By Kathy Eaton
with photos by Judy Nelson
See our Facebook album with more of Judy Nelson’s Overlook photos here.
According to Rod Paulson’s Portland Neighborhood Histories, Vol. 2 (Community Press), James Thompson secured a donation land claim and built his home in 1852 near where Longview Avenue meets Overlook Boulevard. His property included a mile of river front below the bluff, but it was mostly swampy and not too useful. For that reason, in 1866, he sold the entire property, including a stretch of fir forest from Sandy Road to St. Johns for $4,800. Two buyers valued the property below the bluff for its strategic importance with the coming of the railroad. Several years passed, and complicated land transactions ensued before Henry Wemme ultimately acquired an Overlook plat in 1906.
Wemme had immigrated from Germany, landed in Portland and in 1886 opened a one-man tent and awning factory. He was able to secure government contracts for thousands of shelter and hospital tents when the Spanish-American War broke out in 1898. Recognizing that the streetcar was key to developing commercial businesses in Overlook, in 1907 Wemme granted right-of-way to allow tracks to be laid for overhead trolley wires. Wemme also was an automobile enthusiast who owned a Locomobile, one of the first vehicles in Portland. In 1912, he bought the old Barlow toll road and donated it to the State of Oregon, where it later became known as the Mount Hood Loop Highway. When he died in 1914, his estate was valued at $700,000; the community of Wemme located near Rhododendron named their town in his honor.
Overlook resident and historian Dan Haneckow said plats were added to Overlook and subsequently developed over time. Polish immigrants, who worked in the railroad yards below the bluff, settled Overlook neighborhood and in 1907, founded St. Stanislaus Polish Catholic Church, 3916 N.E. Interstate Ave. Haneckow researched genealogy records and Portland city directories, which revealed a significant Scandinavian population lived inside the Overlook triangle, bounded by North Interstate Avenue, Overlook Boulevard and Going Street.
Historic Overlook House
In the early 20th century, Overlook’s housing stock consisted largely of Craftsman-style homes and bungalows. In 1928, the owners of Portland’s Raven Creamery built a beautiful home at 3839 N. Melrose Dr. on four acres overlooking the Overlook bluff. Planted with a variety of trees, the cultivated gardens originally extended down the slopes of the bluff. After Mr. Raven died in 1951, his widow sold the house to the city for one dollar.
In 2003, when Portland Parks and Recreation proposed selling the Historic Overlook House, Overlook neighbors organized to save the property. The neighborhood association formed the Friends of Overlook House, a non-profit organization, to manage the property for community use. For more information: Visit historicoverlookhouse.org.
“I’m naturally nosy, and had a desire to be connected to this neighborhood,” said Dannielle Herman, newly elected Overlook Neighborhood Association chair who hails originally from Baker City, Oregon. She’s reaching out to all residents of Overlook, as well as small-business owners, using all the social media tools familiar to her generation.
Herman sought guidance on how to set goals from Tom Griffin-Valade, director of the North Portland Neighborhood Services organization, a federation of eleven North Portland neighborhoods. Griffin-Valade, with 30 years of community building experience, helped incubate about 50 North Portland community projects, including farmers markets and the first tool library. NPNS supports grass-roots projects such as Friends of Overlook House and serves as the fiscal sponsor for the Friends of Overlook Bluff. For more information: Visit npnscommunity.org.
Citing parking as a major issue in Overlook, Herman said, “We want Overlook to be an amicable place to live, with neighbors who are respectful.” The association’s board works cooperatively with local police to reduce crime in the neighborhood. They’re proposing to partner with Viva La Free, a community organization to help victims of sex trafficking in the Portland area by petitioning the city for a community mural in Overlook.
Herman enjoys the amenities of Overlook: “You have everything you need within the community,” she said. “You can walk to bars like Prost! and restaurants on Mississippi Avenue without encountering the nightmare of parking there,” she added. Last month, Herman celebrated her 28th birthday with 60 friends at Miho Izakaya, 4057 N. Interstate Ave., featuring Japanese pub food.
Alan Cranna, vice chair of the Overlook Neighborhood Association, has lived in Overlook since 1950 and has seen the neighborhood change during the past six decades. Safeway was once the main store, but today new small businesses are moving in, and housing stock includes infill projects and apartments. “In 2000, after Kaiser Hospital moved to 3550 N. Interstate Ave., Adidas moved to their former campus on North Greeley Avenue and the MAX line was completed,” said Cranna.
In 1988, Stephen Onisko bought a house across the street from Overlook Park with views of downtown. “The neighborhood came to me; I didn’t go searching for it,” said Onisko, who retired from the Bonneville Power Administration eight years later.
He gave up his car, “costing him a little time,” but takes the MAX downtown, bikes everywhere, or walks. Onisko credits SunLan Lighting and the ReBuilding Center located on nearby Mississippi Avenue for improving the neighborhood. On school days, Onisko walks his grandson who lives in Arbor Lodge, to Beach Elementary School, 1710 N. Humboldt St. The bilingual school with a Spanish immersion program is holding an auction on March 14 to raise funds for school programs. For more information: Visit beachpta.org.
