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A Portland Primer

Urban energy meets pristine natural beauty at the confluence of the Willamette and Columbia Rivers in Portland, Oregon. Dr. Jon Hennebold and the Portland Local Arrangements Committee extend a hearty Northwestern welcome to their exceptional city with a little history, sites of interest, and, of course, plenty of recommendations for food.

The History of Portland

By Jon Hennebold, Chair, Local Arrangements Committee and Alison Ting, Student Trainee Representative, Oregon National Primate Research Center, Beaverton, Oregon

Portland is unique, both in terms of its urban “flavor” and its beautiful natural setting. Only in Portland can you visit the 24 Hour Church of Elvis (where wedding ceremonies are advertised as “cheap, not legal”) and then follow that up with a Bacon Maple Bar at Voodoo Doughnuts (the names for some of the other items on the menu are not suitable for publication, although they may be appreciated by your average reproductive biologist). Also, Portland is situated geographically such that you can ski on the slopes of Mount Hood in the morning (even in the summer as the lifts reach the Palmer glacier, allowing for skiing and snowboarding throughout the year) and still make it in time to catch the sunset on the picturesque Oregon coast.

Portland is located in arguably one of the most beautiful surroundings in the country. It is nestled at the northern end of the Willamette Valley, at the confluence of the Columbia and Willamette Rivers. To the east lies the Cascade Mountain Range, our volcanic contribution to the Pacific Ring of Fire, while to the west you can see the Coast Mountain Range. The area’s unique natural environment is based primarily upon geologic activities that involve fire and water. The Cascade Range was born from, and is still being formed by, tectonic forces that include subduction of the Pacific Plate under the North American Plate. The resultant upwelling of lava has led to the formation of some of the tallest volcanoes on the continent, including Mount Rainier in Washington, Mount Hood in Oregon as well as Mount Shasta in California. Some of these giants remain active or have the potential to reawaken, as evidenced by the recent eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980. A major force that continually opposes such mountain building activity is erosion. Portland sits at the west end of the Columbia River Gorge, a deep channel cut from epic floods that occurred during the last ice age. The source of the water responsible for such an amazing feat of geologic remodeling was a vast lake, 2,000 feet deep in places, covering a significant portion of Western Montana. This glacial lake contained as much water as Lakes Erie and Ontario combined, with the only thing holding it back being an ice damn from the Cordilleran Ice Sheet. Some 12,000 years ago the ice damn broke, releasing a torrent of water equal to 60 times the flow of the Amazon River (9.46 cubic miles per hour, or 386 million cubic feet per second). This event repeated itself several times during the last glacial period. The power of such floods left us with the spectacular gorge that the Columbia River follows today. Due to its rapid formation, the basalt walls of the gorge rise hundreds of feet above the river resulting in numerous towering waterfalls.

Portland and its surrounding area served as home to many Native American groups, including the Bannock, Chasta, Chinook, Kalapuya, Klamath, Molalla, Nez Perce, Takelma, and Umpqua tribes, where they lived off of the vast resources of the region for hundreds of years. In 1804, Lewis & Clark left St. Louis to scout the Pacific Northwest for a water route to the Pacific Ocean and strengthen American claims to this part of the continent. After spending a couple of winters on the Oregon coast near present day Astoria, they returned to Washington, D.C. and extoled the vast natural resources of the northwest. Great interest in the region developed after their reports of a mild climate, thick stands of timber and fertile farming land became public. In 1840, Massachusetts sea captain John Couch navigated up the Columbia and the Willamette Rivers. There, he made note that the Willamette River’s depth adjacent to its confluence with the Columbia River could easily accommodate large ocean-going vessels. Shortly thereafter in 1843, Tennessee drifter William Overton and his friend, Boston lawyer Asa Lovejoy were floating down the Willamette River in a canoe when they came to the site of present day Portland. They beached their canoe and immediately realized the region had the potential to serve as a major commercial center due to the transportation afforded by the local waterways and the readily available of timber. Overton didn’t have the quarter that was required to file a land claim, so he sold half of his 640-acre share to Lovejoy for 25 cents. They began to clear the many trees, build roads and the first buildings. After a while, Overton decided to move on and sold his half of the share to Francis Pettygrove.

In 1845, Portland got its name by a coin flip that served to settle a dispute. Asa Lovejoy wanted to name the new settlement after his hometown of Boston, whereas Francis Pettygrove was from Maine and wanted to name the new town Portland. Pettygrove won the coin toss two out of three times and the rest, as they say, is history (thankfully they were not from Sheboygan or Schenectady). Soon, Portland had nearly 3,000 residents and Oregon became the 33rd state to join the Union in 1859. By the end of the 19th Century, Portland had 90,000 residents and it was the largest city in the Northwest. Portland had the busiest port north of San Francisco, and like other West Coast ports, Portland was home to frequent acts of "shanghaiing" where kidnappers seized drunken or drugged men and then sold them to ship captains desperate for crewmen. There has been speculation that tunnels under the city blocks were used for this practice, although the evidence supporting such an act is questionable. Portland was the major port in the Pacific Northwest for much of the 19th century, until the 1890s, when railroads connected the deepwater harbor in Seattle with eastern rail routes. Goods could then be transported from the northwest coast to inland cities without the need to navigate the dangerous bar at the mouth of the Columbia River. Despite Seattle’s dominance as the regional port, Portland continued to flourish and now accommodates over half a million people within its city limits.

