Saturday, October 8, 2011

DIY History Detective: A Quest in the Wilds of St. Johns

I recently took a fun ride into the wilds of industrial far-northwest St. Johns on a brave quest to see if I could locate a building that was part of the Oregon Shipbuilding Corporation's ("Oregon Ship") administrative headquarters during World War II, and later served as the location of Portland State University's precursor institution, Vanport Extension Center.

Why would I do such a thing?

I was curious about this building because I had read in a May 1943 Oregonian article that the Oregon Trail Centennial Commission had re-dedicated a plaque on one of these buildings to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the launch of the first ship that European Americans had built in Oregon, the schooner Star of Oregon. [1]

I was curious to know if this building still existed and, if it did, if the plaque might still be on the building.

The short answer to both of these questions is "no." The long answer, as you might guess, is a bit longer . . .

One of the buildings of Oregon Ship's 1940s-era administrative complex does still exist:


Image 1. 12005 N. Burgard St., Portland, Sep 25, 2011, office of Western Machine Works. Northwest Pipe Company [Thanks to Tim Whitson in the comment below]. Photo James V. Hillegas

The address is 12005 N. Burgard Street. I could discern no company signage on or near the building, but when I arrived the building's janitor was outside and he told me that Western Machine Works Northwest Pipe Company was based out of the building.

The building is in an odd place. One would think that it has a N. Sever Road address, because it fronts N. Sever Road. "12005" is written across the top of the door, however, and county records indicate that this area has a N. Burgard Street address. It's adjacent to Port of Portland Terminal 4.

I discovered on the county's property maps that the building I was looking for is on Burgard Industrial Park plat Lot 1, Tax Lot 900. However, as the maps below show, 12005 N. Burgard Street seems only to include Burgard Industrial Park plat Lot 1, Tax Lot 800 (not Tax Lot 900).


Image 2. 12005 N. Burgard Street (Property ID R123692) boundaries within Burgard Industrial Park plat Lot 1, Tax Lot 800, Township 2 North, Range 1 West, Section 35. City of Portland image.

Image 3. Multnomah County Tax Assesor Map for 12005 N. Burgard Street, property within Burgard Industrial Park plat Lot 1, Tax Lot 800 and Tax Lot 900. (Search for "1N2W35D" at http://gis.co.multnomah.or.us/mcormap/.)

I took a few steps into the weeds in an attempt to find out if Tax Lot 900 and Tax Lot 800 had been combined in some way so that both of these properties would be considered as part of 12005 N. Burgard Street, but I didn't find this direct documentary evidence via the Internet.

Looking at Multnomah County records, I was able to find a number of businesses that have a 12005 N. Burgard Street address, including Schnitzer Steel, Advanced American Diving, Jefferson Smurfit Corporation, and Western Machine Works, among others.

OK, back to the past: Image 4 below shows the future 12005 N. Burgard Street in about 1948. It's the building in the upper left corner of the photo, with the curved entryway.

Image 4. Oregon Shipbuilding Corporation / Vanport Extension Center buildings, ca. 1948-1953. Taken, it seems, from the second floor of the main admin building. Portland State University Archives photo. (I took this photo with my digital camera from a framed photo on the third floor of Smith Memorial Student Union, Portland State University.)

The distinctive entryway is shown more clearly in Image 5:

Image 5. 12005 N. Burgard St., Portland, Sep 25, 2011. Photo James V. Hillegas

The Oregon Ship / Vanport Extension Center building I thought I was looking for was the main administrative building, shown in Image 6:


Image 6. Oregon Shipbuilding Corporation / Vanport College main administrative building, ca. 1948. Portland State University photo, http://www.pdx.edu/ourhistory/after-the-flood-moving-to-oregon-ship.

Image 7 shows a close-up of he main entrance of the building in Image 6.

Image 7. Vanport Extension Center director Stephen Epler at main entrance, Oregon Shipbuilding Corporation main administrative building, fall 1948. Portland State University photo, http://www.pdx.edu/ourhistory/after-the-flood-moving-to-oregon-ship.
My interpretation is this is the building where the commemorative plaque would have been placed.

I didn't get a good photo of the location of the building in Images 6 & 7, but the building is no longer there. Image 8 below shows a view looking West down Burgard Street (former N. Sever Road). The main Oregon Ship admin building would have been outside the right side of the frame.

