The Smithson and McKay Brothers Block

I am about to relay several paragraphs of Portland history, all of which will seem random until you get to the end of the post. Stick with it.

The history of the Willamette Valley, from Oregon City north to the Willamette River's confluence with the Columbia, is one of bald speculation. White guys from places like Ohio and Maine started showing up in the mid 19th century and seizing various plots of land. This is incredibly lush country, and they understood that it wouldn't be long before the two large rivers--with depths accommodating ocean-going vessels--would function as watery highways to ship the bounty to points beyond. They also understood that there would be winners and losers and probably only one settlement would become the premier port on the Willamette. The white men who founded the winning city would, they reasoned, become barons in this western paradise.

We now know that Portland won, despite Oregon City's head start. But what of the rivals? I learned of one of these speculative cities today that I didn't even know existed--Albina, which was located on the east bank just north of Portland. And it was a pretty decent rival, too. (In that satellite map above, the downtown area--helpfully marked by the giant "Portland" label--was the original Portland settlement. Albina was on the east side where the 405--or Fremont--bridge now touches down.)

The earliest settlers made claims but died before much happened, and when their land was finally sorted out in 1872, the owners were Englishman Edwin Russell and George Henry Williams. Williams is an enormous figure in Oregon history, serving as Attorney General under US Grant during reconstruction among other roles--but he's germane here only because he and Russell named the new town Albina (pronounced Al-bean-ah at the time) after the daughter of the man from whom they brought the property. Exit Williams. Russell invested heavily in Albina, building a sawmill, iron foundry, and shipbuilding plant on the river, giving the new burg solid bones. (In the 1940s, the adjacent plot, Swan Island, became one of the United States' main shipbuilding sites during WWII.)

The town flourished. in 1880, it had just 150 souls, but by 1888, it boasted 3,000. From a history of the time (the source of which I will divulge in due course):

As had been the case with East Portland to the south, the main stimulus to Albina's raid growth was the Oregon Railroad and Navigation Co. Controlled and operated by railroad baron Henry Villard, and the Failing, Ladd, and Corbett families among other west side interests [ie, Portland], the O.R. &  N. Co. became the most powerful corporation in the State. By 1890 the O.R. &  N. Co. owned nearly two miles of riverfront and had massive developments on both sides of the river.

Portlanders will be well familiar with the names Ladd and Corbett--and maybe even Failing, a street I once lived very near. These were the founding families--presumably the winners who became barons of sorts.

About this time, Albina's central downtown was taking shape. Two anchor structures, built in 1890 and 1893, were the Smithson and McKay Brothers buildings, which housed a row of businesses at street level and dwellings above. They were located on Russell Street at the intersection of what was then called Delay Street, set back a ways from the river. About this time, Albina annexed undeveloped land to the north (now the neighborhood we think of as Albina), making it larger than the west and eastside halves of Portland proper. The population of the time was 7,000.

Given how close this settlement was to Portland--just two miles as the MAX train rolls--it's no surprise that the cities voted to consolidate soon thereafter. Thus ended the short, prosperous life of the town of Albina.

Why do I bring all of this up? Because remnants of the town of Albina still exist. Call to mind the intersection of Russell and Delay--sorry, we call it Interstate now--and envision the three-story brick building there. If you look up at top corner right at the intersection, you'll see the name "Smithson Block." In the late 1980s, the Smithson and McKay, which abuts it on Russell, were decrepit and empty and the city was thinking of tearing them down. By that time they'd been on the National Register of Historic Places for a decade, which actually made their survival less likely. Anyone taking them on would have to preserve their historic character. And, as anyone who was around in the late 80s knows, that particular intersection wasn't a "historic register" kind of place. It's where you might put an auto body shop.

1970s? | Source

Which is how Rob and Kurt Widmer came to own them. They agreed to take the buildings off the city's hands, paying exactly zero dollars. (If you click on the "assessor" tab at the Portland Maps entry on the buildings, you'll see that the last sale, on 9/1/88, was for $0.00.) Here's Kurt describing how they acquired it:

At the 11th hour we came in with a rehab proposal rather than a demo proposal and so we trumped the other guy. But the building was not in very good condition. All the wooden storefronts were rotted out, boarded up. Pigeon shit on everything. The roof on the far building leaked and had for some time so there was lots of rot. There had been a fire in the roof of this building.

Of course, they did restore it, a process that took years. The project was so immense the brewery permanently employed a carpentry crew. Rob said they used to joke that they “should change our name to Widmer Construction.” If you're a history buff, you can now go visit the buildings, known more commonly as the Widmer Brothers Brewery. I'm told you can even purchase a beer there while you admire the place, and maybe a burger.

All of this history (and the illustrations) come from the National Park Service, which prepared a wonderful document when it designated the buildings historic sites.