Incorporated in 1851, Portland may seem like a young city compared to may other parts of the country and world, but you can still find plenty of history everywhere you look. Here are some features and places for history-lovers.
Legend has it that while walking through his mill one day in 1912, Simon Benson, a teetotalling lumber baron and philanthropist, noticed the smell of alcohol on his workers’ breath. When Benson asked these men why they drank in the middle of the day, they replied there was no fresh drinking water to be found downtown. Upon hearing this, Benson donated $10,000 to the city to purchase and install 20 bronze drinking fountains, now known as the Benson Bubblers. Beer consumption in the city reportedly decreased 25 percent after the fountains were installed.
There are currently 52 of the fountains in Portland — 46 of which are downtown. You can still sip from the original bubbler at the corner of Southwest Fifth Avenue and Washington Street. This downloadable PDF contains a guide to all of the Benson Bubblers in downtown.
Chapman and Lownsdale Squares
These two adjacent public parks were originally divided by gender — Chapman Square was intended for women and children and Lownsdale Square was for men — and were popular with public orators who drew crowds when they spoke their piece. Today, these historic squares, originally acquired by the city in 1869, serve as quiet urban oases and feature prominent public art and lots of shade.
The Old Church
Built as a Presbyterian church in 1883, The Old Church represents the Victorian architecture that once filled Portland. Now hosting concerts and community events, the church boasts an interior rich in period detail like built-in umbrella racks, hand-carved fir pews, vaulted ceilings and Corinthian columns. Free concerts are offered every Wednesday at noon.
Hours: 11 a.m.-3 p.m., Tuesday through Friday, plus scheduled events. Admission: varies by event.
Old Town Chinatown
Bordered by the Willamette River, the Pearl District and downtown, Old Town Chinatown was Portland’s original city core. Today, many early sites and buildings remain, and the neighborhood is listed as a National Historic Landmark. Ankeny Plaza is still surrounded by cast-iron buildings from the mid-19th century and is also the site of Skidmore Fountain, the city’s oldest public sculpture (see below).
There’s more history beneath the streets, as well — the Shanghai Tunnels were originally built to connect hotels and shops to the waterfront, so workers could bypass street traffic while stocking supplies. But legend has it they were also used to kidnap or “shanghai” people through trapdoors still found in Chinatown buildings. The unsuspecting victims were then allegedly shipped out and enslaved as laborers on the high seas.
The Park Blocks
When developer Daniel Lownsdale donated a strip of his land to the people of the young city of Portland in 1852, some say he just wanted to create a buffer to protect his downtown investments from forest fires. Whatever his intent, Lownsdale also planted the seed from which one of the nation’s best park systems would grow. Lownsdale’s original gift of land constitutes a good portion of the South Park Blocks — 12 blocks of green that slice right through downtown, providing a place for farmers’ markets, respite-seekers and families.
Dedicated in 1869, the tree-lined North Park Blocks mirror the layout of their southern counterparts, but, with a children’s playground, basketball courts and regular bocce ball games, these blocks tend to attract more activity.
Simon Benson House
Built by logger Simon Benson in 1900, this Queen Anne-style mansion was condemned in 1991, then moved four blocks to its current location on the Portland State Campus in 2000. After a nearly yearlong renovation, the Simon Benson House was reopened and now serves as the home of the Portland State University Alumni Association and the university’s visitor’s center.
Benson was also a philanthropist, best known for his enduring gift of public drinking fountains, which are still quenching Portlanders’ thirsts today (see above).
Hours: The Visitor’s Center is open 9 a.m.-5 p.m., Monday through Friday, except for holidays. Admission: Free.
Skidmore Fountain was installed in 1888 in Ankeny Plaza, the commerce and entertainment center of its day. Brewer Henry Weinhard offered to pump beer from his brewery via Portland’s fire hoses through the pipes of the Skidmore Fountain for the fountain’s grand opening. Weinhard’s generous offer was vetoed by nervous civic leaders, who feared that residents will help themselves to the beer before it reached the fountain by poking holes in the city’s valuable fire hoses.
The 14-foot-tall mixed bronze and granite fountain may look ornate, but its purpose was practical: to quench the thirsts of Portlanders and their animal companions. A mid-1980s restoration preserved the square and assured a future for the fountain, which is Portland’s oldest piece of public art.
Japanese American Historical Plaza
In downtown Portland’s Waterfront Park, the 13 stone markers in the Japanese American Historical Plaza commemorate the history of the people who were deported to inland internment camps during World War II. The stones are engraved with short poems, and from March-April, 100 cherry trees bloom around the award-winning monument, which was designed by Portland landscape architect Robert Murase. Guided tours are offered by the Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center.
Hours: 5 a.m.-midnight. Admission: Free.
Oregon Holocaust Memorial
The contemplative and educational Oregon Holocaust Memorial is set gracefully into a meadow in Portland’s beautiful Washington Park. The Oregon Holocaust Resource Center maintains the memorial and offers docent-led tours by request.
Hours: 5 a.m.-10 p.m. daily. Admission: Free.
Vietnam Veterans of Oregon Memorial
The somber, understated Vietnam Veterans of Oregon Memorial wraps a wheelchair-accessible spiral path inside a meticulously landscaped bowl of greenery. Along the path, visitors are reminded of the Oregonians who sacrificed their lives and safety in the war and, at the trail’s end, a curved, black granite wall outlines three years of the conflict, contrasted by local events that happened simultaneously.
Hours: 5 a.m.-10 p.m. daily. Admission: Free.
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