area provided housing to many African Americans who moved to Portland during the war to work in Portland’s shipyards.

By 1950 Albina was an economically depressed but vibrant community. However, in the following years much of the neighborhood was cleared by a succession of public and private projects that disrupted the community and destroyed vast amounts of housing. The development of the Lloyd Center, Memorial Coliseum, the Minnesota Freeway and Emanuel Hospital campus changed the neighborhood almost beyond recognition. During the late 1960s the Portland City Planning Commission wrote off the entire area south of Fremont and West of Union Avenue (now Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard) as an area with no future as a residential area. Expansion of Emanuel Hospital and growth of other core area commercial interests were seen as ultimately leading to the removal of the area’s remaining stock of housing. As recently as 1979 the city’s economic development agency, The Office of Policy Analysis, advocated rezoning remaining residential areas in the area known as the Eliot Neighborhood to light industrial. They advocated strongly for the conversion of the area into a new job center close to the downtown well served by public transit.

The unfolding Albina Community Plan reveals that choices for this area have changed little. The struggle between the needs of light manufacturing firms and medical facilities for low cost growth opportunities are at odds with the aspirations that many of those involved in the Eliot Neighborhood Association have expressed for this neighborhood during the planning process.

The Eliot Neighborhood is named after Thomas Lamb Eliot, who was the first minister of the First Unitarian Church of Portland. Lamb served as minister for many years but was active in other areas of civic life as well. He helped to establish the Perry Center, Reed College, Boys and Girls Aid Society, Oregon Humane Society, Portland Art Association and the Library Association of Portland. Eliot Hall at Reed is named for him as is Eliot Glacier on ML Hood. He was elected superintendent of Multnomah County Schools and urged school reform.

Eliot was interested in other issues as well. He supported women’s suffrage, prison reform, mental health program improvements and was concerned about the welfare of Native Americans. As a member of Portland’s first board of park commissioners he raised $10,000 to bring the Olmsted brothers to Portland to design a system of parks for the City. The Olmsted parks plan for Portland was approved in 1904. The plan still forms the foundation for the City’s parks system. Eliot School was named for him and in time the surrounding residents following the practice of many of Portland’s neighborhoods took the school’s name for the name of their neighborhood association.