Image 8. 12005 N. Burgard St., Portland (in center), Sep 25, 2011. Photo James V. Hillegas

As the satellite view in Image 8 below shows, where the Oregon Ship main admin building once stood, now there is a very large asphalt surface that hosts storage containers and other hunks of metal (center). North of this lot is a nondescript, very large warehouse. Center bottom is the current 12005 N. Burgard Street building.

Image 9. Satellite view of 12005 N. Burgard St., Portland. Google Maps, Oct. 7 2011.

One can compare the satellite view from Image 9 with the map in Image 10. The dark grey building labeled "Vanport Extension Center" (see in Images 6 & 7) is the building that has been replaced by shipping containers in Image 9.[2] The light grey building directly south (and a little west) of this dark grey building is the present-day 12005 N. Burgard Street.

Image 10. Map of Vanport Extension Center, ca. 1948-1953. Portland State University photo, http://www.pdx.edu/ourhistory/after-the-flood-moving-to-oregon-ship.
Image 11 provides more detail of the Oregon Ship buildings.



Image 11. Detail, map of Vanport Extension Center, ca. 1948-1953. Portland State University photo, http://www.pdx.edu/ourhistory/after-the-flood-moving-to-oregon-ship.

Realizing that the main Oregon Ship building had been razed, and that the building I found on my bike ride was part of the Oregon Ship administrative facilities but not the main building, I tried to find out what I could by way of the Internet about what might have happened to the property. I assumed that the Oregonian would have reported on the destruction of the Oregon Ship buildings and, if I was lucky, would have said something about the plaque -- for example, that it had been removed to the Oregon Historical Society, perhaps. This turns out not to be the case, as far as I can discern.

What I found was that the Vanport Extension Center moved to its current location in the South Park Blocks of Portland in time for the beginning of the Fall 1953 academic quarter. The Oregon Board of Higher Education announced that the former Vanport College buildings were up for sale in late June 1953.[3]

I searched the Oregonian to see if I could find an announcement about who might have purchased the property, or if I could find announcements of the destruction of the Oregon Ship/Vanport Extension Center buildings, but found no such information.

To summarize my findings thus far:
    1) The original main Oregon Ship / Vanport Extension Center building had been demolished, at a date thus far unknown, and the location of the plaque commemorating the 1842 launch of the original Star of Oregon remains unknown
    2) One of the original Oregon Ship admin buildings still existed, at 12005 N. Burgard Street.
It was this extant building that I was looking for on my bike trip. Image 12 provided some visual clues that spurred me to track this building down:

Image 12.  Street view of 12005 N. Burgard St., Portland. Google Maps, Oct. 7 2011.

I first thought that this was the original and main Oregon Ship / Vanport Extension Center building facility, but, as this post indicates, later learned otherwise.

There are a few other images and image comparisons that shed some light on this issue.

Image 13 shows Vanport Extension Center students doing some beautification of their new campus. Note that the 12005 N. Burgard Street property is directly behind the students. Also note that the sidewalk that starts in the lower left portion of the frame curves to the right, and then back to the left, to then loop and then head off again to the right.

Image 13. Vanport Extension Center students landscaping their Oregon Ship campus, ca. 1948-1953. (I took this photo with my digital camera from a framed photo on the third floor of Smith Memorial Student Union, Portland State University.)

This same sidewalk bump-out is seen in the center-left of Image 4 (reproduced below).

Image 4. Oregon Shipbuilding Corporation / Vanport Extension Center buildings, ca. 1948. Portland State University Archives photo. (I took this photo with my digital camera from a framed photo on the third floor of Smith Memorial Student Union, Portland State University.)

I located the remnants of this sidewalk feature on my bike trek, as seen in Image 14. In Image 14, note that I'm facing East when taking the picture, so the main Oregon Ship admin building would have been to the left, and 12005 N. Burgard Street is to the right.

Image 14. U-shaped sidewalk remnant from Oregon Shipbuilding Corporation admin building, across from 12005 N. Burgard St., Portland, Sep 25, 2011. Photo James V. Hillegas

Image 15 shows a portion of the building at 12005 N. Burgard Street (to the rear left):

Image 15. Vanport Extension Center students frolicking in the grass in front of the main Oregon Ship admin building, ca. 1948-1953. (I took this photo with my digital camera from a framed photo on the third floor of Smith Memorial Student Union, Portland State University.)

