The History Behind Five of Southeast’s Most Popular Parks

Mount Tabor from above, circa 1956. The park was home to four reservoirs, as seen in the photo, for much of the 20th century. Image courtesy of City of Portland archives.
The Sellwood Park public swimming pool circa 1935. Portland’s first public swimming pool still attracts large crowds today. Image courtesy of City of Portland archives.
Preliminary plans for Laurelhurst Park, circa 1910. Laurelhurst Park was designed to mimic Central Park in New York City. Image courtesy of City of Portland Archives
Construction on Westmoreland Park, circa 1939. Before becoming a park, the area was home to Portland’s first municipal airfield, chosen for its flat landscape. Image courtesy of City of Portland Archives. 
A bird’s eye view of Portland with the top five parks highlighted and labeled. The parks we’ve come to know and love hold a rich history of stories, from scandalous horse-racing to adopt-a-duck initiatives. Image via Google Maps.

Portland has grown a nationwide reputation for its unique, plentiful parks. From Mount Tabor to Laurelhurst, Southeast Portland is no exception to the citywide park prestige, many of which have rich histories dating back to the nineteenth century. The parks we’ve come to know and love were once active volcanoes, airfields, highly successful farms, and horse-racing tracks, each with a unique story showcasing their origination. 

#1 Mount Tabor:

Mount Tabor, now the centerpiece of Southeast Portland, was once an active volcano over 300,000 years ago. Technically, it’s a cinder cone, just one in a large network spanning the northern Willamette Valley. The City of Portland bought the land at the end of the nineteenth century with the intention of building a reservoir to store water from the Bull Run River. The reservoirs were specifically designed at elevation so that water could flow to downtown Portland without the use of pumps. At one time the park was home to four reservoirs; however, Reservoir Two, positioned southwest of the current park limits, was decommissioned in 1976. The guard tower is still visible on the northeast corner of 60th and Division. 

The park itself was designed by Emanuel Mische, Portland’s Superintendent of Parks who later molded Laurelhurst as well. The design combined the reservoirs with gently curving roads, endless trails, and steep staircases; still cornerstones of the park today. While trekking up the stairs can be daunting, visitors are rewarded with amazing views of the city. From the west side and top of Mount Tabor, views of Hawthorne Street and Downtown Portland can be viewed, while the less frequented east side of the park has views of Mt Hood and the Columbia River Gorge on a clear day. The park holds tennis courts, a basketball court, an amphitheater, and even a soapbox derby track. 

#2 Westmoreland:

Before the baseball fields, duck pond, and new construction playground, Westmoreland Park served as Portland’s first municipal airport. At the time, Bloomingfield Airfield was a center for aviation traffic in the Northwest, until 1920 when planes were redirected to a newly opened airfield on Swan Island. As adjacent neighborhoods Eastmoreland and Sellwood exploded in population, the City of Portland bought the land and began construction on the park in 1935. The city drew up plans that included three football fields, a lacrosse field, twelve tennis courts, a dozen horseshoe pits, and an open air roller rink, among many other amenities. Unfortunately, due to the Great Depression, the designs never quite came to fruition. 

Instead the park’s main attraction became its ‘casting’ pond for amatuer and professional fishers alike. The large rectangular pool of water, still around today, was home to the International Casting Tournament of 1936, attracting competitors from all around. Since its conception a number of upgrades have been added to the park, including a large playground, baseball stadium, lawn bowling field, in addition to basketball and tennis courts. Perhaps its most distinctive feature is the small Crystal Springs Creek flowing through the center of the park. The creek is home to wildlife aplenty and provides a unique viewing experience for visitors. 

#3 Laurelhurst

The land that Laurelhurst Park now sits on was once a fraction of William S. Ladd’s estate. Ladd, the owner of an incredibly profitable stock farm, the developer of Ladd’s Addition, and twice the Portland Mayor, sold his land in the early 1900s. Later the city bought the land for the park in 1911. Laurelhurst Park was designed by Emanuel Mische, Portland’s Superintendent of Parks, who created a design to mimic the naturalistic ideal of New York City’s Central Park. His plan capitalized on a pond in the middle of the land, which is now known as Firwood Lake, and is a centerpiece of the current park. 

The lake, while an eye catching attraction, has stirred up trouble for the City of Portland. In 1987 the duck population had exceeded twelve times the ideal amount. In an effort to clear the water, the city created an adopt-a-duck program which ultimately failed after the company hired to catch the birds was unable to lure them into their traps. In 1990 the catfish, carp, and black crappie fish populations also reached concerning levels, with any endeavors to reduce disturbance proving unsuccessful. 

The lake is still home to an incredible variety of animals, including turtles! Additionally, the park contains a carefully planned series of trails perfect for strolling. Adjacent to the main park are tennis courts, basketball courts, and a playground. 

#4 Sellwood:

Long before Sellwood became just another neighborhood in the late 19th century, it served as an escape from the hustle and bustle of downtown Portland. Citizens keen on gambling and drinking (both discouraged activities in Portland at the time) would venture to ‘City View Race Track,’ or what is now Sellwood Park. The City View Race Track was a premier horse racing facility, with the complex hosting a large track in addition to a cricket and baseball diamond. Wealthy Portlanders dressed to the nines would frequent the track to make bets on the horses. 

As Sellwood grew into an established community, the days of racing came to an end. In 1909 the City of Portland acquired the land with the intention of turning it into a park. Sellwood Park is home to Portland’s oldest public swimming pool, which was added soon after the park opened. The pool, which has undergone upgrades since its original construction, is a popular place for local Sellwoodians to escape the summer heat. The park is semi-connected to both Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge and Sellwood Riverfront Park, whose combined amenities make it difficult to get bored. 

#5 Lents

The origins of the Lents community can be traced back to the 1850s when the area was the center of a growing farm community. Lents, relatively isolated from the rest of Portland at this time, was its own self-sustaining town. It wasn’t until 1912 that the area was annexed into the city, and then it wasn’t until 1953 that the park was constructed on the site of an old gravel quarry. 

Included in original design plans was a baseball stadium, where the Portland Pickles play during the summer months. The stadium is named after Charles Walker, Portland’s first Sporting Director and avid softball proponent. Now hundreds of Portland locals gather every home game to cheer on their local baseball team, during which Lents Park adopts a festive tone. The park is home to numerous surrounding baseball stadiums, a high quality astro-turf soccer field, and a brand new play area located on the South end of the park. 

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