Portland’s nod to its railroad past

Posted by Brian Schmidt
on Friday, May 26, 2017

Northern Pacific F units gather near the Hoyt Street Roundhouse in Portland's River District in 1964. The present-day Tanner Springs Park would be at the far left, where the passenger cars rest. Photo by J.W. Swanberg

How do you tell the tale of railroading to a reluctant public? True railfans will, of course, endure countless eccentricities to learn more about their interest. Hot days at the museum looking over rusty machines and esoteric artifacts. But John Q. Public isn’t so hardy. They need to be fed railroading in small doses – and to see how railroads fit into everyday life, both in the past and today. That is exemplified with a few pieces of steel in a slice of green space known as Tanner Springs Park in Portland’s Pearl District.

In the late 19th century, Tanner Creek was rerouted through underground pipes to its outlet on the Willamette River so the area west of the present-day Union Station could be drained and filled for development. That led to the creation of the River District neighborhood, home of what would become Burlington Northern’s Hoyt Street Roundhouse, which was actually adjacent to NW Lovejoy Street, and Spokane, Portland & Seattle and Southern Pacific freight houses.

Of this area, the Oregonian’s Jon Killen wrote, “And no part of town was any rougher than the River District, aka the Pearl. It was a combination rail yards, warehouses, flop houses and bars – a two-fisted district as rugged as any in the Pacific Northwest.”

Likely the most famous resident of the roundhouse is former Southern Pacific “Daylight” 4-8-4 No. 4449, restored there in the 1970s before its stint on the American Freedom Train. (Of course, the city-owned locomotive now resides across the Willamette at the new Oregon Rail Heritage Center just south of downtown.)

In the following years, the railroad infrastructure was deemed surplus and gradually removed leaving an open scar on the city. Officials, spurred on by then Mayor Vera Katz, worked to redevelop the land as the new Pearl District, opening the modern Portland Streetcar through the neighborhood in July 2001.

The modern Portland Streetcar, opened in 2001, wraps around Tanner Springs Park on three sides. A fence built of rail is visible at left. Photo by Brian Schmidt

Tanner Springs Park was born of the city’s desire to redevelop the neighborhood. It acquired the 0.92-acre parcel in 2003. It sits on the approach tracks to the old SP&S freight houses, just a block off the site of the old roundhouse. (Two portions of the freight houses still stand at the corner of NW 11th Avenue and NW Hoyt Street, redeveloped for commercial and residential use.)

To mark the area’s railroad heritage, park planners specified a fence built out of rails set on end along the east edge of Tanner Springs Park and NW 10th Avenue. Later, a rain-catching shelter was built along NW Northrup Street that incorporated more rails in its structure.

Rails are incorporated into the design of the park, including a shelter that collects rainwater and directs it into the pond. Photo by Brian Schmidt

According to the City Parks Alliance, an independent, nationwide organization dedicated to urban parks, the Tanner Springs Park pond was built upon concrete and membrane liners to encapsulate the contaminated soil beneath left behind after decades of industrial use. This protects surface water from penetrating the soil and carrying the pollution to the nearby river.

You can’t argue that the industry and rail yards her had to die for gentrification. No, they were already virtually gone when the call for redevelopment came. And the developers in the 21st century saw fit to include a nod to the neighborhood’s past, showing that a nod to railroad history doesn't need to include a forlorn and neglected locomotive or caboose in a park.

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