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portland oregon

Downtown Portland, Oregon History Center. Image via DAG Studios.


 To know Portland Oregon you better like dirt.


It started with the first native canoe stopping on the Willamette.

Paddling against the current takes as much energy today as it did the first boaters, if you’re into historical reenactment.

Like you, they needed a rest.

More native people used the rest stop. Trails and paths soon followed.

They probably did some trading while they rested. It still happens.

Two ‘college’ girls ran out of gas at the I-5 rest stop past Albany. I gave them ten bucks.

Later I heard about the ‘college’ girls / rest stop scam.

“No one falls for that?”

“Not twice.”

Tuition for continuing education, learning another dirty deal? Priceless.


Before two land speculators needed to flip a coin for a name, Portland Oregon was dirty.

The Clearing grew more famous as a trapper’s rest stop. I’m thinking The Revenant.

Then for traders and settlers ferrying between Fort Vancouver and Oregon City.

What scam did ‘pioneer’ girls pull? “I broke my paddle?”

Good dirt and bad, it’s history, and fill a need in people.

People like you, so get ready.

You can find good dirt in every urban excavation.

Walk down the street most days and you’ll find a hole big enough to tip a skyscraper. The deeper the better. Just get there before they pour the vault.

The tower behind the Nordstom Store on Broadway took a long time growing, but it’s up.

Find a new hole on SW Jefferson and Broadway. It looked pretty deep driving by.

This is the best dirt, a hidden Portland Oregon pressed into the strata like cards in an unshuffled deck.

Portland lived between the dirt paths, plank roads, the macadam, concrete.


On one hand it’s like the Grand Canyon with fossil comparisons defining eras, except here it’s pipes and wires.

At least in Europe they still dig up surprises.

Still, Portland has so many fine grades of dirt to sift through. The Refined River City.

Old Portland dirt shows city fathers building a One-Stop-On-The-Willamette, instead of St.Johns or Milwaukie. Even then it was all about location.

New dirt targets Portland as the best city to set a PR for the most strip clubs in one night. Everyone has goals, right?

Most of the dirt covers everyone equally. Dust, dirt, debris, and a headache that won’t go away.

For instance, who swung the first hammer on the Portland Hotel?

Once it was the Empress Hotel of Victoria, B.C. set in downtown Portland Oregon.

It was a landmark, a destination. Old school elegance with tons of Portland Hotel gear stamped and engraved and embossed.

Now it’s level dirt called a living room.


Who threw the first shovel of dirt for the KOIN Center?

Instead of an Alpine view on the right day, you get a reminder of civic vs commerce. And commerce won.

The longer you live in Portland Oregon, the more dirt you find.

Shanghai tunnels for dragging drugged loners into sea duty? Deep kidnapper dirt.

Light rail tunnels? Deeper graveyard dirt. Brush it off and move along.

That’s how it works for adults. Probably for everyone thinking about it.

But what happens when fresh eyes see the dirt for the first time, new people learning their city and where they fit in the mix?

Some must feel like a dump truck just dropped a load on them.

How do they interpret exclusion laws of early Oregon, the image of KKK Portland early in the last century?

Without any context it’ll leave a stain, not just dirt. They’ll break out the boar bristles and scrub to the bone to no avail.

They need a context cushion, like a soil conditioner for packed clay.


Sometime in the near future a kid, a tourist, some gawky transplant from North Carolina, will walk by an urban hole in the ground in downtown Portland.

They’ll see the extra layers of streets, ours included, pressed together like rings in a tree.

Will they feel the modern street level and sense the paths buried below; wonder at time peeling away what man adds on?

With some perspective they’ll grasp the roads of history, the super highways of science, and know why anyone joins the turbulent social mix that produces a culture.

All it takes is the right dirt for the wonder to grow stronger.

What if the exceptionally motivated, people who go all in, are denied the chance to sift enough dirt to see what holds meaning for them?

In spite of what you hear, there’s a huge wave of detail obsessed millennials about to demand more dirt.

It happens when you buy a particular house. You’ll need the old house plans, the area map, street history. You feel like breaking into a library when it hits.

And it’s normal.

Give people what they need when they look at a hole in the ground.

Give them the dirt.

About David Gillaspie
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