Eliot – The Making of a Neighborhood

Written by Carol Kennedy
April 1998

The Eliot neighborhood, located in northeast Portland, Oregon, is locally significant as the original town site, of the City of Albina. Of the many communities that ultimately merged to form the present City of Portland, the City of Albina occupies a distinct niche in the city’s history. No other township contributed as greatly as did Albina to defining Portland’s present-day boundaries. The union of the City of Albina and the City of Portland in 1891 also added to the City of Portland’s sociocultural history by later fostering a diverse working class, immigrant, and minority community.(1)

Settled in three separate parts, the City of Albina is generally categorized in terms of Lower, Central, or Upper Albina. A 1909 Promotional booklet of the area cites the demarcations as follows: Lower Albina refers to the area from the Willamette River to Mississippi Avenue; Central Albina follows Mississippi Avenue, Russell Street and Williams Avenue; and Upper Albina consists of the area north of the intersection of Russell and Williams Avenue, up to Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard. (2) As a whole, the boundaries of the original City of Albina are comparable to today’s Eliot neighborhood.

Vancouver and Russell - 1909
Vancouver and Russell – 1909

Albina:1872 – 1880 Eliot’s Roots

Platted in 1872, the original townsite of Albina developed along the eastern banks of the Willamette River. It was located on a donation land claim originally owned by J. L. Loring and Joseph Delay, pioneers who took advantage of the economic opportunity afforded by the Donation Land Act of 1850. This act granted free land to qualifying early settlers of the Oregon Territory, with the agreement that they live on and cultivate the land for four consecutive years. Loring and Delay disputed over the land claim, eventually causing Delay to sell the land to Judge William Winter Page. The Judge in turn, sold to Edwin Russell, the manager of the Portland branch of the Bank of British Columbia, and George H .Williams, former U.S. Attorney General, senator and future Portland mayor, in 1872. (5) The town was named after Page’s wife and daughter, both of whom were named Albina (pronounced “Al-Bean’ah”) . All of these names, with the exception of Delay’s appear on the streets of Eliot today.(3)

Edwin Russell, for whom the Russell Street Conservation District in the Eliot neighborhood is named, was an aristocratic Englishman who emigrated to America to run the Portland branch of the Bank of British Columbia. Occasionally called Lord Russell, he was described as “a man of hustle” (4) who was also “one of the best-dressed men in Portland. “ Russell managed the downtown bank, located on Southwest Front Avenue, but foresaw greater personal success in financing a town on the other side of the Willamette. He jumped at the chance to form a partnership with Williams. (5)

These town pioneers were correct in predicting the desirability of the area. Like many of Portland’s “movers and shakers’ of the time, these early investors where primarily interested in exploiting the economic opportunities of the area. (6) While Williams platted the community’s general dimensions, Russell, who had controlling interest in the venture, oversaw Albina’s development. Russell eagerly began work on the new town. He built a sawmill and shipyard along the river’s edge, organized machine and engine shops, and constructed a grand mansion for himself. Things went well for Russell. In 1873 he was able to negotiate a contract with the U.S. Government to build a $92,000 revenue cutter in his ship yard. Russell had dreams of overtaking the nearby City of Portland where a fire that same year had destroyed a large portion of its business district. He believed that Albina’s future was to be the “premier city of the Pacific Northwest”.(7) Unfortunately, he failed to see his dreams come true. Because Russell has invested all of his savings and borrowed heavily, the bank panic of 1873 was disastrous for him. Unable to pay the interest on his mortgaged properties, Russell left town and moved his family to San Francisco.

