Local Guide

Portland, Oregon

History of Portland

Though some histories of Portland begin with Meriwether Lewis and William Clark exploring the area in 1805, these records overlook the rich oral accounts of the Native Americans who inhabited the Pacific Northwest long before white settlers arrived. Home to the Chinook tribe, who sustained themselves by fishing, foraging and trading, many Portland area landmarks — like the Willamette River and Multnomah Falls — were named by these original inhabitants.

But when settlers stepped off the Oregon Trail and made their home in Portland, they started giving the area names of their own. One that endures today, “Stumptown,” was an early nickname for the city because of the felled trees that dotted the city’s quickly developing landscape. As a lumber town with seemingly endless expanses of forest all around, the area sprouted up swiftly, knocking down old-growth trees in the wake of its expansion. Pioneers and adventurers flocked to the city from the East Coast, and two — Maine merchant Francis Pettygrove and Massachusetts lawyer Asa Lovejoy — decided the city’s name with a coin-toss, choosing between their respective hometowns of Portland and Boston. Known as “The Portland Penny,” the deciding copper piece is on display today at the Oregon Historical Society Museum.

With its Willamette River location (and proximity to the Columbia River and Pacific Ocean), Portland soon grew into its name as a shipping hub, but it also became a wild haven for sailors who indulged in drink and other vices in the city’s downtown (known today as Old Town Chinatown). Sometimes these workers would even get kidnapped, or “shanghaied,” and sold to sea captains who needed men for Asia-bound vessels.

As happened in much of the nation, World War II changed Portland’s waterfront activities significantly, with the installation of hydro-electric spreading power to the area and local shipyards assisting with the war effort. Portland’s boom began when local ports started building cargo ships for Great Britain, and spread after the attack on Pearl Harbor with the construction of aircraft carrier escorts for the U.S. During that time, the region swelled with new residents and suburbs popped up to house them. Less than 100 years old, Portland suddenly had 360,000 inhabitants.

Though the city’s original planners developed the downtown wisely (with a gridded structure and small, easily traversed blocks) the infrastructure needed to support a growing region — and ensure its natural beauty — had to be rethought. So, in 1974, the city re-routed a major highway that had disconnected Portland from its waterfront and installed the 30-acre public Waterfront Park in its place. Next, in the late 1970s, Portland instituted an urban growth boundary, an artificial border that restricts development, inhibits sprawl and encourages green space around the city. While Portland will never be able to rewrite history, return the old-growth trees to the region or undo the pollution caused by its rapid growth, these green feats aim to reverse the damage, and ensure that the city’s history and its people have many more chapters to come.