Portland Today

Today, Portland is an eclectic city, where sophisticated and alternative styles coexist peacefully. It is known for its friendliness, rich culture and variety of outdoor pursuits. The City of Portland has been referred to as one of the most environmentally friendly or "green" cities in the world. It also runs a comprehensive system of light rail (Tri-Met), buses, and bike lanes to help keep cars off the roads. Portland is often voted as one of the top bike friendly cities in the world and has a bicycle lane/path network that connects all parts of the city. The city also boasts 92,000 acres of green space and more than 74 miles of hiking and running trails. The climate in Portland is ideal for growing roses, and for more than a century it has been known as "The City of Roses". It serves as home to many rose gardens, with the International Rose Test Garden being the most famous. Founded in 1917, Portland’s International Rose Test Garden is the oldest official, continuously operated public rose test garden in the United States. The City of Portland Gold Medal Award is issued annually to the best new varieties, which are then planted in the Gold Medal Garden. There are currently over 10,000 rose plants in the Portland Rose Garden. The garden is located only 2 miles west of downtown Portland and is accessible from the Convention Center by car, bus or the MAX light rail. Adjacent to the Rose Garden are the Hoyt Arboretum, a 187-acre living museum of trees and plants from all over the world, and the Oregon Zoo.

For a downtown Portland visit from the Convention Center, simply hop on the MAX Light Rail and Portland Streetcar for free. The "Fareless Square" includes downtown Portland, the Rose Quarter (Convention Center) and the Lloyd District. Located in the center of Downtown Portland, Pioneer Courthouse Square, is often called the "living room of the city," and is the scene of numerous cultural events. Major department and specialty stores are concentrated within surrounding blocks. Nearby, the tree-lined South Park Blocks offer a pleasant stroll to the Portland Art Museum and Oregon Historical Society. On the edge of downtown Portland (the Pearl District), "Powell’s City of Books", claims to be the largest independent new and used bookstore in the world. It occupies a full city block, and contains over 68,000 square feet, about 1.6 acres of retail floor space. Portland is also the home of the NBA Trail Blazers team, which unfortunately is probably best known currently for having the worst knees in the league. Within the past year, Portland was selected as a host city for a new major league soccer team, the Portland Timbers. The Timbers have a newly renovated stadium that sits in the northwest section of the city. Drinking and eating in Portland have evolved into a culinary adventure. It’s not just the restaurants, emerging neighborhoods, markets, cooking schools, microbreweries and nearby wineries; it’s an attitude that Portlanders have for what ends up on their plates. Fresh ingredients are the key - whether you're talking microbrews or seafood. And anything caught, made or grown in the surrounding region is a source of tremendous local pride. Deciding where to eat, however, can be a visitor’s most difficult decision because the offerings are so plentiful. Whether it’s a taco truck on the corner or a gourmet restaurant on the hill, you can be guaranteed a satisfying experience. May through November, visitors can get to the heart of Portland’s food scene at the Portland Farmers' Market. The market, which operates seasonally in three locations (Portland State University, Lloyd District, and Downtown), is just the tip of the urban food experience in Portland. Portland is also known as the motherland of microbrews. You will find some of the best and most-varied microbreweries around. Indeed, Portland has more breweries than any other city in the nation, if not the world, and it has arguably become one of the best destinations anywhere for beer tasting. Portland’s reputation for producing quality craft beers developed in the 1980's, when Oregon repealed Prohibition-era laws banning brew pubs (restaurants with on-site breweries), helping to pave the way for the opening of several microbreweries. Today, Portland’s brewers range from large operations with nationally distributed brands like Widmer to very small producers. Tour guides, well versed in beer-geek speak, will show you the inner workings of the brewery as they educate you about esters and hops and ales and lagers.

So, in closing, welcome to Portland and we hope that you will have the opportunity to spend some time to visit and experience its unique natural and urban treasures.

Portland Events and Points of Interest

Within the Portland Metro Area:

The Annual Oregon Brewers Festival

The Annual Oregon Brewers Festival. One of the largest brewer festivals in the country, this event will be held at the Tom McCall Waterfront Park, just across from the Oregon Convention Center. The festival brings in over 80 brewers from Portland and throughout the country. It runs from July 28th through the 31st.

International Rose Garden

Portland is known as the City of Roses, and new types have been tested at the International Rose Test Garden in Washington Park since 1917. Blooms begin to appear in early May and are most spectacular in early June.

