Friday, December 9, 2011

Sunny day reflections on Stumpville (Did I get that right?)

I started off the morning trying to see if Portlanders ever actually referred to the city as Stumptown back in the early days, as the legend goes.But maybe I should wait for the rains to return. On a beautiful, bright sunny day like today it is hard to remember the endless drizzle and the heavy clouds hiding the hills. 

Our soggy winters are infamous. Lewis and Clark complained about the wetness, and then pulled up camp and high tailed it back to dryer regions as fast as they could. In Portland the rainy season (some say it lasts for eleven months out of the year) is bad enough to make the necessity of good paved streets and sidewalks a given. But I have friends who live well within the city limits, and the city street in front of their house is an unpaved, mud-caked sinkhole without sidewalks and only traveled by 4 wheel drive. (I am not exaggerating, and can provide images if called upon to do so.) 

It has been over one hundred years since Rudyard Kipling condemned a road out of Portland as being "worse than an Irish village".  He also commented that "Portland is so busy that it can't attend to its own sewage or paving" and then goes on to tell the story of seeing a foundation dug out in the downtown where sewage had been seeping for twenty years. (From Sea to Sea, American Notes; Rudyard Kipling 1907)

A few years earlier, (Oregonian Aug 5, 1895) Mark Twain visited Portland and mentioned the need for paved streets. He suggested that the city purchase a fleet of bicycles and then rent them out to pay for the streets. 

Portland streets must have been something to navigate back in the beginning of the city. I came across an account in an 1851 edition of the Oregon City Spectator of a trip from Oregon City to Astoria. The author wanted to visit with the editor of the new Oregonian newspaper, Thomas Jefferson Dreyer and this is what he had to say:

"We were not able to penetrate the town to any distance on account of the vast quantities of mud and water that lie in our course. We screwed up our courage to a point sufficient to wade through and wend our way to the printing office in hopes to grasp Bro. Dreyer by the hand. In this we were disappointed. We were informed that he had  gone out to rusticate—he had gone to Vancouver."

Last May the Willamette Week ran a story called "Dirt Roads, Dead Ends" looking at the 59 miles of dirt roads within the city limits. It shows that some things don't change over time. It's almost as though bad streets are a part of the cities heritage. I know my friends wouldn't want the street in front of their house paved. It cuts down on traffic and give a nice rural kind of feel to the neighborhood. 

What, you may ask, does this have to do with the waterfront. Well, I was once told by Alice Frasier, a woman far older than me, and much better informed, that the streets of the old city were paved with paving stones that served as ballast in the sailing ships that came to collect cargoes of wheat and lumber. Is this true? I certainly hope to discover the root of this, and many more of the "unsorted waterfront facts" I have cluttering my memory as I try to assemble a readable book on the subject.