Thursday, April 11, 2013

"It will soon be the largest town in Oregon"

"Below we give a fine view of the town of St. Helen's, in Oregon Territory, situated on the Columbia river, about fifty miles from its mouth. It was settled and named by Mr. Wm. H. Tappan, artist, formerly of Boston, in 1849. The river is rather more than a mile wide opposite the town. The fork, where is seen the schooner passing, is the lower mouth of the Willamette, but the mouth frequented by vessels bound up the Willamette river, is eighteen miles above. The island which divides the two is called Souveis Island, and is large and fertile. The Pacific Mail Steamship Company have made St. Helen's their depot, and are at once to erect large buildings and wharves. It will soon be the largest town in Oregon."
From Gleason's Pictorial (Boston, Mass.), August 14, 1852, p. 105
St. Helens was platted as a future city by Capt. Henry M. Knighton and William H. Tappan in 1849-50; Tappan was the first postmaster (the post office name was initially Plymouth). I am not familiar with this view of the town in its early incarnation, but it is fitting that it appeared in a Boston publication. Tappan (1821-1907) came west from Fort Lawrence to Fort Vancouver, as an artist with a U. S. Army regiment in 1849; the men were sent to help protect the Oregon Trail, and they are celebrated in Pacific Northwest history as the "Mounted Riflemen" (see The March of the Mounted Riflemen by Cross, Gibbs, and Loring, 1940). Tappan stayed in the region for several years, serving in the first Washington Territorial legislature from Clark County, was an Indian agent, raised stock, and did surveying. He moved to Colorado in 1864 and later returned to Massachusetts. There he wrote a history of his home town of Manchester, and was president of the Manchester Historical Society. Ginny Allen and Jody Klevit, in their Oregon Painters: the First Hundred Years (1859-1959) say of Tappan, "He appears to be the region's earliest resident professional artist."

The Pacific Mail Steamship Company did build a dock at St. Helens, and for a brief time designated this its Oregon port of call, but the siren call of Portland could not be ignored; soon, Portland was the largest town in Oregon, a position it has never relinquished.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Cosmopolitan, Portland? Really?

It's a long-standing exercise to characterize American cities. We debate today just how "weird" is the city of Portland (of course, it's about as weird as Akron or Omaha or Pensacola, which is to say it's not). It might be better if we looked for what is distinctive about Portland (Akron, Omaha, Pensacola). A century ago, Edward Hungerford wrote The Personality of American Cities (New York: McBride, Nast & Co., 1913), which includes a vignette of Portland as "New England transplanted"; here is "a town [sic] that is so absolutely American, that it seems as if she might even boast one of the innumerable George Washington headquarters somewhere on her older streets." Those streets "are conservatively narrow, her staunch Post Office [Pioneer Court House] suggests a public building in one of the older cities on the Atlantic coast, and her shops are a medley of delights, with apparently about thirty percent of them given over to the retail vending of chocolate. Our Portland guide was grieved when we made mention of this last fact. 'I once went to Boston,' said he, 'and found it an almost continuous piano store.'"

But this is not an essay on The Hazelwood and its sweets, but rather to the point that Portland does not have, nor has it ever had, a reputation for cosmopolitanism. Yes, it has had its share of immigrants and sojourners, travelers and traders; but that New Englandish pall seems to have kept the manifestations of cosmopolitanism to a minimum.

Still, sometimes, in some ways, the city has grasped for the exotic and the worldly. Consider the early 1960s, in the flush aftermath of Oregon's statehood centennial of 1959. That celebration brought foreign exhibitors to Portland! (I still vividly remember an exhibit that included the chance to smell attar of roses from Bulgaria, behind the forbidding Iron Curtain.)

Oregonian, February 6, 1963
In December 1962, the Cosmopolitan Motor Hotel opened at the corner of NE Grand Avenue and Holladay Street, plonked sort of halfway between the new Lloyd Center shopping mall and the new Veterans Memorial Coliseum. Though only a modest five floors in height, it boasted a rooftop dining room touted as "Top of the Cosmo," headed by a Swiss-born chef, Ernest Herzog. Herzog had experience in Puerto Rico and at the Portland Sheraton (another new hotel, located at Lloyd Center) before coming to the Cosmo, where his menus featured "Oregon grown fresh chicken" in 1963.

By 1964, Herzog and the Cosmo were advertising a menu that went "Around the World in Seven Days." While the Top of the Cosmo may not have made much of a difference in advancing Portland's cosmopolitan credentials, over time Herzog did make an impact. He was one of the first members of the Chefs de Cuisine Society of Oregon, and he went on to head his own restaurant, the Swiss-themed Matterhorn in the early 1970s. The Cosmopolitan Motor Hotel is today the Red Lion Convention Center, and the Top of the Cosmo is called Windows Skyroom and Lounge. It appears that what goes on there today is almost entirely pre-sports-event drinking--no longer is it a place to go for some adventuresome, cosmopolitan dining. Fortunately, now there are many other options for culinary explorations.