In 1874 James Montgomery and William Reid, two fellow Scots, joined in purchasing the Albina town site. Montgomery and Reid acquired the property, using Scottish capital at Reid’s disposal, and promptly began developing homesites. Within a 10-year period, Reid attracted over $6 million of Scottish capital for investment in Northwest farming, commercial and residential property.(8) Montgomery and Reid were also able to complete the revenue cutter- originally Russell’s contract-in 1876. It was the first U.S. Government vessel built in Oregon. With Montgomery and Reid’s investments the townsite grew from 143 people in 1880 to one with a population of nearly 3,000 by the time of it incorporation in 1887. (9)

Consolidation: 1880 – 1891

In 1881 Albina was selected to house the Oregon Railroad and Navigation Company roundhouses and machine shops. By 1886 there was a regular ferry service , a saw mill and other large corporate businesses. Few cities in America were as dominated by corporate interests as was Albina.

With so much land at stake, Albina’s consolidation with the City of Portland became a focal topic for policymakers of both cities. Consolidation made sense for the City of Albina, since it would relieve its city council of the burden of providing municipal services with funds it did not have. Instead, the responsibility would be transferred to the citizens of the City of Portland.(14)

In the months preceding the consolidation of July 6, 1891 many Portlanders felt their city was poised for greatness. For several years, the consolidation of Portland with East Portland and Albina had increasingly been advocated. The population density of West Portland had reached 6,230 to the square mile, an alarmingly high figure for people not accustomed to being crowded together. (10) The consolidation would have made Portland a city of some 25 square miles in area.

Commercial Development 1880 – 1923

Hill Block Building - 1910
Hill Block Building – 1910

In Central Albina, the intersection of Russell Street and Williams Avenue was the primary focus of business. Unsurprisingly, that particular intersection became the focus for the entire Russell Street commercial strip. Its location at the midpoint of the Albina district was probably its strongest point. The transportation industry highlighted that fact at the start of its history in the Albina community by virtue of the first streetcar line’s trajectory. By 1908 there was a heavy concentration of commercial buildings along Russell Street between Vancouver and Williams Avenue especially at the latter. The two story brick Hill Block Building occupied the northwest corner of Russell Street and Williams Avenue. It contained a drug store and two other stores at the main level, with a bowling alley in the back. West of the Hill Block Building was a wooden structure that housed a barber shop and three other stores. Across from the Hill Block Building on Williams Avenue was another three story retail building where one could purchase meat, paint, or oils. Other shops and offices were located in various buildings clustered in this area. Of note was the Williams Avenue Public School, a large building covering half a block. It was situated on the south side of Russell Street between Vancouver and Williams Avenues.(11)

Williams Avenue School
Williams Avenue School

Upper Albina was represented commercially by the intersection of Russell Street and Union Avenue. The rise of the commercial node was also influenced by the transportation industry: The Portland and Vancouver Railroad line that traveled along Union had a train car shed at its intersection with Russell Street. Commercial activity in the area was established within the vicinity.(12) Between 1908 and 1923, the intersection of Russell Street and Union Avenue experienced a dramatic metamorphosis. Housing stock and the train car barns were demolished to make room for the commercial buildings that began to define Union Avenue and the streets it intersected. Buy 1923 Union Avenue was solidly lined with commercial buildings of brick and wood. (13)

Union (MLK) and Russell - 1930s
Union (MLK) and Russell – 1930s

Williams Avenue and Russell Street experienced a similar transformation. The most dramatic change that occurred was the construction of a three story commercial building at the northeast corner of what was once the site of the Williams Avenue Public School. The building had seven ground level stores, among them a restaurant and clothing cleaners. The Hill Block Building became a private hospital, and its two small office buildings and storage shed were removed.(14)

Ethnic Migration: 1880 – 1948

The transportation industry- signified by the streetcars and the railroads-brought not only large industry to Albina but a whole new socioeconomic class as well. As railroad yards and industrial districts gained prominence in the area’s landscape, the distinctions between residential and nonresidential use of land gradually eroded. This change in the economic profile of the area’s inhabitants was accompanied by a parallel shift in the cultural landscape. In the 1880s, working class Irish and German immigrants began filling the semi-skilled jobs offered by the railroads. While the middle class were fleeing to new subdivisions such as Boise or Woodlawn, away from the rough environment of the waterfront, immigrants were being herded to the “cheap, temporary structures” along the railroad tracks. This residential area came to be known as “Stringtown”. It is the area more widely associated with early Albina’s history as a town of “booze and battle.(15)

