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The early years of Mt. Tabor

By Grant Nelson

Today, Mt. Tabor is a neighborhood of mostly single-family homes clustered around a 200-acre park covering the slopes of Mt. Tabor, a 600-foot hill containing the remnants of an extinct volcano. At one time, the Mt. Tabor area included all of the area east of 20th Ave. as far as Russellville (SE 102nd & Stark) and between Sullivan’s Gulch (Banfield Freeway) and Section Line Road (SE Division) on the south. When the residents of the area organized themselves into a neighborhood association in 1974, their conception of what constituted Mt. Tabor had shrunk somewhat from the nineteenth-century conception of the neighborhood. The boundaries of the neighborhood set in 1974 ran from Division St. on the south to E. Burnside on the north, and from 50th Ave. on the west to 76th Ave. on the east. Mt. Tabor, originally a wooded, game-filled wilderness in 1848, changed to a rural community of farmers and orchardists, and eventually to a residential neighborhood.

Perhaps the greatest influence on the development of Mt. Tabor has been the proximity of the area to the city of Portland. Mt. Tabor developed rapidly once it was linked with that burgeoning west side metropolis. Portland had begun to be settled by 1842, when William Johnson of Captain Couch’s brig Maryland staked his claim on the west side of the Willamette River and built a small cabin. Johnson soon realized the benefits of having neighbors and moved to French Prairie, near Salem. Next, a man named Overton set up a shingle mill. Within a year, he sold out to Pettygrove and Lovejoy who, in 1844, got Portland started by laying out a town site on the west side of the river. Meanwhile, on the other side of the river, the cabin of a man variously known as Peria or Poria, probably a Hudson’s Bay Company voyageur, was the only habitation. In 1845, James B. Stephens purchased Peria’s cabin from Dr. John McLoughlin for $200 and preceeded to lay out a townsite, later known as East Portland, across from Lovejoy and Pettygrove’s town on the west side. A crude ferry service connected the two germinal towns almost immediately. It provided for light freight and passengers only, since a canoe was all that was then available.

Sometime during 1846, an event occurred that was to have a profound effect on the settlement of the east side. Up until that year, much of the land east of the river was heavily wooded. 1846 became known as the year of the so-called “big burn.” The big burn, a forest fire that began on the slopes of Mt. Scott, south and east of Mt. Tabor, burned off most of the timber as far north as the wetlands near the Columbia River. The trees were soon replaced with coarse grasses. The area was so thoroughly cleared that the setting of farms was a simple matter not requiring the time-consuming and back-breaking job of clearing.

The Reverend Clinton Kelly settled on the east side of the river in 1848, and though his claim was west and south of Mt. Tabor, his family figured prominently in the later history of the area. After purchasing claim rights for $50 he settled and began to farm while continuing circuit riding and preaching. Game was still plentiful on the east side, and one of Kelly’s sons reportedly killed a bear near today’s SE 12th and Division.

Reverend Kelly’s circuit riding duties took him throughout the lower Willamette Valley. He came into contact with Dr. Perry Prettyman, a fellow Methodist who had come to Oregon with his family from Delaware by way of Missouri in 1847. After nearly two years in Oregon City, Prettyman, 54, and wife, Elizabeth, and family moved to Mt. Tabor and staked out their claim—from Base Line Road (Stark St.) to Section Line Road (Division St.), and from 39th Ave. to 60th Ave. Probably a naturopath rather than an M.D., he had studied medicine at the Botanic Medical School in Baltimore. We have Prettyman to thank for that nemesis of the green lawn—the dandelion—for it was he who introduced that plant to the Northwest, having brought it here from Missouri for medicinal purposes. Prettyman practiced medicine from the back of a horse up until his death in 1872.

Other early arrivals in the Mt. Tabor area included David Prettyman, who at 19 settled east of his father’s claim in 1851, and Samuel Nelson, a physician, who arrived in 1852 and settled north of D.D. Prettyman. Newton D. Gilham, who had brought a wagon train to Oregon in 1852, settled on the north slope of Mt. Tabor in 1853.

In 1853 Mt. Tabor received its name, supposedly when the approximately 10 Methodist families were naming their church and wanted to incorporate an area name. As the story goes, most of those at the meeting favored the name Mt. Zion. Kelly’s son Plympton, who arrived late, had been reading Joel T. Headley’s book Napoleon and His Marshalls and was impressed by the battle fought near the base of Mt. Tabor in Palestine. His enthusiasm for the name, coupled with the fact that Mt. Tabor has traditionally been held to be the site of Christ’s transfiguration, must have impressed the devout Methodist residents of the area sufficiently to convince them that Mt. Tabor was a better name than Mt. Zion. In any case, the hill has been known as Mt. Tabor ever since that time. The church, named the Mt. Tabor Methodist-Episcopal Church, was built on a spot near the corners of four land claims on the land donated for the purpose by N.D. Gilham. The congregation that formed in 1853 is still active today.

