Life on the Willamette

Portland’s “Scowtowns” of the 19th Century

Photograph of one of Portland’s Scowtowns this one North of the Oregon Steam Navigation Company’s Boneyard of worn out and damaged riverboats from the Daily Oregonian, circa 1891.

    Life on the river, in the luxury of a modern houseboat, is the dream of many.  But in late nineteenth century Portland, houseboat living was exclusively for the poorest of the poor.

    Imagine waterlapping on the shore, ship’s bells ringing, an occasional seagull with the sound of footsteps crunching in the sand and gravel. 

     Now imagine that it’s eighteen ninety-three Portland, and we’re walking the Western shore of the Willamette just North of today’s downtown, across the river from where the Memorial Coliseum now stands.  Seen over the bank to the west is the skeleton of Union Station, scheduled to be finished in eighteen ninety-five.  To the South along the river where today a seawall stands are docks, piers and warehouses lining Southwest Front all the way to Jefferson Street.  In the mid-1890’s, many of these are abandoned, rat-filled ruins, un-approachable from the river due to a build-up of silt and a lack of dredging.  North of us is the ballast pier, across from Swan Island, and in the river dozens of two, three and four-masted ships swing at anchor. 

Old, worn-out side and rear paddle wheel riverboats retired from the Columbia and Willamette Rivers by the Oregon Steam Navigation Company –west side of the Willamette just North of the 1895 rail station in the “Old North End.”

     Here, where we’re walking just North of the Oregon Steam Navigation Company Boneyard, are about twenty humble homes built on scows, or large, flat-bottomed boats used in shallow water, or built on a raft of logs salvaged from the river. 

     Some are neatly painted and clean, others look like they would collapse in a light wind.  The whole settlement is dotted with the refuse of a nomadic existence. 

Sketch of Bertram family home built on a raft of logs claimed from the Willamette River. Daily Oregonian, circa 1893.

     On one particularly clean and orderly raft stands the neat, painted home of the Bertram family.  While some Scowtown residents resort to begging and petty crime for an income, here several Bertram men cut and split logs salvaged from the river which they sell to the wealthy homeowners along Northwest Seventeenth at two dollars, twenty five cents per cord for firewood, firewood that lines the streets and avenues of Portland in tall stacks on the parking strip. 

     Aboard the raft is Grandma Bertram, matriarch of the Bertram family, and several of girls of the family who tend their drying wash ashore or sweep the deck of their raft. 

     Next door is a particularly shabby residence inhabited by several Chinese Men.   Dressed in traditional silk knee length shirts, hair hanging in long braids, they labor with long oar-like sticks over a tub of steaming soapy water filled with the clothing of wealthier Portlanders.  Behind them along the shore are lines heavy with drying laundry, set up on driftwood poles. 

     A little girl of six or so, barefoot in a gingham dress lugs an oaken bucket heavy with drinking water from a well dug in the riverbank.  She struggles up a flimsy gangplank that threatens to break and toss her into the river at every step. 

     In the late 19th Century Scowtown settlements exist all up and down the Willamette, providing inexpensive housing with no rent for Portlanders of modest means.  And when one spot on the river becomes too crowded, noisy, or polluted, or the owners of the land want to use it for another purpose, it’s a simple matter to cast off from shore and to pole your raft to a new, fresh location to start over.

SinCity Portland Walking Tours

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