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Portland’s Central Eastside: A Rich History of Economic Prosperity

History and Timeline

The Central Eastside has been an important part of Portland’s economy since the city’s earliest settlement.

Originally settled in 1845 as part of a 640-acre land claim, the area was once largely planted with orchards and hay. At the time, the east bank of the river was dominated by marshes, creeks and sloughs, making development near the river’s edge difficult and requiring streets in the area to be built upon an expansive series of trestles.

In 1869 the East-Side Oregon Central Railroad connected the area with Salem, and an industrial economy based on the shipment of agricultural products began to take hold.

With the Morrison Bridge opening in 1887, the area (then part of the City of East Portland) was directly connected to the City of Portland. The bridge — the first to connect the east and west sides of the Willamette River — and the new rail lines to California and eastern states had a significant economic impact on the district and the entire Portland region. Portland was now a center of agricultural trade.

In 1891, East Portland was incorporated into the City of Portland, which was the Pacific Northwest’s biggest port — even bigger than Seattle.

By the end of the 19th century the east side was a thriving commercial district, its riverbank lined with double-decker docks that allowed the loading and unloading of ships both in low and high tide. Produce distribution and industrial service businesses lined the railroad tracks and Union Avenue (now Martin Luther King Blvd). Commerce spanned Grand Avenue, and vacant lots throughout the area filled in with a mix of industrial, commercial and residential uses.

Evolution of an Industrial Center

Over the decades, the types of industries in the Central Eastside have diversified, as have the transportation modes used to move both employees and products. Workers once arrived by foot or horse but soon came to rely on streetcar, and eventually the automobile, as the primary means to get to work.

The district is now served by a dynamic and growing multi-modal system that includes the return of streetcar, as well as bus, trucks, freight trains, light rail, bikes, pedestrians and cars.

Types of businesses today

The slow evolution of the Central Eastside into an industrial area has shaped the urban form we see today. With each successive era, the types of buildings and transportation infrastructure in the district have changed to meet the business needs.

While the character and types of businesses in the district have not changed significantly, the number of business sectors co-existing in the district has expanded. And although some companies — such as large-scale manufacturers and distribution companies — have relocated for more space or direct access to port facilities, many new businesses find the district’s buildings meet their needs.This evolution is most evident in the area between Water Avenue and Martin Luther King Blvd. Here older buildings that used to house a single produce distribution company now host numerous small scale manufacturing, industrial service and industrial office users.have changed to meet the business needs.

This is the second installment of a blog series aimed at exploring the past, present, and future of the Central Eastside. To learn more about the history of the Central Eastside and the planning efforts for the district, read the Central Eastside Reader  and visit the SE Quadrant Plan calendar to learn about future events.