Overheard on the Trolley

On my way home from work on Sunday, I notived the Vintage Trolley coming down the MAX lines, and decided to catch it to its terminus over at Lloyd Center.  I like the trolley a lot; I enjoy its rumble, the big windows, the comfy seats, and most of all, the trolley conductor that points out interesting facts along the ride. The trolley conductor is kind of a Portland booster, extolling all of the things that make our city great, and dispensing interesting historical anecdotes. On this particular ride, however, the conductor talked aboutsomething that didn’t quite sit right with me.

As we were coming to the dip in the tracks that go underneath the Morrison Bridge, the conductor started talking about how that was the original location that Pettygrove and Lovejoy started clearing out for the future town. Okay, sounds about right. Next, he started talking about how that little dip was the original elevation of the land, and that due to flooding, they did infill all around the area. The original elevation bit seemed plausible, but what about this infill? He then went on to say that they did this around the time the seawall was built in 1929, and that in doing so, they buried the first floor of all of the original buildings, so that all of the ground floors that we were seeing were actually the second floors. Uh… HUH? That’s the first time I ever heard anything like that. Upon hearing this, I was surprised and skeptical, but didn’t outright disbelieve it – I’ve only lived in town for seven years, so there’s plenty about the history of the city that I don’t know. I was mulling this over, wondering if I’d heard him correctly, when we started passing the New Market Theater. At this point, he now tells everyone on the trolley that the floor of the New Market that we are seeing as the ground floor is actually the second floor because of this burying business. What?

For about two seconds, I thought to myself, My God! How could I not know that?? Then the guy started talking about Skidmore Fountain, and I realized that his statment about the buildings being buried couldn’t make sense, since the Skidmore Fountain is at ground level. If there is any truth at all to this, then this supposed infill would have had to happen between 1872 (when the New Market was built) and 1888 (when the Skidmore Fountain was dedicated). I decided not to believe any of it when he started talking about how the Skidmore Fountain was built by Stephen Skidmore (it was bequeathed by Stephen Skidmore) and that he selected the sculptor for it (that was C.E.S. Wood that commisioned Olin Warner).

The more I thought of all of this, the more it bothered me. For starters, all of the ground floor architecture looks like ground floor architecture. Second, if there was just one point in downtown that wasn’t filled, why was it conveniently done where the MAX would one day run underneath the Morrison Bridge? Third, where did this guy get this information? If anyone has some knowledge of this supposed “infill”, could they let me know? This whole thing sounds pretty fishy to me.

Anyway, aside from this, the conductor seemed like a really nice gentleman. I don’t know if I want to ride on the Vintage Trolley with him again.

ps – more comics coming soon.

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    • Reply

    Huh, interesting. You could call the Oregon Historical Society, or the Multnomah County Library; I bet someone at O.H.S. would know.

  • There are 2 major fills in Portland that I know about FOR SURE. The first is the Guild’s Lake infill starting around NW 27th & Thurston & going NW. That’s a big one. The smaller one was on the east side “frog pond” that seems to have roughly been from the river out to as far as SE 7th, maybe between Morrison & Hawthorne streets. If you walk north on 6th there’s an undeniable climb starting at Morrison. I think your conductor/guide guy was maybe conflating the east side fill w/ the west side? I mean, he got the Morrison part right, at least…

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    What this sounds a whole lot like is the area around Pioneer Square in Seattle. There, the Underground Tour shows the first floors of buildings that really were buried up to new entrances on the second floor (its fun if you like geeky history attractions, which I do). Your logic about the Skidmore Fountain / New Markets building dates is exactly right. There was no major fill in that area which was then the very center of downtown Portland late 1870s early 1880s. There are plenty of pictures of the New Market Theater at the time with just as many floors, but not as many wings as it has now.

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    Many of the warehouse buildings on the east side of Front Ave. had docks on the Willamette. Because of the varying river levels in the Willamette, many had two dock levels, one of which would be below the “ground level” of Front Ave., to serve ships when the river was low. This may be the origin of the conductor’s belief in “lower floors”. I’m sure the New Market Building had (or has) a basement level, but as you point out, it was not built as the “ground level” of the building.

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