A Brief Catalogue of the origins Portland’s street names





A co-worker of mine was surprised when I remembered where he was from—Wasco, Oregon—because it is a town of 410 people well on the way to Idaho. It was simple that I remembered it because when he first mentioned it months before I immediately thought of NE Wasco St. between Clackamas and Multnomah a dozen blocks north of Burnside East of the river. Such is the benefit associating a newly learned piece of information with a physical place. This happens to be a coincidence—these streets are named for counties in Oregon—and Wasco is actually in Sherman County, not adjacent Wasco County whose seat is the Dalles. All the same this seems as a good place to start in identifying the logic behind the street names of Portland and establishing this premise: that the history of Portland is easier to remember if you already have a nominal understanding of the city’s grid. In other words, if you have already spent some time in lower Northeast Portland, the counties of Oregon might be easier to memorize, just as, if you’ve walked down the L or P streets (Lovejoy and Pettygrove) in the Alphabet District, you will have a better chance of remembering the names of the two cofounders who flipped the Portland Penny almost two centuries ago (Asa Lovejoy and Francis Pettygrove).

Quickly first, the streets that diverge from the Northwest’s alphabet pattern on the Eastside of the river, starting North of I(riving) with, of course Oregon Street, then Pacific Street, and then those named for counties, starting from southernmost Multnomah St. (Portland’s County), Wasco St., Clackamas St. (proud home of historic Oregon City), Tillamook St. (oh the dairy products of Tillamook County!), and as the pattern dwindles we get two California counties (Sacramento St. & Siskiyou St.) and one from Washington (Klickitat St., which gives the fabled setting to Ramona Quimby in the books of Beverly Cleary). Siskiyou is also a mountain range along the California/Oregon border and Klickitat is a Yakama Native American Tribe, but this section is subtitled “The Counties of (and around) Oregon.”




And now back to that treasure-trove of Portland history mnemonic devices: what is now known as the Alphabet District—streets ascending south to north from A(nkeny) to W(ilson)—originated from Captain John C. Couch’s original layout of his settlement north of Portland, A Street, followed by B, etc. After the area’s incorporation into Portland, in the Great Renaming of 1891, each was lengthened into the name of an early Portland history maker. Here I will share some highlights, again South to North or, if you like, alphabetically. A complete list may be found elsewhere.

NW and NE Couch St.: the aforementioned Captain John C. Couch who settled North of the original Portland Settlement. He was the first settler known to have considered the site of Portland—what he called “The Clearing”—as a viable option for mooring large seafaring ships hoping to trade with Oregon City, the option at the time. The Clackamas Rapids on the Willamette proved it difficult to bring goods and people to Oregon City, and other shallow passages (where present day Ross Island lies, for example) favored Portland over ill-fated Milwaukie (South of Portland on the East side of the river, explanation of SE Milwaukie which originates when SE 12th & 11th meet at the railroad tracks above Powell and goes south to, you guessed it, Milwaukie). Fun fact about Milwaukie, Oregon: it was named after Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which townsite founder and native New Englander Lot Whitcomb visited and greatlt admired in his time in the midwest before moving to Oregon City in 1847.

NW Lovejoy St. Asa Lovejoy filled out the paperwork and provided 25 cents to fulfill his end of a deal struck with William Overton (who paid the other half of the claim’s filing fee).

NW Pettygrove St. Francis W. Pettygrove traded fifty dollars worth of supplies to a destitute Overton for his half share of Portland—which, you’ll remember, he acquired less than a year before for 25 cents. Lovejoy and Pettygrove flipped a large copper penny—best two out of three—that Pettygrove had kept from back east, and Pettygrove was given the honor of naming what was then known as “The Clearing” after his hometown, Portland, Maine. Lovejoy was from Boston, but, since it was Pettygrove’s penny, Portland seems a bit more inevitable. The two out of three detail seems not only childish, but redundant also.

NW Overton St. William Overton—did I mention he was a minister from Tennessee who worked as a missionary in the Dalles?—had “The Clearing” “in mind for his claim when, one day in november 1843, he made the canoe trip from Fort Vancouver to Oregon City.” This text, and much of these facts come from Eugene E. Snyder’s Early Portland: STUMP-TOWN TRIUMPHANT, a must read, if you’re into that kind of thing. He described these canoes as “large, carrying two or three passengers and their baggage, and propelled by four Indians, who were paid with a woolen shirt or blanket.” And in that canoe was no other than Asa Lawrence Lovejoy, a lawyer who would be perfect for filing the claim for the site. Both would sell their shares at insane profit within two years. Everybody becomes a big shot and wants to go to San Francisco. Such is the history of the West Coast.





Sandy Blvd. follows the wagon road from the site (of present day town of Sandy where the Sandy River ends) where pioneers who plopped their deconstructed covered wagons into the Mighty Columbia at the east end of its famous gorge re-emerged on Oregon soil and voyaged to the Willamette River. Like other eastside exceptions to the grid (Milwaukie and Foster included) a streetcar line operated on this thoroughfare.