Forest Park

Forest Park encompasses over 5,100 wooded acres making it the largest, forested natural area within any city limits in the United States. Forest Park has an extensive system of trails, fire lanes and roads that provide excellent opportunities for hiking, walking, running, and simply escaping the urban atmosphere.

Lan Su Chinese Garden

The Chinese Garden is one of Portland’s greatest treasures, occupying one block or approximately 40,000 square feet within the Chinatown/Oldtown area of the city. A visit to the garden offers a unique view into Chinese culture and history.

Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI)

OMSI houses two auditoriums, including an IMAX Dome theater, and a variety of hands-on exhibits focused on natural sciences, industry, and technology. The museum also maintains and offers tours of the USS Blueback, a Barbel class Navy Submarine purchased by OMSI in 1994.

Oregon Zoo


Portland Aerial Tram

Portland Aerial Tram is a cable car connecting two parts of the Oregon Health and Science University. Travelling from the South Waterfront, South Portland, to Marquam Hill, Homestead, the tram rises 500 feet in three minutes, offering panoramic city views.

Portland Art Museum

From the first acquisition in 1895 to the donation of Vincent van Gogh’s The Ox-Cart in 2007, the Museum’s extensive collection has grown to include thousands of works, many of which were gifts from Museum founders and generous members of our community.

Washington Park

This 400 acre park is just minutes from downtown Portland has numerous gardens, attractions, playgrounds, as well as 15 miles of trails. Some of the attractions located within the park include Hoyt Arboretum, Portland’s Japanese Garden, The Oregon Children’s Museum, The Oregon Zoo, The World Forestry Museum, and The International Rose Test Garden.

Willamette River Tours

The Willamette River originates in the Cascade Mountain Range, travels north through the Willamette Valley until it joins the Columbia River near Portland. Since the river cuts through the middle of the city, it offers unique experiences that include kayaking, jet boat rides, and the more relaxing river cruise tours. These tours provide great views of the city and surrounding environment.

10 to 50 Miles Outside of Portland:

Columbia River Gorge

The Columbia River Gorge is a National Scenic Area that provides spectacular views of the Columbia River as cuts through the Cascade Mountain Range. All within an hour drive, you can experience hiking, biking, windsurfing, kiteboarding, boating, and scenic waterfalls. A stop at Multnomah Falls Lodge, along the Historic Columbia Gorge Highway, is a must! The lodge provides a perfect spot to view Multnomah Falls, the second highest (620 feet) year-round waterfall in the nation.

Yamhill Valley Wine Country

The Yamhill Valley is home to a burgeoning Oregon wine industry. It has become a major producer of pinot noir, with some wine enthusiasts claiming that Oregon’s pinots are the best in the world. A drive through the Yamhill Valley and you can see why the pioneers braved a long and arduous trek to settle in Western Oregon.

Evergreen Air & Space Museum

The Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum is located in McMinnville, Oregon and displays an extensive collection of military and civilian aircraft as well as spacecraft. The most famous piece of the museum’s collection includes Howard Hughes' Spruce Goose. The museum is staffed by numerous volunteers that actually flew the planes on display, providing a unique and personnel account of aviation history.

50 to 100 Miles Outside of Portland:

Timberline Lodge/Mount Hood

Timberline Lodge, located 5,960 feet above sea level on the Southern slope of Mount Hood, was constructed in the midst of the Great Depression through the WPA program. Franklin Roosevelt dedicated Timberline in 1937 and remains to this day an excellent example of the "grand lodges" built during this period. Activities include hiking, biking, and spectacular views of the Cascade Mountains via one of the chair lifts that run throughout the summer.

The Oregon Coast

Traveling 81 miles West of downtown Portland on US highway 26, you will reach the Pacific Ocean, the picturesque Oregon coastline and the coastal town of Canon Beach. Oregon has an extensive State Park system that provides numerous opportunities for hiking, biking, or strolling along the beach. Swimming is not recommended for the faint of heart as the ocean’s current comes from the North out of the Gulf of Alaska (the water temperature in August is a bone-chilling 58 degrees Fahrenheit!). Because of the influence of the Pacific Ocean, temperatures on the coast may struggle to get above 70 degrees Fahrenheit even in the middle of summer. In other words, bring a jacket.

Mount St. Helens Visitor Center at Silver Lake

The Silver Lake Interpretive Center provides views of Mount St. Helens and houses exhibits detailing the chronology of events leading up to the volcanic explosion that took place on May 18, 1980, local geology, and the re-growth and recovery of the area in the years following the eruption. Visitors also have the opportunity to explore adjacent Silver Lake via a mile-long trail that includes boardwalks over wetland areas. Driving an additional 50 miles east brings you to the Johnston Ridge Observatory for a spectacular view of the eruption site.

Where to Eat

For a list of local restaurants, brew pubs, and other places to eat, please see our Restaurants page.