In 2012, Portland native and realtor Glen Brunton and his wife, Christina, moved to Overlook, after spotting a for-sale sign at a 1912 Old Portland-style house on Overlook Terrace.
“We love the community where we enjoy gardening together, participating in block parties and joining neighbors at Feast in the Triangle,” said Brunton. They like walking to Spoke and Vine wine bar, 1451 N. Skidmore St., and Blend Coffee, 2710 N. Killingsworth St.
According to Brunton, Overlook neighbors incorporate food gardening into the landscape with fruit trees and berries. When a neighbor announced his intention to sell a one-acre oak savanna anchored by a 200-year-old heritage tree, Brunton and others took action to save the white oak. Forming a non-profit group, Friends of the Bluff, the organization is raising funds to buy the property for Portland Parks to hold title and Overlook neighbors to provide a stewardship role. The savanna is home to wildlife including bald eagles, deer, red-tailed hawks and coyotes, as well as native plants. The bluff is part of a migration path for birds from Canada to California, and the group’s long-term goal is to provide a trail link from Overlook Park to Waud Bluff Trail near the University of Portland. For more information: Visit overlookbluff.org.
According to Brunton, Overlook Park is the site of the annual North American Organic Brewers Festival in August 2015, adding, “ET parachuted into the Park two years ago, then Indiana Jones dropped by last year. In 2015, the television show Grimm filmed an episode at a modern house near Melrose Drive.”
According to resident historian Dan Haneckow, when Overlook neighborhood’s boundaries were drawn in the 1970s, it included Swan Island, below the bluff. Swan Island became a center for industrial operations and a home to nature.
History of Swan Island
In spring 1841, a group of former fur trappers turned settlers found a spot on the east side of Swan Island (close to the main river channel) to build a ship to sail to California. The boatbuilders secured oak and cedar from nearby Sauvie Island, then brought it to Swan Island to build. Lieutenant Charles Wilkes, who had commanded a six-vessel squadron around the world in 1838, learned of the project, and visited Swan Island. He charted Swan Island, calling it Oak Island and a decade later renamed it Willow Island when publishing an account of his voyage. It’s unknown when the name was changed to Swan Island, however Wilkes’ map of Willow Island depicts it as an actual island. In 1927, Congress authorized closing the north channel of Swan Island to facilitate navigation improvements needed on the Willamette River. Overlook resident Bob LaDu’s article is available at swanislandba.org/about.
In 1926, after the Port of Portland purchased two acres on Swan Island, it authorized construction of Portland’s first airport there. A year later, Charles Lindbergh landed at the airstrip. When the Port realized the small airfield couldn’t accommodate larger passenger loads and the airport couldn’t be expanded due to its location, it eventually closed between 1941 and 1943.
Kaiser Shipyards built tanker ships on Swan Island during World War II, and post war, the island became the center for the Port of Portland operations. Today there are 40 members of the Swan Island Business Association, representing companies including: Daimler Trucks North America, United Parcel Service and Vigor Industrial. More than 11,000 employees work at a variety of businesses ranging from small family-owned enterprises to large, global manufacturing companies on Swan Island, according to SIBA executive director Sarah Angell.
Swan Island has been an industrial sanctuary, with businesses including advanced manufacturing, warehousing and distribution, and growing research and development.
According to a December 2014 article in Macadam Forbes Market News, “Swan Island industrial district may only be second to Intel’s Sunset Corridor expansion in terms of long-term impact on metro (Portland) job creation.”
Swan Island: where industry and nature meet
“SIBA is focused on fostering economic and workforce development, and strengthening neighborhood ties by connecting residents to jobs on Swan Island,” said Sarah Angell, who also serves as director for Swan Island’s Transportation Management Association (TMA). Formed 15 years ago, the Swan Island TMA is a collaborative effort by area employers and regional agencies to expand transportation options for Swan Island employees, reduce congestion to and on the Island, and promote freight movement. SIBA and TMA are working with city bureaus, Metro and business partners to complete the North Portland Willamette Greenway, eventually connecting the trail from the East Bank Esplanade to Kelley Point Park in St. Johns.
In September 2014, Portland Community College opened the Swan Island Trades Center to provide skills and job training for more than 20 different occupations in the trades. Since 2008, Vigor Industrial has partnered with PCC to train welders for job employment in their company.
“We’re excited at the prospect of forming more partnerships with the businesses here on Swan Island and across the Portland area. So many industries need skilled, well-trained employees, and these are the kinds of jobs that can never be outsourced,” said Dan Wenger, Dean, PCC Arts & Professions Division. For more information: Visit news.pcc.edu/2014/09/swan-island-opening/.
Two new businesses are scheduled to move to Swan Island in 2015. Premier Press, a women-owned business, is consolidating two Northwest Portland locations and moving its production operations and corporate offices to Swan Island by the end of May.
“We are extremely excited about our new facility with approximately 350,000 square feet located on Swan Island. We’re still in the heart of Portland, which provides convenient access to our customers, our employees and is perfect for local deliveries,” said Jodi Krohn, CEO and owner of Premier Press.
Fed Ex is constructing a new site on Swan Island scheduled to open in fall 2015 and employ 150 workers.