Powell Valley Road, now SE Powell Blvd., was the old wagon road for the farmers of Powell Valley (present site of Gresham’s track houses and, still, the occasional farm). The first family of farmers out there was that of, you guessed it, Jackson Powell. SE Powell Blvd., from the west, begins on the Ross Island Bridge, as Highway 26 majestically crosses the river, and more or less follows the grid through SE Portland, becoming W Powell Blvd., in Gresham, then E Powell, and then, when it crosses Burnside, at this point SE Burnside, re-becoming the Powell Valley Road it always wanted to be, and the state highway magic leaves Powell and heads south becoming the Mt. Hood Highway. At this point we’ve already left the city and are on our way to the Cascades, so let’s turn back around. Incidentally, much of Powell was slated for destruction by the abandoned Mount Hood Freeway Project. What a shitty thing that would have been. Unless you live in the neglected corners of Southeast Portland past 82nd and ever want to drive West. Who’s to say what’s best. Powell is a fact and so we live with it. Be careful crossing this street.

Since we’re out in Gresham we may as well visit the lovely Sandy River for a moment and catch the old Section Line Road at its eastern origins, now, of course, Division St. I hope you’re ready for another fun fact, because the Section Line Road marks the division between the 1st and 2nd rows of square mile plats south of the east-west Willamette Baseline established by the Donation Land Claim Act of 1850, from which the grid systems of all cities in Washington and Oregon are based!

Foster Rd. is like Powell in that it is an historic farm-to-market wagon road, and is like Sandy in that it was the end of one route of the Oregon Trail, not giving a fuck about the post-1850 grid system. Philip Foster was the farmer southeast past Damascus and on to Estacada for whom the street is named.

Both Clinton St. and Kelly St. are named after Clinton Kelly, a minister from Kentucky that settled in Portland with his family in 1848, initially staying on the claim of James B. Stephens, a virginian cooper who operated one of the first ferries over the Willamette between Portland and East Portland for whom Stephens St. is named. These three are not really thoroughfares, though Clinton is arguably the most bike-friendly route in the city. We might as well, in this moment, mention that Mitchell St. is named for Israel Mitchell who was the first ferry operator.

Hawthorne Blvd. is named after Doctor J.C. Hawthorne who co-founded Oregon’s first mental hospital. The street was originally—and boringly—called U Street, and then, distastefully, Asylum Avenue. Five years after the institution moved to Salem—to the building where One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was filmed—the street was renamed Hawthorne Avenue, renamed again in 1933 to Hawthorne Boulevard, the great bohemian descent from Mt. Tabor that brings us to the indelible Hawthorne Bridge via the shitty concrete of the Hawthorne Viaduct, and downtown Portland. But wait! Why are we going downtown. We’ve unfinished business on the Eastside.






The follow text is straight copy-and-pasted from a 2003 Report from the Portland Office of Transportation: “William M. Killingsworth was a prominent real estate developer in north Portland in 1880s. Killingsworth Street was dedicated and named for him in 1882. Mr. Killingsworth moved from Eugene to Portland in 1880. Later he was a state legislator and investor in transportation enterprises. He was the notary for the documents filed for the Central Albina plat of 1887, the year Albina was incorporated.” If you’re like me and have heard of this fucked up surname and decided to google about it you might encounter this paragraph from some for profit ancestry site:

This name is of English locational origin from a place called Killingworth in Northumberland. The name means “The word of Cylla’s people”. Another spot thus called may also have existed in Norfolk as the early recordings of the name all come from this county. In 1388 one Thomas de Killingworth was vicar of Windham, Co. Norfolk. A Richard Killingworth is recorded there in 1561. Grantham Killingworth (1699-1778) was a baptist controversialist and pamphlet publisher. The earliest spelling of the place name Killingwrth appears in the Book of Fees dated 1242. The first recorded spelling of the family name is shown to be that of Adam de Kellyngworthe which was dated 1273, in the “Hundred Rolls of Norfolk”.

I’m glad we got that taken care of.

Benjamin Stark arrived in Portland in 1845 as the cargomaster of the Toulon, the first ship to continue past Fort Vancouver—at the mouth of the Willamette—on toward Oregon City, discharging in the new townsite called Portland. Less than two years after Asa Lovejoy gained his half-stake in Portland, he sold it to Stark for $1215. Stark Street represented the southern, diagonal boundary of his triangular stake of the claim, the river to the west, and present-day Burnside to the north. While certain vantages of faded paint on brick on certain particularly cloudy days—perhaps a slow-moving burrito wrapper in a light wind, or just nothing—may seem stark, there is much vibrance and occasional sunshine on the strip, and even a gay dive bar (a dive gay bar?) that runs with the name and colorfully calls itself Starky’s. If clicking on this link doesn’t interest you I will just tell you: 8 dollar bottomless mimosas, and open right now.

The Failings of Portland are not its lack of diversity or traffic issues, gentrification or lack of sidewalk—they are the family of Josiah and Henrietta Failing of New York who came to Portland aboard the steamboat Columbia in June 1851. Josiah, and his son Henry, opened up J. Failing & Co. and soon became the city’s fourth mayor. Henry took over the business and then Portland honored his successful inheritance of the Failing name by electing him mayor several times. And so Failing St. takes you east or west through Northeast Portland. The choice is yours and either option is fine. Also, regards to Skidmore St. and Going St., Stephen Skidmore was a druggist and the financial benefactor of Portland’s first public art work, which you already know, history buffs, is the Skidmore Fountain, and Going St., as far as my research has taken me, is the means by which you leave.

the very picture of Failing/success

6 thoughts on “A Brief Catalogue of the origins Portland’s street names

    • Thank you so much! What would a pneumonic device be? Something that fights pneumonia or causes it? What devices are associated with the pneumonic plague? I found two, hopefully there’s not a third!

  1. Going was a prominent family in Portland. My great grandmother married a Going before relocating to Marshfield in the early 1900s to open a furniture store.

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