So, you think Portland has too much power over the rest of Oregon?

Well, you should have been here 100 years ago.  That’s when Portland was much more dominant in terms of size and influence relative to the rest of the state.

That was one of the central messages delivered by Dr. Carl Abbott, longtime historian, during a lecture to about 300 people Monday evening at McMenamins Kennedy School in Northeast Portland.

Abbott’s presentation was part of the Oregon History 101 project, a multiple-part series of history talks sponsored by the Oregon Encyclopedia and the Oregon Historical Society.

The talk was entitled “It’s not just Portland: Cities and Towns…and Steamboats and Railroads.”  Abbott recently retired from Portland State University after teaching there since 1978.

During his presentation, Abbott walked the crowd through the development of Oregon cities from the 1840s forward and touched on the reasons some places developed – and some didn’t. 

“Some surge, some fall back, a bit like football and basketball teams in weekly rankings,” Abbott said.

Among the factors he listed in how towns developed in Oregon were pluck – “pluck means leadership” —  and luck – “luck means the advantage of geography.”   Or, simply put, he said, the old adage holds true:  “Location, location, location.”

One of those “location” advantages was being  along a river, specifically the Willamette or the Columbia.  That was important in the early days of the state because most commerce traveled by steamboat.  Later, railroads began to supplant steamboats, but the principle remained the same.

For several years, the competition remained stiff. 

He said that by 1850, everyone believed an important city would develop along the Willamtete or Columbia, but no one was sure it would be Portland.

In fact, by then, “Some had given up on Portland to seek greener pastures.”

However, by the early 1850s, Portland began to surge ahead for a few basic reasons:  It gained a newspaper (The Oregonian) in 1850; it gained the “Great Plank Road” – a road made of wooden planks — between what is now the Hillsboro-Beaverton area to Portland (now U.S. 26) so produce could dependably travel from fields to ships; and it gained dependable shipping to the rest of the world, first by boat and later by rail.

Once that happened, Portland elbowed ahead of towns like Astoria, St. Helens, Salem, Milwaukie and Oregon City – all of which had been strong contenders up to that time.  

Then Portland took off like a steam-powered locomotive in a race with horse-drawn carriages.  By 1920, Portland had a population of about 258,280, compared to just 17,679 in Salem, then the state’s second largest city. It dwarfed every other city in the state by almost every measure.

“In 1920, Portland was larger than the next 20 cities combined,” Abbott said.

 But after 1920, Abbott explained, things began balancing out.  While Portland remained the largest and most dominant city in Oregon, other towns began gaining ground, both in population and importance as they found their roles.

Today, early in the 21st century, “Portland is less dominant now than it was a century ago,” he said.  “The gap is rapidly narrowing.”

How are the other cities doing that?

“Many of the (other) cities are catching up by re-orienting themselves to the 21st century economy,” Abbot said.

He closed the event with a question and answer session that saw audience members quizz him about everything from the reason the state capitol is in Salem instead of Portland to how Portland became weird.

“I have another power point about that,” he said in answer to a couple of questions, drawing a big laugh from the group.  But about Portland being weird, he said the basic answer is that in the 1960s and 1970s, the traditional power base of the city began to shift and people with new ideas and new vision began to gain influence in the Rose City.

The next installment of Oregon History 101 will be Feb. 2, when Dr. Kimberly Jensen of Western Oregon University will talk about the “Progressive Era and Women.”  It will also be held at Kennedy School, starting at 7 p.m.  The Kennedy School, a former elementary school, is 5736 N.E. 33rd Ave.

More information about the Oregon History 101 project can be found on the Oregon Historical Society’s website. 

[email protected]

503-221-8538; @johnkillen

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