Portland’s Industrial Heritage

Portland’s industrial past is key to its development as a major metropolitan region, and the crucible of that industrial past was the city’s switching districts, such as this one along NW 15th Avenue.

Switching districts were once the lifeblood — the arteries — of Portland. Without them, the city would never have achieved metropolitan status. The Gilded Age heritage of Portland — the wedding-cake cast-iron of Old Town, the great Victorian housing stock, the brooding Romanesque and gleaming Edwardian downtown, all of which we know and love so well — owes its existence to these, the industrial and warehouse districts of the city, districts that were aligned on and served by its railroad switching lines.

Unfortunately, the industrial districts have far less charm value, and so while many great buildings of Gilded Age Portland have been saved, the old industrial areas are often neglected or altered beyond recognition.


For the railroads, Portland Union Station is the center of the city, and serves as milepost zero for every mainline serving the metropolis except the Southern Pacific.

Portland is a crossroads. It occupies a strategic geographic location where east-west and north-south trade routes converge. To the city’s east is the Columbia Gorge, the sole water-level crossing of the Cascade-Sierra divide and a trade route for water-bourne and overland commerce with the vast Western interior, the Great Plains, and Canada. To the north, the timberlands of the Puget Sound region and connections to the mineral wealth of British Columbia and Alaska. To the south, California. Perhaps most importantly, though, was what lay to the city’s west: a navigable waterway connecting to the Pacific Ocean and the promise of rich Asian trade. As Portland historian E. Kimbark MacColl notes:

“The city’s location at the confluence of the Willamette and Columbia Rivers in the very heart of a region enormously rich in natural resources preordained its future growth and wealth. Being at the head of deep-sea navigation it could take full advantage of an ancient maxim, that commerce seeks its most inland point of distribution.”

It is no surprise then that, as railroads began to blossom across the West, Portland became a major destination to reach. Early attempts at railroad building aimed at linking the city with California. The lines that would be most important to the city and the region, however, occupied east-west routes. By 1911, over 5,569 miles of track would be tributary to Portland. Over time, the majority of the railroads serving the city would fall under the control of one of two rival corporate empires of James J. Hill and Edward H. Harriman. A quick description of each of the major companies — as they existed in the study period of 1945-1979 — will prove of great value to understanding the wider context of Portland’s switching districts.

In 1945, Portland was served directly by three major railroads, the Southern Pacific (SP), the Spokane Portland and Seattle Railway (SP&S), and the Union Pacific (UP). For each, the city was a terminus, which in railroad terminology means that it was the final destination of a major railroad line. A 1960 map from the city’s Metropolitan Planning Commission shows the SP controlling two lines, the mainline on the east side, and the so-called Jefferson Street line hugging the western shore of the Willamette River south of Portland; the SP&S entering from the north with a line paralleling Front Avenue, and two UP routes, one down Sullivan’s Gulch next to present day Interstate 84, and another paralleling the Columbia River and entering the city from the north.

NPT 17, seen in this 1932 view, was typical of the switch engines of the terminal company. R.W. Biermann photograph, collection of Alexander Craghead.

In addition to these three companies, the city had a fourth major railroad in the form of the Northern Pacific Terminal Company. This company was created in 1882 as a joint subsidiary of the Northern Pacific, the Oregon & California (SP), and the Oregon Railroad and Navigation Company (UP). The NPT’s track was located entirely in the northwest segment of the city, and comprised of yards, industrial tracks, and a short segment of mainline, and additionally the company owned and managed the city’s Union Station. NPT changed its name to Portland Terminal Railroad Company in 1965.

Other railroads did serve the city via complicated corporate relationships. The Northern Pacific served the city thanks largely to its partial ownership of the SP&S (50%) and the NPT (40%). Great Northern, being the other partner in ownership of the SP&S, also served the city, without owning any track within it. Thanks to trackage rights that came as a concession of the 1970 merger of the GN, NP, SP&S, and the Chicago Burlington and Quincy, the Milwaukee Road gained access to the city. In north Portland was a vest-pocket shortline, the Peninsula Terminal, whose 3.5 miles of track existed largely to serve the the stockyard industry. None of these railroads, however, developed urban industrial areas of their own.

The Portland Traction Company operated an electrified switching district on Water Street, using steeplecab locomotives like No 1410, seen here in 1949. Photographer unknown, collection of Alexander Craghead.

The only other railroad that had any significant impact on the urban rail fabric of Portland was an independent interurban railway, the Portland Traction. This company began as a passenger oriented route linking rural portions of Multnomah and Clackamas counties with the city. Originally owned by the city’s privately held electric utility, PTC was sold to a San-Francisco based transit holding company in 1946. The new owners did all they could to kill off passenger service on the line, something they finally achieved in 1958. Freight only at last, the company was sold once more in 1961 and became a joint subsidiary of the SP and UP.

These companies represented the legacy of an industry that had reshaped the city. The convergence of ocean shipping with overland transportation made possible by the railroads transformed the city from a frontier outpost to a major American metropolis. By Mid-Century, the World Book Encyclopedia described the city’s economy thus:

“The chief products of Portland factories include lumber, flour, furniture, knitted goods, woolen textiles, chemicals, plastics, canned fruits and vegetables, iron and steel, and other metal materials. Great quantities of lumber, wheat, and fruit are shipped from Portland’s harbor.”

It was the transportation nexus of railroads and ocean shipping that made this industrial development possible. By Mid-Century, trucking was still in its infancy. For overland shipments, only railroads were positioned to handle high tonnage and bulk loads at an efficient price. The effect on the city was massive. Industry and railroad, hand-in-hand, reshaped the city, filling in lakebeds, consigning huge swaths of land to exclusively industrial use, and building an endless number of warehouses and factories. It is the rail lines serving these areas — Portland’s switching districts — that would form the city’s arteries of commerce for most of the 20th century.

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