Thursday, January 3, 2013

Macadam- The White House Road to River View Cemetery

River View Cemetery, located at the corner of Taylors Ferry and Macadam in south Portland, is a largely undocumented gem that I’ve written about here before.  Founded by three of the most influential Portlanders of the 19th century, William S. Ladd, Henry Corbett and Henry Failing, and designed by the noted landscape architect Edward O. Schwagerl, River View’s construction began in 1879 and the cemetery’s governing Association was formed (in Ladd’s office) in December 1882.  For the past few weeks I’ve been writing up what will likely qualify as the most detailed history of River View, from its beginnings through all the changes over the past 130+ years.  This is a continuation of earlier work, all related to the construction that will replace the Sellwood Bridge, just east of the cemetery main entry gates.  Lately I've been researching transportation to River View.

Macadam Avenue, the road that runs the length of the cemetery, west of the river and the railroad line, has an interesting history.  Begun in 1863 by the creatively named Macadamizied Road Company, the route was initially a toll road, providing access to the Fulton House (later renamed the Red House) near Taylors Ferry, and then the White House (there’s that creativity again), which was located further to the south, toward Oswego (no "Lake" yet).  The color-coded houses were saloons of sorts (the White House had a racetrack too), and seem to have been semi-tolerated retreats of the type later called “speakeasys.”  Apparently there was enough traffic to justify what was considered the best roadbed in the Portland area and the road was often just called "The White House Road."  When the White House burned in a spectacular fire in July 1904, it was described as “a resort of sybaritic splendor” (!).  About 1880 the Macadam Road was sold to Multnomah County and the tolls were ended.

Macadam, named after Scottish engineer John Macadam, was a mixture of tar and small gravel, compacted into a state-of-the-art smooth surface.  Mr. Macadam called it “Tarmac,” essentially a predecessor to today’s common asphalt road surface.  The White House Road, with its long straight-aways along the riverfront, quickly became the favorite hangout of Portland’s horse set, attracting races between the city’s fastest carriages.  The Multnomah Driving Club, unimpressed by the County's maintenance of the road, actually raised its own funds to periodically grade and water the route (to reduce dust) so that they could race in style.  It’s not hard to envision grudge matches a’la American Graffiti, with the loser buying everyone a round at the White House.

The route along the river was a logical place for new forms of transport too.  River View was located where it was, at least partially, because it avoided the ferry across the river to Lone Fir Cemetery.  River View built its own wharf, where steamboats with funeral corteges could tie up before the carriage ride up the hill to the gravesite, but the day's of steamboats were numbered.  One of Portland’s first electric trolley lines led from downtown to River View (and the Greenwood Hills Cemetery, nearby).  That line, completed by mid-October 1889, was called the Fulton-Cemeteries Line.  It was among the city's most popular, and beautiful, rides, cruising along the river, with views to Mt. Hood, and the cemetery itself.  People would take weekend excursions to River View, both to visit the dead and have a picnic lunch under the trees.  By the turn-of-the-century the City & Suburban Railway Company was running special “funeral cars” directly to the cemetery, after building a depot within its grounds.  The Southern Pacific Railroad (built upon a narrow gauge route developed by the Portland & Willamette Valley RR), also had a line running parallel to Macadam.  When SP built a standard gauge line for its trains, it converted the earlier route for use by its Red Electric Interurbans.  And finally, as carriages and trolleys gave way to automobiles, the old Macadam Road was widened and upgraded again and emerges as a portion of Oregon’s Pacific Highway, later US Highway 99, the major route along the entire west coast of the nation.

While River View’s history inside the gate is fascinating, and certainly worthy of the extended study it’s finally getting, there’s a lot of transportation history just to the east.  Next time you drive down what is now SW Macadam Avenue, imagine yourself in a fine carriage, pulled by a fast pair.  Maybe you can stop somewhere had have a beer.

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