A Brief History of Sellwood and Westmoreland
By Eileen G. Fitzsimons
Sellwood-Westmoreland is situated on the east bank of the Willamette River near the southern tip of Ross Island. Approximately two miles in length and a mile wide, the teardrop-shaped area is rich in natural and recreational amenities. This includes four public parks,Westmoreland, Sellwood, Sellwood Riverfront and Johnson Creek, hiking paths at the Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge, a public golf course, the Springwater Corridor bicycle/pedestrian- only thoroughfare and the city’s second oldest Parks & Recreation center.
A full range of businesses and services, including specialty retail, antiques, grocery and hardware stores, banks, dry cleaners as well as a wide spectrum of restaurants and a seasonal farmers market are concentrated in two historic commercial districts. Its flat topography, sidewalks and diverse architecture (1876 to present) make walking for errands or exercise a pleasure.
The area, as yet un-named, had its beginnings in the mid-1840’s when emigrants arrived over the Oregon Trail and established Donation Land Claims. The initial settlers engaged in the fruit nursery business, logging and general farming. Most trade and socializing was not with distant Portland, but with the City of Milwaukie, less than a mile south. Reliable transportation was by the steamboats which began serving river communities in the early 1850’s. The other route, a muddy track through the underbrush, was the Milwaukie Road. Its alignment unchanged, this 150-year old arterial, renamed S.E. Milwaukie Avenue, continues to be one of the primary routes into the neighborhood.
In May, 1882 a real estate company that had purchased 321 acres from the Rev. John Sellwood filed a plat for their new development, which they named “Sellwood”. To attract potential buyers the real estate company provided a free passenger ferry from downtown Portland to Umatilla Street.
The year 1887 marked the opening of the first bridge to span the Willamette River in downtown Portland. It was also the year that Sellwood incorporated as a city. From this period until the 1920’s, expansion of electrically-powered streetcars drove the development of neighborhoods on the east side of the Willamette River. By 1887 Sellwood had almost 100 homes, three stores, a church and school.
By 1890 Sellwood had added two hotels, three shoemakers, two grocers, a blacksmith, bookbinder, bookkeeper, two saloons, a druggist, dressmaker and a brewery.
In the spring of 1892, transportation again improved, when the new Sellwood streetcar line was completed. Steamboat traffic began to decline as residents boarded the modern streetcars. With improved transportation, building in Sellwood increased as the small town began to become slightly more urban. In the spring of 1893 Sellwood officially relinquished its independence to become a part of the City of Portland.
In early 1909 the 500-acre Crystal Spring livestock farm was platted into the subdivisions of Eastmoreland and Westmoreland. The developers promoted their developments as modern subdivisions which would be sold with sidewalks and curbs in place. They began advertising Eastmoreland as prestigious subdivision, which with its proximity to the newly-established private Reed Institute, was comparable to residential areas adjacent to Stanford University in California. Westmoreland’s target market were the new white collar professionals who rode the streetcar to jobs in downtown Portland. The Eastmoreland Golf Course was also marketed to residents of both Westmoreland and Eastmoreland. By implication, Sellwood was an old-fashioned farm town.
The first quarter of the 20th century was an era of competitive “boosterism” that pitted Portland neighborhoods against each other and Sellwood and Westmoreland were no exception. As homes rose in Westmoreland, the newly-established local newspaper, the Sellwood Bee, became alarmed. It warned that a new commercial area might appear that would undermine the businesses in Sellwood. The first business, a doctor’s office, was constructed at the southwest corner of Bybee and Milwaukie in 1911. As the new business area grew, competition between Sellwood and Westmoreland began and did not end for fifty years.
By the 1920’s what we now know as the Sellwood-Westmoreland neighborhood was composed of more than thirty subdivisions, which explains why streets do not connect in a tidily connected gird.
In late December, 1925, the Sellwood Bridge was opened. While it was hoped by Sellwood business owners that this would increase customers, it did not meet expectations. While Sellwood’s original main street, Umatilla, had been superseded by S.E. 13th when the streetcar arrived, the increasing auto traffic on Tacoma Street did not change it to a commercial strip.
While the population increased somewhat after the opening of the Sellwood Bridge, the arrival of the Great Depression slowed things down. As the Depression gave way to WWII and later post-war recovery, the Sellwood-Moreland area fell behind the times. Sellwood became economically depressed. Newlyweds who had grown up in the area often chose other neighborhoods in which to raise their families. Some churches and businesses left Sellwood for Westmoreland. In the 1950’s and 60’s older businesses closed and empty storefronts lined S.E. 13th.
Then in the 1960’s a few antiques dealers, looking for affordable storefront space discovered Sellwood. By the 1970’s Sellwood claimed at least 30 antiques shops in the neighborhood. At the same time, new residents began purchasing and rehabilitating older homes in the neighborhood.
As Sellwood began to improve, Westmoreland businesses changed. The 1980’s saw closure of variety, women’s apparel, furniture and drugstores. However, the spaces were soon remodeled and occupied by restaurants, coffee shops and specialty merchandise stores. As the 20th century closed, many of Sellwood’s antiques businesses were in turn replaced with new retail stores and restaurants.
Today, Sellwood-Westmoreland is a thriving neighborhood with many homes rehabbed and additional high-density housing such as row and town houses adding new residents. With more new customers, many additional businesses have opened along S.E. 13th in Sellwood, while Westmoreland continues to change and improve. Time will tell, as the Sellwood-Westmoreland area moves well into its second century as a neighborhood.
* Historic photos from the collection of the Sellwood Moreland Improvement League (SMILE)