Other land claimants that arrived during the early 1850s included Elijah B. Davidson, Benjamin F. Starr, Joshua Witten, Hilary Casson, and George and Robert Gray. By 1855 all of the lands in the vicinity of Mt. Tabor had been claimed by these early settlers. The people who lived in Mt. Tabor in these years were not, as many are today, commuters to jobs in downtown Portland. The horseback or wagon ride to one of the crude ferries to Portland was not a journey to be lightly undertaken and must have involved hours rather than the few minutes required today.

The settlers in the Mt. Tabor area were farmers, primarily engaged in fruit growing, and the area grew most of the fruit shipped from Portland to California. The gold rush in California created an insatiable demand for fruit and afforded huge profits to those who supplied it. Portland had been linked with Astoria and so with California by steamer since 1850. J.B. Stephens began operating the Stark Street Ferry around 1853, which had a flatboat for teams and wagons. In California gold had to be sluiced from rivers and dug out of mines; in Mt. Tabor it grew on trees.

Mt. Tabor had its own school as early as 1852. Hicks, teacher at that time, must have been a fairly knowledgeable man, for he informed his students that Mt. Tabor had once been a volcano. This assertion was not confirmed for nearly 50 years, when the remains of a volcanic vent were unearthed during excavation on the hill for gravel. Hicks left the area shortly after he had come in order to fight in the Indian Wars in Washington. In 1863-64, Plympton Kelly’s wife, Elizabeth, also taught, “in a log cabin on Mt. Tabor with but 16 pupils, while the district included all of Mt. Tabor, Montavilla, Russellville, South Mt. Tabor, and part of the Eastside District.” The small enrollment indicates the essentially rural nature of the area.

By 1860, the number of families in the vicinity of Mt. Tabor was 19, more than double since 1853. Some of the eight donation land claimants had begun selling off small parcels, which increased the population a bit and provided them with labor needed to tend their large orchards. Household heads were primarily farmers, and the rest were engaged in labor, blacksmithing, medicine, carpentry, mechanics, and clerking. White Anglo-Saxon Protestants predominated in the community; only one household head was born outside of the United States, in England. There was an average of only 2.5 children per household with children.

Perry Prettyman’s farm, valued at $3,800, was the most valuable property in the Mt. Tabor area in 1860. Prettyman was well aware of the prospective worth of his property. He told his sons, “I shall live to see this land worth $100 an acre; you will live to see it worth more.” Before his death in 1872, it was worth over $300 an acre.

At the time of the 1870 census, there were an estimated 36 households in the Mt. Tabor area, almost twice as many as in 1860. Farming occupied 28 of 36 household heads; other occupations included gardener, machinist, physician, laborer, county ambassador, and hotel keeper. The non-family labor force consisted of 14 laborers, two of which were Chinese, spread among six farms and the hotel. Although the majority of the farmers were born in the United States, the area soon included a small number of families from England, Ireland, South Wales, Prussia, and Sweden.

New residents like Richard Price, who came to Mt. Tabor in 1869, did much to shape the rural fruit-growing community into today’s residential neighborhood. Price purchased 45 acres on the west side of Perry Prettyman’s donation land claim. Price had been in charge of the farm that supplied produce for the state insane asylum in East Portland. Hawthorne Blvd. was then known as Asylum Road and extended only as far as today’s 39th Avenue, then a county road along the west edge of Prettyman’s claim. Price immediately extended Asylum Road to the east and sold off all but 6.5 acres to others. Price and other subdividing farmers began the process of piecemeal development that characterized much of what was ultimately to become of Mt. Tabor.

By 1880 the number of households had again more than doubled in ten years. In that year 408 persons lived in 83 separate households. Farmers still represented a majority of household heads, but those engaged in other occupations now made up nearly 40 percent of those listed. The population was beginning to diversify, and many of the newcomers were engaged in building homes for those to come. Many of the homes in the area took in boarders, and many of these worked on the farms on which they lived.

Household heads listing their birthplaces in foreign countries now accounted for more than 40 percent of family heads. These immigrant families came from northern European countries with one notable exception, China. In 1880 there were 15 Chinese residents in the area.

The Chinese people who lived at Mt. Tabor were not well assimilated into the community. Some of them lived singly at the farms in the area and are listed as cooks and farmhands, but two households of young Chinese men listed themselves as farmhands and woodcutters. Anti-Chinese feeling in the community increased as their numbers grew. These racist feelings were often fanned by politicians such as Sylvester Penneyer, who ran for and won the governership of the state in 1886 on an anti-Chinese platform. Many in the Mt. Tabor area must have shared the governor’s racism, for in 1886 a group of Chinese people cutting wood on Mt. Tabor were attacked and forced to board a ferry for the west side.

