PORTLAND TODAY is a mostly nice city fueled by coffee and beer. It wasn't always like that, though. It used to be a muddy frontier town powered by coffee and beer. On Wednesday, January 2, at Powell's (1005 W Burnside), authors Richard Thompson (Portland's Interurban Railway) and Donald R. Nelson (Portland, Oregon: East of the Willamette River) will delve into the various ways that Portland developed outward from its Westside core. If that's not enough for you, though, there's no shortage of options for the prospective Portland history nerd. Below are a few of the best ways to transmit Portland factoids into your brain.
Portland: People, Politics, and Power
by Jewel Lansing (Oregon State University Press)
If you're looking for a solid, one-volume history of Portland, this is it. Jewel Lansing's book is mostly concerned with Portland governance, from initial settlement up to almost the present day. All of the information is excellent, but Lansing often focuses on governance to the exclusion of anything else. No other book about Portland, though, distills as much history between its covers.
Wildmen, Wobblies, and Whistle Punks
by Stewart Holbrook (Oregon State University Press)
Almost the opposite of Lansing's book, Stewart Holbrook's collection of essays about the Pacific Northwest abounds with color. Holbrook, a former logger, was an all-purpose raconteur who wrote for the Oregonian. Holbrook is easily the most entertaining writer on this list, and his stories are evocative of Portland as a rough frontier town filled with bearded loggers and tattooed sailors. Holbrook was as good a bullshitter as he was a writer, and a lot of his stories bear the whiff of tall tales. Nevertheless, Holbrook is amazingly entertaining, and his work is good for giving the reader a sense of Portland's long-gone character.
Anything by E. Kimbark MacColl
E. Kimbark MacColl's books on Portland (especially Merchants, Money, and Power) are door-stoppingly definitive in their length, detail, and depth. MacColl's books are something of a Portland encyclopedia, offering layers of detail that no one else has attempted. The only downside to MacColl's works: They stop at 1950. As huge as MacColl's books are, you'll want more.
by Finn J.D. John (History Press)
Finn J.D. John's work is a bit on the slight side, but offers a good portrait of crime, corruption, and general ne'er-do-well-ness in 1800s Portland. John is all about hookers, sailors, opium, gambling, and other old-timey nefariousness. Speaking of nasty bits:
by Robert C. Donnelly (University of Washington Press)
by Phil Stanford (WestWinds Press)
Phil Stanford's Portland Confidential, detailing organized crime in 1950s Portland, is fairly well known. Robert C. Donnelley's Dark Rose, which covers the same material, is a bit better than Stanford's more famous work. Both books drive home the fact that as recently as 1957 Portland was a fairly dodgy place.
Lone Fir Cemetery, 2115 SE Morrison
History, first and foremost, is about dead people. Lone Fir Cemetery has quite a few of those. Portland's pioneer cemetery makes for a nice, morbid walk in its own right, and the Friends of Lone Fir Cemetery organization put on regular walking tours and headstone cleaning workshops. Most notably, their annual Halloween Tour of Untimely Departures details how various residents of the cemetery died in gruesome ways (although the tour did not happen this fall).
Nestled beneath the Rialto Poolroom is the cozy Jack London Bar (529 SW 4th), the venue for Stumptown Stories. The weekly lecture series happens every Tuesday, and topics range from overviews of Portland's theme parks to lectures about how Portland combined itself with the formerly independent cities of East Portland, Albina, and St. Johns. (Ass-covering conflict-of-interest disclaimer: I'm a regular speaker at Stumptown Stories.)
The Dill Pickle Club
Having little to do with actual pickles, the Dill Pickle Club hosts various lectures and tours (both the bus and walking variety) about Portland history. Topics range from the history of Old Town to North Portland gentrification. Also notably, they were the ones behind the publication of Mercury reporter Sarah Mirk's Oregon History Comics.
Various Kick Ass Oregon History Events orhistory.com
Kick Ass Oregon History is what happens when nerds get drunk and high. Self-described as being all about "sex, drugs, and earth-shattering devastation," the podcast is proof that history is always better with a few well-placed fuck bombs. Historian/podcaster Doug Kenck-Crispin has started branching out and hosting lectures and movie nights at various venues. It's like history class, but with beer and swears. (Additional ass-covering disclaimer: I've been a guest speaker at one of these, and will do so again in later this month).
Oregon Archives Crawl
Every October, the Oregon Historical Society, PSU, the Multnomah County Library, and the City of Portland Archives open to put various documents and artifacts on display during the Portland Archives Crawl, an event that can best be summed up as "history-nerd Christmas." The organizations open their vaults, display materials of note, and the City of Portland Archives gives ordinary citizens a look at their warehouse-like horde of documents.
Like pictures of cobblestones and old buildings? Of course you do. Vintage Portland is a blog filled with that. Give it a look.