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The Tumultuous Story of Oregon's Most Populous County

Jewell Lansing, Fred Leeson

Publication Year: 2012

Covering people and events from 1854 to the present day, this definitive history of Multnomah County provides compelling details about public works triumphs and political scandals.

Founded as a convenience so residents of the fast-growing city of Portland wouldn’t have to ride by horseback to Hillsboro, Oregon’s tiniest county geographically soon grew to be the state’s most populous.  Through nearly sixteen decades, Multnomah County’s history seldom has been calm and peaceful.  From hangings that turned into grim public spectacles in the nineteenth century to a glaring failure to deal with urban growth in the middle of the twentieth, the county survived several attempts to revamp its structure or merge with Portland’s better-known municipal government.

Highlighted episodes include the construction of the iconic Columbia River Highway between 1914 and 1918, the tragic flooding of Vanport City in 1948, the employee strike of 1980, the library scandal of 1989-1990, and the same-sex marriage license debacle of 2004.

Historian Jewel Lansing and journalist Fred Leeson make effective use of archival sources, oral histories, newspaper articles, and personal interviews to create the definitive reference on Multnomah County history, politics, and policy. History buffs and informed Portland citizens will be particularly engaged by the regional trivia and narrative details.

Published by: Oregon State University Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-viii

Multnomah covers the first 156 years of Multnomah County’s existence and is The first such history ever written. The book is in many ways a companion volume to Jewel Lansing’s Portland: People, Politics, and Power, 1851-2001, published in 2003, and to...

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pp. ix

This book would not be possible without the shared memories and documentation received from present and former county officials and staff. The result has been a collaborative effort, aided by dozens of present and former Multnomah County, City of Portland,...

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1. The Most Important Vote of the Century, February 21, 1974

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pp. 1-8

When four of the five Multnomah County commissioners strode into their sixth-floor Courthouse boardroom shortly after 9:30 a.m. on a winter morning in 1974, three of them knew they would soon be making front-page news. The matter before them was a land-use planning decision that had the potential to change the face...

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2. In the Beginning . . . (1792-1854)

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pp. 9-17

The first Europeans to arrive on terrain that would later become Multnomah County had little immediate impact. Lt. William Broughton, a member of Capt. George Vancouver’s naval expedition from Great Britain, was the first to touch down, in November...

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3. The County's First Hanging; Early Elected Officials (1855-1869)

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pp. 18-24

The Oregon Constitution that took effect with statehood on February 14, 1859, was drafted by sixty elected delegates over a few weeks in 1857. Territorial voters approved it by a two-to-one margin in November 1857—7,195 to 3,215. Though amended several times in statewide elections, it remains the state’s governing document...

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4. A Magnificent Courthouse, a Pauper Farm, and a Push for Consolidation (1864-1880)

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pp. 25-32

After ten years as a county—the first half as part of the Oregon Territory, the second as part of the State of Oregon—Multnomah County completed construction of Portland’s first public building in 1864. Before the two-story courthouse opened for business in 1864, the city and county governments and federal agencies had all operated out...

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5. Coxey's Army and Eight More Hangings (1888-1903)

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pp. 33-41

In the 1880s and 1890s, it was difficult to find anyone closer to being a “native” Portlander than Penumbra Kelly. He would serve eight years as a state representative and six high-profile years as county sheriff during turbulent times, winning the first of his three two-year terms as sheriff in 1888. Born in 1845 in Kentucky...

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6. The Progressive Era, a Crusading Sheriff, and the County Fair Begins (1902-1914)

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pp. 42-53

The first dozen years of the twentieth century brought startling political changes at every level of American government. Theodore Roosevelt, at the time the youngest man to serve as president, took office in 1901 following the assassination of William McKinley, bringing with him new, young minds who sought to break the stranglehold...

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7. D-minus Report Card, the "King of Roads," and a New Courthouse (1913-1922)

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pp. 54-68

The Progressive Era of nationwide social activism and political reform included the formation of new citizen-powered groups aimed at improving the efficiency of state and local governments. One of the first and most notable private organizations of this type was the New York Bureau of Municipal Research, founded in 1907 and funded...

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8. County Hospital, the KKK, Kickback Scandals, and More Consolidation Proposals (1909-1927)

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pp. 69-80

Multnomah County’s 167 percent increase in population from 1900 to 1920,1 fueled by the 1905 Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition and a thriving economy, led to a correspondingly greater demand for indigent care at the fourstory Victorian mansion at SW Second Avenue and Hooker Street that had been converted into a county hospital in 1909. It was designed to house 65 patients, but only four years later...

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9. An Elegant Bridge, a Mighty Dam, Another Jail, and World War II (1928-1945)

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pp. 81-92

The stock market crash of October 1929 was only a few weeks away when Multnomah County launched its last and arguably most elegant bridge project. Citizens in St. Johns had been lobbying for years for a bridge that would connect their community with Linnton on the west side of the Willamette and provide a faster, more direct route...

