|Bordered on the east by the stunning Columbia
River Gorge and majestic Mt. Hood and on the west by rugged coastline
spiked with timber, the only thing that's ever dictated anything to the
people of Portland is the land itself. This is a place of snowy volcanic
peaks; a city cut through the heart by a mighty river, and canopied by
skies that weep at least as often as they shine. In spite of this rugged
territory, or maybe because of it, Portland has always been shaped by its
promise as a place where you might actually find whatever it is you're
searching for. You can't help but feel that, in a land this rich, you're
bound to stumble across it somewhere.
The first native people arrived here 30,000 years ago, hungry and crossing the Bering Land Bridge in pursuit of game. Slowly trekking from Alaska southward, they were surprised to discover that the new land not only held a much milder climate, but also seemingly endless stores of whales, salmon, fur animals and ancient forests. Thrilled with the bounty, but probably disagreeing about how best to use it, it's believed that several tribes splintered away from the original group, crafting a way of life that was all their own. In Oregon, coastal tribes opted for the abundance of the sea, while the hunting and gathering tribes slashed their way inland to ferret out game. Around 1750, some of these hunters and gatherers began to come face to face for the first time with white "mountain men": trappers and traders wandering the Oregon land. It's easy to imagine a tribesman and trapper eyeing each other suspiciously in a misty forest--a meeting of independent minds that was just a harbinger of things to come.
Although Oregon has been "discovered" many times over the centuries, in the early 1800s it was still home almost exclusively to Native Americans. The land was a prize all right, but getting here was one mighty arduous undertaking. It took the interpretative skills of the Shoshone woman, Sacajawea, to find a way across the nearly impassable Rockies for Lewis and Clark. Once this feat had been accomplished, word went out that fortunes were to be made, and westward flu became the new contagion. Two fur traders, Asa Lovejoy and William Overton, had it bad.
Arriving on the Willamette River in 1842, Lovejoy and Overton banked their canoe in a clearing on the river. It was a beautiful spot; the timber and game were plentiful, and the river provided passage to the Pacific. Like anyone of sound mind, they concluded it would be the perfect spot to establish a new town; with a 25-cent claim to the land, the new settlement began.
However, before the ink was dry on the paperwork, a quarrel began. The chief argument was over what to name the new settlement. Pettygrove, a native of Maine, wanted to name it Portland, but Overton, who was from Massachusetts, wanted to establish another Boston. With a toss of a coin, it was settled--Portland was born.
In 1859, Oregon became a state, and the little settlement on the river grew phenomenally. In spite of a couple of fires that nearly wiped out the town, people streamed into Portland and huge downtown buildings began to grow as swiftly and as tall as the trees they replaced. The first of Portland's famous bridges, the Morrison Bridge rose against the skyline in 1887. Such marvels of engineering must have made Oregonians feel as if it might be possible, after all, to impose their will on the land.
Unfortunately, the land was not all the newcomers were trying to dominate. White settlers and native people had been at odds for years by the 1890s. Treaties had been altered or ignored altogether, and the rush for land gobbled up the homelands of tribe after tribe. To most of the Native Americans, the concept of land ownership was as silly as the idea of owning a chunk of sky, yet still they were held to contracts so repressive that fighting seemed the only answer. Some of the most famous of these battles, the Nez Perce and Modoc Wars, have left a deep scar on our collective conscience. By 1900, virtually all the resistance movements had been crushed.
Today, Oregon tribes are at last experiencing an economic renewal--thanks to exciting gaming venues all over the state. Any of these beautiful casinos are well worth a visit, not only for the fun, but for the support they provide Oregon's original sons and daughters.
By 1913, Portland's population had climbed to 276,000 people. The new century brought "new fangled" ideas like the Meier and Frank department store, where you could visit floor after floor of merchandise. There were heretofore unheard of business concepts, like the Janzten Beach Swimwear Company'scandalous in those days. Suburbs began springing up; an American city as we know it was emerging.
Remarkably, it had only taken 30 years to change from the mud, blood and beer dominated early days, to the newer, gentler Portland. Simon Benson's sparkling water fountains (Benson Bubblers) and wholesome activities such as the sweet-smelling Rose Festival meant that taverns were no longer the only place in town to wet one's whistle, and that there were healthier alternatives of entertainment. Portland was one of the busiest ports on the globe, and it had happened in spite of the colorful types who promised to shanghai sailors for ship's captains. This "split-personality" Portland was developing a unique feature: all of her citizens, the shady and the brilliant, mingled like a stew to form a one-of-a-kind community. It may have been the first place in America where Puritan and Bohemian, Adventurer and Homebdy could all feel right at home. The multiplicity of personalities who still live here assures us that the one defining characteristic about this city is that such a characteristic simply doesn't exist. This town literally bubbles with eccentricity.
By the end of the 20th century, Portland had seen it all. There were economic hardships from a failing timber industry in the 70s, followed by a spark of growth from the silicon revolution of the early 80s, which ballooned into prosperity so great it ultimately led to Portland's being named America's most livable city. Even in this new century, nothing has tarnished the magnetism of the Oregon Trail. Volcanoes, wind and rain are all part of the allure here, and the streets' ambiance, hazy or sun-bathed, somehow becomes the characters that walk them. Portland is a city that sparkles.
Dressed in magnificent architecture that still manages to create small, friendly blocks for strolling and saying hello to strangers, and adorned with a glistening necklace of a river and the snowy tiara of Mt. Hood, Portland remains the true beauty she was when Overton and Lovejoy fell in love with her all those years ago. You're bound to come away bewitched as well.