The buildings below, Image 16, are also on Burgard Industrial Park plat Lot 1, Tax Lot 800 -- i.e., 12005 N. Burgard Street. They are directly to the southwest of the building that I have been fixated on. It appears from Image 4 in particular that similar buildings were in this same location, but I have no idea if these buildings trace their direct lineage to the Oregon Shipbuilding Corporation.

Image 16. Northwest Pipe Company buildings at 12005 N. Burgard Street, Portland. Sep 25, 2011. Photo James V. Hillegas

Note the long, two-story building to the right (west) of the 12005 N. Burgard Street building, as seen in Image 4. This building is also no longer there. 

Image 4. Oregon Shipbuilding Corporation / Vanport Extension Center buildings, ca. 1948. Portland State University Archives photo. (I took this photo with my digital camera from a framed photo on the third floor of Smith Memorial Student Union, Portland State University.)2

I didn't get the best comparative photos when I was there, but Image 17 provides some indication of the absence of the building identified above. In Image 17, this building would have been to the right; if the building were still there, it would have been eminently visible.

Image 17. 12005 N. Burgard Street from the West, Sep. 25, 2011. Photo James V. Hillegas

As is the case with most of Portland's waterfront industrial properties, there is an environmental legacy that we've inherited with this property. The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality identifies 12005 N. Burgard Street as a "suspect site requiring further investigation" for a number of toxic metals, solvents, PCBs, and other soil and groundwater pollutants (source).

In summary, I got a good physical workout and had fun trying to piece this all together. If only I could get paid to do this stuff . . . 

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[1] The Oregon Historical Association and Port of Portland had originally placed this plaque at the OSC’s first administration building at Swan Island Airport on May 19, 1941, at the time of the ceremony of the laying of the keel for Oregon Shipbuilding Corporation's fist Liberty Ship, the Star of Oregon. See “First of 43 Keel-Layings Spurs New Century of Shipbuilding for Portland 100 Years After First Launching,” May 13, 1941, sec. 1, p. 6, and Lawrence Barber, "'Big Time' Shipbuilding Returns to Portland," Oregonian, Oregonian, May 20, 1941, sec. 1, pp. 1, 23.

[2] The map in Image 10 also shows the former Oregon Ship buildings that became the Vanport Extension Center, as well as the nine shipways from which Oregon Ship launched hundreds of Liberty Ships, Victory Ships, and other ships during World War II. The shipways have since all been filled-in.

[3] "Legal Notices," Oregonian, June 21, 1953, sec. 2, p. 3

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4 comments:

  1. Enjoyed the article James, nice job blending history and geography!

    I did some archival research for the New Columbia neighborhood years ago--the flood was devastating to the area. If you haven't already, you should try to poke around the Stanley Parr Archives one day, great information source!

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  2. Hi Anonymous, thanks for the feedback! It was a fun trip -- a mental and physical workout!

    I've visited the City of Portland Archives often -- and will do so next weekend as part of the second annual Archives Crawl -- and always learn a great deal while there. If I were to take this project further, I would visit the Archives as well as the County Assessor's office. As I mention above, I'm really curious to know who bought the property and when they tore the Oregon Ship admin building down.

    When I was doing CRM work in Whatcom County, Washington, I got quite proficient at going through the digital and microfiche files of property records at the County Assessor's office to track the owners of a given parcel of land. I haven't yet done this in Multnomah County, but I would imagine that they have a similar system.

    The post above reflects what I was able to do by way of online research and, as one can discern, the narrative I have told still has some holes in it.

    Which brings me to a related point, for all of my readers: If any of you can find a way to pay me, I'd be more than happy to spend more time on this particular research project!

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  3. The office building you have in Image 1 is for Northwest Pipe Company. The large 6 bay building you have in Image 16 is part of an older 11 bay building from the Oregon Shipbuilding time. There was a fire in the early 60's which burned down portions of the building. Only Bays 1 thru 6 and Bay 9 were rebuilt. I have a couple of good overhead pictures if you are interested.

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  4. Tim, many thanks for the clarification, which I've made note of above. It's great to get confirmation that the large, bayed, building is (mostly) the original OSC facility. I'd certainly be interested in those images -- if you'd like you can send them to jvhillegas at g mail dot c o m.

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