Beginning in the 1880s and into the teens, Albina would continue to absorb an increasing number of immigrants relative to the rest of the city. Predominantly from eastern Europe, immigrants from Italy, Greece, Hungary, Poland, Russia would join established immigrants from Germany and Ireland, as well as a Scandinavian community that had settled along the corridor of NE Seventh Avenue. The Albina area would come to serve as a gateway for immigrants newly arriving to Portland.

For the early Scandinavian community, lower Russell Street functioned as their primary commercial area. In 1892 H. H. Heide, a Danish engraver and goldsmith, started the first jewelry store in Albina at N Russell and Albina Street. The business continues to exist today but is now sited further east from its original location in the Lloyd Tower Building. Hans Hansen was another successful Dane in the Albina community. He ran a landmark furniture store on Russell Street between Mississippi and Interstate . By the turn of the century and certainly by its early decades, Albina was solidly identified as an ethnic, working class, industrial community.(16)

Allen Ervin Flowers, was a cabin boy aboard the Brother Jonathan, when he jumped ship in Portland in 1865. He hid in the brush along the river until the ship had cleared port before venturing out . He did not know it at the time but he was a very lucky young man, as the Brother Jonathon sank just off the coast near Eureka, California on its return trip to Oregon. In 1880, he worked for the U.S. Customs House. He married in 1882 and had four sons. In 1885 he started working for the Northern Pacific Railroad as porter-in-charge between Portland and Seattle. He remained on the job until 1900. He was one of the very few blacks who owned land. He purchased acreage near Mt. Scott where he raised horses and raspberries. He also owned land in northeast Portland in the vicinity of the present day Coliseum Ford car dealership. He became Portland’s first black developer when he constructed a road on NE Schuyler so that his wife could wheel her baby buggy to Union Avenue, which was the only through street to the river at that time. (17)

African-American Re-Settlement: 1900 -1939

The second wave of ethnic migration to the Albina district transpired in the early 1900s when Portland’s African-American population began migrating to the east side. Blacks were lured to Albina by the possibility of jobs in the railroad industry, the most consistent employer of African-American laborers. By 1909, five transcontinental rail lines (Southern Pacific, Santa Fe, Union Pacific, Northern Pacific, and Great Northern) ran through the heart of inner northeast Portland.

The railroad continued to be a consistent employer of African-Americans Prior to the completion of the transcontinental rail lines, the three most common jobs held by black Portlanders were cooks, bootblacks and domestics. The transcontinental railroads brought black porters, dining car waiters, mail clerks and other railroad jobs to Portland. By 1941,the results of an industrial
survey revealed that 98.6 percent of black people were employed in the railroad industry, and 4 percent in business and the professions.(18)

Segregated housing patterns emerged as another expression of popular racial attitudes. Before the early 1900s, African-Americans had generally been able to live in all parts of Portland, but the resurgence of anti-black opinion made it increasingly difficult for blacks to purchase homes or rent apartments in the areas they desired. The Portland Realty Board even included a provision within their code of ethics that prohibited any of their members from selling property to blacks or Asians, with the explanation that such sales resulted in the depreciation of property values.When the number of African-Americans migrating to the east side began to grow, realtors reacted by establishing parameters that would restrict black settlement. Increasingly, those boundaries mirrored those of the Albina area.

