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  • Maintaining Eden:John Charles Olmsted and the Portland Park System
  • Chet Orloff

When Portlanders think of children and families, in addition to schools, they don't think just jobs and taxes. When they think of images of landscape that manifest our city, they don't think just Mt. Hood and the rivers. When they think of recreation—of enriching the spirit and exercising the body—they don't think just coffee and jogging. When they think of gardens, they don't think just weeds and rain. When Portlanders think of public safety, they don't think just police and fire.

Parks. Portlanders think of parks. Enlightened citizens of old-world cities look to their buildings and human history for their sense of place; here we look to our landscape and natural history.

"It is becoming more clearly realized," wrote a visitor 100 years ago," that every inhabitant owes to his or her city certain duties. Among them is that of making the city more beautiful to live and work in. [And, ] while there are many things which may contribute to the beauty of a great city, one of the greatest is a comprehensive system of parks and parkways." That visitor was John Charles Olmsted. [End Page 114]

In the fall of 1843, on their way upriver from Fort Vancouver to Oregon City, Asa Lovejoy and William Overton climbed out of their canoe at a spot called "the clearing" at what may, for them, have been a place to recover from the work of paddling upstream, to take lunch or, more prosaically, a rest stop. Whatever their reasons for stopping, before they pushed off again they decided to found a town. Here in a parklike setting, they commenced Portland's first city plan.

Through much of the first third of the city's history, when it came to providing people with parks, we by and large played a wait-and-see game. Yes, Daniel Lownsdale deeded his long stretch of property as a combination promenade ground, park blocks, and fire break. And a few other Portlanders followed suit with their own gifts of land for future parks. Even the city council, in 1871, bought its own first park land, the 40 acres that would become Washington Park.

But by and large, the city was—as we'd say today—"park deficient." As the 20th century dawned, three irrepressibly inexhaustible men—Rev. Thomas Lamb Eliot, banker Col. L. L. Hawkins, and architect Ion Lewis—took matters into their own hands and decided that Portlanders could no longer simply rely for recreation on their surrounding but rapidly disappearing forests. These three wise men acted on their belief that the city had to make a concerted effort to create a viable park system matching the city's vaunted sense of itself as a refined and livable community. They led an effort to establish a park board whose role, they saw, was to zealously promote the growth of Portland's parks. Then they decided to bring in the best planner to give them a vision, a path to follow, for building a true park system.

Meanwhile, another group of Portlanders was making even bigger plans: a world's fair for Portland to celebrate the 1905 centennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition. The modestly titled "Lewis and Clark Centennial and American Pacific Exposition and Oriental Fair" would be a Portland extravaganza that would, its directors confidently predicted, propel the city into the new century with a boldness equal to the expectations of the emerging American economy. And, just as the park board needed expert advice on laying out parks, the fair board needed someone to lay out the fairgrounds. Rev. Eliot [End Page 115] was sent east, with $10,000 he'd helped raise, to obtain the services of the best parks and fairgrounds designer he could find.

In early April 1903, a distinguished-looking Easterner—well-dressed, bearded, and with an earnest air of haste and deliberateness—stepped off the train at Union Station, just downriver from Lovejoy's "clearing." John Charles Olmsted, landscape architect and planner, was met by Col. Hawkins and Ion Lewis and, seated in Hawkins' carriage named "Jupiter," commenced...


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