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10. Vanport Is Flooded, a Sheriff Is Recalled, and Sheriff Schrunk Is Put on Trial (1946-1956)

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pp. 93-102

The end of World War II brought with it an economic boom and exuberance of spirit unmatched in American history. Soldiers raced home from the war to marry their sweethearts and build homes—often with their own hands—on grassy plots in suburbs served entirely by automobiles rather than streetcars. Nothing seemed impossible...

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11. Parks, Roads, and Three Unrelated Tragedies (1946-1960)

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pp. 103-114

The same 1948 electoral cycle that saw the surprise election of Dorothy McCullough Lee as Portland mayor and elevated Mike Elliott to the sheriff’s seat (at least temporarily) brought M. James “Mike” Gleason, then 38, onto the three-member board of county commissioners. The soft-spoken Gleason would sit on the county board for a record twenty-eight years, setting a mark that will never be broken...

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12. Commissioners Feud, Delta Dome Is Rejected, and the First Woman Deputy Is Hired (1962-1966)

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pp. 115-126

U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War was escalating, the Beatles would soon make their American debut, and Oregon’s Columbus Day Storm had not yet devastated the state as Multnomah County government stood on the cusp of momentous changes. Before it was over, “old” blood was purged from the threeman commission...

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13. Home Rule Arrives, a Sheriff Is Fired, and Rocky Butte Prisoners Escape (1966-1973)

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pp. 127-135

A proposed new charter on the May 1966 ballot put forward sweeping changes in county governance; it would give the board broader powers to legislate its own new programs, much like city council, rather than limiting commissioners to carrying out state legislative mandates. The number of commissioners would be expanded from three...

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14. Freeways Revisited, City-County Consolidation Fails (1970-1974)

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pp. 136-148

By 1970, rising costs at the Multnomah County Hospital were threatening a cooperative venture between the county and the University of Oregon Medical School that had worked successfully since the new county hospital opened in 1923. The original agreement called for Multnomah County to maintain the building and allow...

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15. The Don Clark Era, Charter Upended, Nursing Home Closed, Metro Created (1975-1979)

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pp. 149-160

Energetic Don Clark hit the ground running when he started his term as county chairman in January 1975. No county chair before or since has generated the same degree of esprit de corps that motivated Clark’s management team. Many of those who were part of Clark’s lineup considered his tenure as the chief elected officer to be the county’s...

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16. Employees Strike, PERS, Vote-By-Mail, and Rocky Butte Jail Closes (1980-1982)

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pp. 161-176

Don Clark’s second term as the chief county officer—his first term as “chairman” and second as “county executive”—included the longest public employee strike in Oregon history. It placed county government squarely in the media spotlight during the summer of 1980 and Executive Clark in a position he had never wanted. The walkout...

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17. The Laudable "Resolution A," City of Columbia Ridge Is Rejected, a Power Struggle at the Library, and More Charter Changes (1983-1990)

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pp. 177-190

Dennis Buchanan succeeded Don Clark as county executive in January 1983. Though progressive in attitude, the former newspaper reporter, television journalist, and stockbroker brought a different leadership style to the county executive office. Buchanan...

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18. East County Discontent, the First All-Woman Board, and "Willamette County" (1983-1990)

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pp. 191-207

Twelve years after Gordon Shadburne published the above statement on his page in the 1974 Oregon Voters’ Pamphlet, the shocking truth came to light that Shadburne’s personal life did not equate with his stance as a moral crusader. Shadburne, a political...

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19. The Infamous Measure 5, Columbia Gorge Battles, and East County Efforts to Secede (1990-2001)

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pp. 208-220

Just as Resolution A was bringing the county some financial breathing room, a November 1990 statewide ballot measure, Measure 5, significantly changed Oregon’s property tax system, affecting school districts and all local governments— including Multnomah...

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20. From Pioneering Woman to "Mean Girls," plus a Controversial Sheriff (2001-2009)

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pp. 221-233

Money took a back seat to pettiness and minor scandals in Multnomah County government during the first decade of the twenty-first century. Not that the money troubles got any easier. After more a decade there was still no money to open Wapato Jail. It was simply that financial troubles were less prominent in the news than personality...

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21. Quo Vadis? (2010)

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pp. 234-244

There may be no better demonstration of the county’s role in balancing human and environmental needs than on Sauvie Island, where Europeans first set foot on what would become known as Multnomah County. Today, just as in 1806 when squawking birds irritated explorer William Clark, thousands of geese make noisy...


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pp. 245-280


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pp. 281-308


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pp. 309-312


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pp. 313-326

E-ISBN-13: 9780870716669
E-ISBN-10: 0870716662
Print-ISBN-13: 9780870716652
Print-ISBN-10: 0870716654

Publication Year: 2012