Because of this deliberate manipulation , Albina was gradually becoming known as a black neighborhood. Blacks comprised but 0.24% of the total population of the state (roughly 2,000 out of 70,000). So, while Albina may have been perceived by the white community as an area for blacks, it may not have been seen as such by the African-American community itself. Albina and the northeast part of Portland truly were, in one sense, centers for African-American cultural life; but that fact did not necessarily create a cohesive representation of the black community. According to the 1940 census, whites made up 93 percent of Albina’s population.(19)

World War II And Post War Era: 1940 – 1960

World War II and the years following produced an infusion of African-Americans in Portland., roughly 15,000, mostly from the nation’s south central states. They were brought in to support the shipbuilding industry that arose in Portland because of the war. This new wave of workers also produced a housing shortage. Emergency housing was constructed in Guilds Lake in northwest Portland and Vanport in north Portland. While the black population of Albina had increased to around 3,000 in 1944, most of the 13,000 newcomers found apartments in the defense housing projects , such as Vanport.

When the war ended many of the workers, black and white, took their families and left the area looking for work. Those blacks that stayed, remained living in the temporary housing which was supposed to be razed after the war. This created a problem for the city government because it would have required that the residents move elsewhere, and no one wanted them.(22) On May 30, 1948 Vanport was destroyed by flood. While this disaster resolved a dilemma for the city it left close to 19,000 people without homes. Unfortunately, hardly any public assistance was extended to the victims. Instead, they had to rely on community churches and charitable organizations for aid. For the 6,000 blacks that had been residing at Vanport, there was little incentive to remain in Portland. Those that still stayed on found that in segregated Portland, the only place to find homes was in the Albina area, giving rise to the third wave of ethnic migration to the area. Portland’s housing segregation was helped by the canon of professional ethics promoted by the Portland Realty Board which provided for expulsion of any member who encouraged a minority family to move into a white neighborhood.

By 1950 things had gotten somewhat back to normal. Albina’s black population was about 4,500 and was centered in the area around Union and Broadway. However, this population was well segregated and politically powerless so the Portland leadership and white citizens alike felt comfortable again. Thinking things would return to their prewar state, Portland contentedly settled into the 1950s. But, things were not to remain calm for long. By 1957, over 50 percent of the city’s African-American population lived in Albina. In the 1960s, some 2,000 residents of Albina lived on incomes averaging 30 percent lower than the city standard. Little relief was forthcoming, and the “solution” eventually offered took shape in a series of redevelopment and clearance projects. Powerful forces were in the move and Albina was in their path.(20)

Urbanization : Albina Becomes Eliot

The face of any community changes over time. However, the Eliot neighborhood witnessed a transformation in less than 20 years that is exceeded in Portland only by the changes that occurred in South Portland. In 1950 Albina was a rundown, but vibrant community. Between then and 1980, many factors came to bear on the area. The growing popularity of cars as America’s favorite means of transportation and the city’s need to accommodate it, urban renewal and race relations all played a part in this process.

In the mid 1950s the decision was made to build the Portland Coliseum. After much wrangling a site between the Steel and Broadway Bridges was selected. “The choice had the side effect of clearing the southern end of Portland’s black neighborhood and increasing the attractiveness of Lloyd Corporation land around the new Lloyd Center shopping complex.” (21) This was the first of several projects that significantly depleted the area of housing in general, but specifically, low income housing. This property had at one time been very desirable residential sites. “This is the original view property of East Portland”. (22) And at the time of demolition, some of the stately houses still stood on the river bank.

The second event took place just a few years later when the East Bank and Minnesota Freeways were developed. The path of these roads cut a huge swatch through the Central Albina area. They also created numerous dead end streets which eroded the grid street pattern typical of older urban neighborhoods. By 1965 Portland’s the vicious cycle seemed complete : the construction of I-5 had done for Interstate what it had done for Union. More damage was on the way though, when the Emanuel Hospital Renewal Project was introduced to the community.