Most of the major roads of the 1870s and 1880s ran along the edges of major land claims. These thoroughfares correspond to today’s 39th Ave., 60th Ave., 82nd Ave., Stark St., and Division St. The major junction was where the land claims of Perry Prettyman, Elijah Davidson, Newton Gilham, and Samuel Nelson came together at SE 60th and Stark (then Mt. Tabor Ave. and Base Line Road). Mt. Tabor M.E. Church was near this intersection, but during the ’70s and ’80s a store, a school, a post office, a fire station, and the Mt. Tabor Baptist Church were all clustered at this important intersection.

Most of what turned Mt. Tabor into a neighborhood of homes happened during the 1880s. During this decade Mt. Tabor was linked and eventually bound to the city of Portland to the west. There had been talk of a bridge across the Willamette since the late 1850s, but most, like East Portland merchant and Mt. Tabor area farmer William Beck, thought that the Stark Street ferry was good enough. He said in 1858 that the ferry gave him a chance to rest the horses on the way to town.

Ironically, Beck was to play an active role in the effort to bridge the Willamette River. In 1875, he and some other east side residents presented a petition to the county asking that a bridge be built. There was little opposition to the idea, but the county court held that since the city owned no property on the west side of the river on which to land the bridge, they would have to deny the petition. Beck and others shifted from their original idea of a free public bridge to a private toll bridge. During the early 1880s work commenced on a bridge by the Garrill Brothers of San Francisco, with backing from Beck, Dr. J.C. Hawthorne, and C.M. Wiberg. This attempt was opposed by west siders, primarily those owning property to the north and south of the city, river-boat owners, ferry owners, and town lot interests. At the urging of these interests Judge Deady issued an injuction against the building of a bridge on the basis that such a structure would constitute an obstruction to navigation. Finally the injunction was dissolved and the bridge was built. The Morrison Street bridge opened in April 1887, and Mt. Taborite William Beck led the procession across. The bridge was a toll bridge and remained so until it was purchased by the city in 1895 for $150,000.

Mt. Tabor area farmer William Beck, and others who had been instrumental in building the Morrison St. bridge, went on to form the Willamette Bridge Railway Co. to serve the hinterlands of the east side of the river. Only a few months after the bridge opening, ground was broken for the railway. The first trip was made to Sunnyside, a newly subdivided area to the west of Mt. Tabor, on July 9, 1888. The following year service was extended to Mt. Tabor, the first trip taking place June 7, 1889. Just two weeks later the Mt. Tabor Railway Co. opened a steam powered line out Hawthorne Blvd. to 54th Ave. The units that pulled the passenger cars along a brisk 20 mph clip were known as dummies, because their designers subtly tried to disguise them as horse-drawn streetcars so that they would not frighten horses. These units continued to be used until the lines were electrified around the turn of the century.

The business of subdividing now began in earnest. Much of the area was accessible to people willing to walk the few blocks to one of the two steam railway lines. Many of the subdivision names are linked with Mt. Tabor, a name associated in the minds of many with the pastoral orchards of the area. Developers capitalized on this association and the name of the area was preserved in Mt. Tabor Villa (later shortened to Montavilla), North Mt. Tabor, East Tabor Villa, Tabor Heights, Tabordale, Taborside, Mt. Tabor Place, and Mt. Tabor Park. Other subdivisions played on the rural theme with names like Orchard Homes, while some followed the pattern of many of today’s housing tracts with names that just sound like they belong to a pleasing place to live, as in Edendale, Melrose, Belwood, Crystal Springs, Edgewood, Auburn Park, and Belmont Park. The names of the farmers and orchardists were also perpetuated in names such as Rumsy’s Addition, Kinzel Park, Brainard’s Addition, Christensen’s Addition, and W.D. Prettyman’s Subdivision. Some of the names, like Second Electric Addition and Tabasco Addition, simply defy classification. Some idea of the rate of growth of the area during the late 1880s, when transportation facilities began serving the neighborhood, can be gained by comparing the R.L. Polk Directories for the years immediately preceding and following the 1889 opening of the steam rail lines to Mt. Tabor. Mt. Tabor is listed separately in these directories, a fact that greatly facilitates comparison. In 1888 there were 142 residences in the area, and by 1890 the number of residences had risen to 201.

Another bridge to the west side, the Madison Street Bridge, opened in 1891, the year East Portland and Portland consolidated. Yet another bridge, the Burnside, opened in 1894. The three bridges connected the heart of downtown Portland with the Mt. Tabor area, provided William Brainard, W.D. Prettyman, and other early settlers and their descendants with tidy fortunes, and today provide the neighborhood with much of the traffic flowing through it on the way to other former farm and orchard areas further to the east.

The Mt. Tabor area was joined to the city of Portland in 1905.