Sellwood’s Disappearing History

Sellwood’s Disappearing History

In a sleepy corner of Sellwood, nestled against the city limits and the Waverly Golf Club, is a disappearing part of Portland’s extensive history of rail transportation. The non-descript entrance to the hidden Garthwick neighborhood and the extant buildings don’t give a lot of clues to the bustling activity you would have seen here one hundred years ago. While many people know Portland once had an extensive streetcar system, they often don’t know that Portland also had the nation’s first interurban railway, what we today would call “light rail”. These trains connected urban town centers (hence “interurban”) such as Oregon City, Milwaukee, Troutdale and Gresham to Portland and each other. This differed from the streetcar system, which connected close-in neighborhoods such as Buckman, Kerns, Montvilla, Woodstock, King’s Heights, Council Crest, etc. to the city center.

Undated view of the Sellwood car barns while still in operation (via tinzeroes.blogspot.com)

Undated view of the Sellwood car barns while still in operation (via tinzeroes.blogspot.com)

Construction began in 1890 on the first interurban line in Portland (and the U.S.), which ran from the city center to Sellwood (along what is now the Willamette River portion of the Springwater Corridor), then on to Milwaukee and Oregon City. The railway was originally operated by the Eastside Railway Company, and was fully-operational by 1893. One of the main hubs for the line was at the area soon to be called Golf Junction, at 13th Ave. one block south of SE Linn St. The name Golf Junction comes from the Waverley Country Club, built in 1897 and a major destination along the line. Large car barns were built here for storage and maintenance of interurban rail cars, and the Sellwood population grew with the associated influx of railway workers, as well as office workers who now had easy access to downtown.

Last wall standing of the historic Sellwood car barns, demolished in 2012

Last wall standing of the historic Sellwood car barns, demolished in 2012

The area became even more important as new rail lines running to Boring and Estacada along the eastern section of the Springwater Corridor connected to the original Oregon City line at Golf Junction. Additionally, in 1905, the current owners of the line, Oregon Water Power and Railway Company, built a power substation here to help feed the growing need for electricity along the growing rail network. The power substation (pictured above) still exists, and the electric infrastructure surrounding the historic substation has been expanded greatly over the years to serve the needs of much more than just the rail lines. The lot behind the substation on SE Linn is filled with more modern electrical equipment.

Golf Junction in the early 20th century (via pdxhistory.com)

Golf Junction in the early 20th century (via pdxhistory.com)

As the rail system began to decline in the 1950s, the area ceased to be a beehive of activity, and became an all-but-forgotten corner of the Sellwood neighborhood. The car barn and office buildings fell into disuse, and as interest in Sellwood began to grow again, the old railway properties were a target of demolition and re-development. One of the office buildings was listed on the National Register of Historic Places and refurbished, and is now in use again by office tenants. More recently, in 2005, a developer from Fort Worth, TX demolished the historic car barns and built a development of town houses, saving one exterior wall of the barns for posterity. Unfortunately, they did a poor job of maintaining the wall, and it was torn down in 2012 due to safety concerns.

View of the remaining interurban tracks, car barn on the left and power substation (washed out) on the right

View of the remaining interurban tracks and the current 13th Street alignment in Sellwood

The only other remaining piece of history lies in the new Golf Junction “pocket park”, which at this point is somewhat indistinguishable from a small slice of undeveloped land. However, it contains probably the last remaining (and visible) piece of the original interurban tracks leading to Oregon City. Hopefully, this little park will have more information about its fascinating history soon.

2 thoughts on “Sellwood’s Disappearing History

  1. I worked in the car barn building during the 90s when it housed a plastic injection molding factory and their promotional advertising division. It was not a healthy building by 90s standards let alone today’s. Too bad, however, about that last piece of the wall being neglected and torn down.

    P.S. Correct spelling = Milwaukie, not double E, that’s in Wisconsin.

  2. It’s a shame that so much of our history is being torn down, or allowed to stand, but then neglected, eventually to be forgotten all together.

    I found this article while trying to find info. about the train sitting on these tracks. I learned some history I knew nothing about.

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