I-5 Consruction at Going Street Overpass (North of Eliot)
I-5 Consruction at Going Street Overpass (North of Eliot)

In 1909 Rev. Carl Rehnard was the newly named pastor of the Swedish First Immanuel Lutheran Church. As he looked around his new community he recognized the need for a hospital, and set out to meet that need. In September of 1909, he and 11 other like-mind Swedes formed the Swedish Lutheran Hospital Board. Rev. Renhard found 4 lots in the Albina section of Northeast Portland, Emanuel’s location even today, and the board purchased them for $4,250.00 for the future Immanuel Hospital. Although the board had purchased lots in Albina, Emanuel’s first location was in southwest Portland, in a charming, three story Victorian “Gingerbread House” at 209 SW 10th Avenue. The doors opened on January 23, 1912. In the January 12, 1912 minutes the spelling for the hospital was Immanuel. But a few days later, it was Emanuel. Emanuel Hospital finally moved to its Albina site in 1915. Between then and 1945 several building and additions were constructed. In 1967, needing to expand or relocate the hospital announced that with the assistance of federal grants, it would build a 19 acre health campus. The hospital administrators wanted to establish an inner city community health center, to meet both the daily health care needs of immediate neighborhoods and the more complicated medical problems of the entire metropolitan area. From the hospital’s perspective this expansion was in keeping with its tradition of meeting the community’s health care needs by expanding the building. (23)

In 1967, more than 1,000 Albina residents petitioned City Council to extend the project that PDC had completed in 1961 just north of Fremont, to south of Fremont. This request was denied based on the Planning Commission’s Central Albina Study which wrote off the future residential potential of the entire area south of Fremont and west of Union. PDC was more interested in their next land clearance project which was being planned in cooperation with Emanuel Hospital. In part to get that project off the ground, PDC applied to HUD for a Model Cities Planning Grant. A newspaper article at the time said “backup components (of the proposal) would include Emanuel Hospital’s multi-million dollar medical complex expansion.” (24)

Basically, Model Cities was concerned with rehabilitating inner city neighborhoods (a term often synonymous with aging and decaying areas inherited by lower income minority groups) by distributing federal monies to those neighborhoods that showed the most need. That year Albina was judged the most economically depressed of the model neighborhoods in Portland and showed the heaviest concentration of blacks.(25) Those findings seemed to convince the Portland Development Commission (PDC) to write off the entire Albina neighborhood for industrial uses alone. For that reason, the Emanuel Hospital project was kept from the Model Cities planning process, although it meant a massive land clearing in the area. Emanuel Hospital, in an effort to stay technologically abreast and competitive, hoped to build a 19-area health campus situated in the heart of old Albina. In order for their plans to reach fruition, large amounts of land-commercial and residential- would have to be cleared. The area that Emanuel Hospital wished to develop had already suffered damages via the construction of the Memorial Coliseum and the development of Lloyd Center. The Emanuel Hospital Renewal Project would destroy what was left by razing the buildings along Russell Street between Vancouver and Williams Avenues that represented the early development of the City of Albina.

Residents of Albina banded together in response to this attack of their community. They organized a neighborhood group and named it after the local school district, in keeping with the naming practices of other neighborhood groups that were also forming around the same time. The Eliot Elementary School was named after Thomas Lamb Eliot, the first minister of the First Unitarian Church of Portland and a great civic activist. Now Eliot Neighborhood Development Association formed to save their community from unwanted redevelopment at the hands of Emanuel Hospital.(26)

Housing officials and professional planners ignored the residents’ resistance-which, by this point, had blossomed into public protest-to relocating to other parts of the city. Instead, they were pacified with compensatory benefits but grew bitter when federal budget cuts halted the renewal project, despite their homes having already been razed. To this day, most of the land remains vacant. It was no surprise that Eliot lost almost half of its residents in the period between 1960-1970.

The Hill Block Building was another victim of this razing project. Built by Charles H. Hill, Albina’s first mayor, the structure’s onion dome cupola-one of its most distinctive features- was the only item saved of the building. The cupola can be seen today in the neighborhood’s Dawson Park. It stands as a reminder of what was once the heart of old Albina’s business district.

Of the few businesses that survived these attacks on their community, more challenges were on the way. On July 30, 1967, the Albina community experienced an outbreak of racial violence. About 200 African-Americans, fed up with the deterioration of their neighborhood, looted, vandalized, and fire bombed numerous businesses located on Union Avenue (now Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard). Their actions resulted in a band of “anti-riot or fortress” decor along the avenue, creating the appearance of a less than welcoming neighborhood. Many businesses sited in the area, rather than outfitting their establishments with such severe regalia, simply relocated to other parts of the city.(27)

In the 1970s, urban planning experienced a shift in policy. The redevelopment of residential and commercial sites in in blighted areas excited planners and policymakers more than the idea of massive land clearance for industrial uses, as was previously advocated. In the 1980s, that shift in policy and practice would put the Albina community at the top of Portland neighborhoods primed for the introduction of private reinvestment. Plans were made to enhance the physical appearance of the Union Avenue corridor and to improve its function as a transit street. In 1981, a landscaped median was installed to try to meet these goals.

Although the neighborhood has many positive characteristics, it remains an area threatened by development incompatible with its historic environment. In the early 1990s, a community plan created by the staff of Portland’s Planning Bureau in conjunction with members of Eliot Neighborhood Association (ENA) included design guidelines that were meant to ensure development compatible with the district’s historic character. The designation of the Eliot Historic Conservation District and the Russell Street Conservation District followed in 1993, in an attempt to preserve what remained of the area’s rich past. (29)

The Eliot neighborhood continues to experience revitalization. Its residents have greater political savvy and exhibit strong community activism. Their neighborhood association allows them to play a more active role in planning decisions that affect their district. Eliot still retains its history as a diverse community, with a noticeable percentage of the city’s present African-American population residing within the district’s boundaries. Additionally, there has been a rising tide of East and Southeast Asians emigrating to the neighborhood, perhaps a gateway for yet another ethnic community. The crime rate has also decreased significantly, while real estate sales enjoy a healthy market. The commercial sector shares in the good fortune too, with new businesses appearing everywhere in the community. (28)

Note: The original document contains information about “infill projects”, “projects now in planning” and a neighborhood tour. That content has been omitted due to changes in the neighborhood since it was written.


1) National Register of Historic Places Continuation Sheet Sec. E Pg 1
2) EL Merritt, The Peninsula (Portland Oregon Peninsula Publishing Co 1909)9
3) National Register of Historic Places Continuation Sheet Sec E Pg 1
4) David Hazen Romantic Portland Streets (The Oregonian April17,1934)
5) National Register of Historic Places Continuation Sheet Sec. E Pg1
6) Albina to Eliot Susan G. Hartnett Sec. Eliot Roots
7) Paul Pintarich “Albina Residents Celebrate New Life”(Oregonian 20, Feb. 1972)
8.) Merchants Money And Power E Kimbark MacColl Pg 214
9) National Register of Historic Places Continuation Sheet Sec. E Pg 2
10) Merchants Money And Power E. Kimbark MacColl Pg. 283
11) National Register of Historic Places Continuation Sheet Sec. E Pg 5
12) ibid
13) ibid
14) National Register of Historic Places Continuation Sheet Sec. E Pg. 5
15) Merchants Money And Power E. Kimbark MacColl Pg 136
16) National Register of Historic Places Continuation Sheet Sec E Pg6
17) ibid
18) ibid pg.116
19) National Register of Historic Places Continuation Sheet Sec E Pg8
20) From Albina to Eliot Susan G. Hartnett
21) ibid
22) As reported by Mrs Pauline Bradford long time Black resident
23) Legacy Emanuel Hospital & Health Care – The Birth of A Hospital
24) From Albina to Eliot Susan G. Hartnett
25) Portland Bureau of Planning Portlalnd Historical Context Statement pg 66
26&27) National Register of Historic Places Continuation Sheet Sec E pg10
28&29) National Register of Historic Places Continuation Sheet Sec E Pg 11