By Mischa Webley, NECN Staff Writer

You wouldn’t know it today, but if you walk down the 15th Avenue hill near Prescott Street, you are skirting the edge of a massive geological event. This humble hillside that the Number 8 bus traverses daily was, along with most of the Willamette Valley, carved out and shaped by the massive Missoula Floods, a series of catastrophic movements of water that were unleashed from a glacial lake some 15,000 years ago. 

This wall of water, over 400 feet high when it reached the Portland area, laid siege to our Valley dozens of times over many centuries, leaving behind the dramatic geography that today our region is well-known for. The Columbia Gorge may be its finest result, but Northeast Portland also holds many of the flood’s geographic signatures. 

15th Avenue looking North

The entire Alameda Ridge – which begins near Rocky Butte and terminates officially near MLK Boulevard, is one of those signatures. As the raging waters ripped around the Butte, they laid a deep but narrow 6-mile finger of Montana sediment onto the valley floor, upon which the Ridge’s winding streets and Craftsman homes are built.

Today, it is an almost unremarkable feature of Northeast, but the Ridge remains another important marker: for much of its length it serves as the dividing line between the two watersheds that make up Northeast. 

After a rainstorm, water that hits the ground near that same hillside on 15th Avenue will either trickle down the north face of this ridge and towards the Columbia River, or it will find the southern route and empty into the Willamette. The countless different paths to the rivers taken by this precipitation over millennia has given shape to the land that Portland was built on.

Rainfall produces streams which carve out gullies that create the contours and details that our roads today rise and fall along. In other areas, enormous gashes were cut from the ground by the floods and left open like a knife wound in the flesh of the Earth. One of the largest of these deep cuts we know today as Sullivan’s Gulch.

NE 15th and Skidmore

Closer to the water in the Rose Quarter lies more evidence of these scars. As local historian Doug Decker outlines in his (excellent) blog, Alameda Old House History, these gulches and gullies presented some major obstacles to early city planners and builders. In one case, there was a massive gulch in the area around the Portland Public Schools building near Interstate Avenue.

As early real estate speculators in Portland looked eastward to grow the city after annexing the town of Albina, this enormous hole in the ground and its swampy surroundings proved prohibitive. For many years, this land was considered nearly uninhabitable and builders struggled to work around it until finally engineering technology advanced enough to overcome its difficult geography. The gentle slopes of the pavement there today mask the enormous efforts required to make everyday use of it. 

Nearby, on what is today NE 3rd and Broadway, the solution was less technological. While today we have automated lights to make crossing the street effortless, in the late 1800’s a wooden pedestrian bridge was needed to span the treacherous (and often garbage-filled) gulch that split the ground for blocks across this unassuming stretch of the Lloyd neighborhood.

Eventually it was filled in, and the streetcar lines that run along Broadway there today mask any hint of the invisible canyon that once caused so many headaches for early Portlanders. 

NE 3rd and Broadway

Water has shaped the entire Willamette Valley throughout history, but in North and Northeast Portland that process has been acute, and recent. The Vanport floods in 1948 saw the Columbia River wipe out Oregon’s second largest city in what is today the Delta Park area.

This event cemented the status of the Albina area as the main hub of African-American life in Portland. Black ship workers who lost their homes in the floods were pushed into Northeast and not allowed, due to discriminatory redlining, to live elsewhere. The ripples in the historical waters from that event are still felt today. 

Water rarely sits still, and changing currents always lurk just below the surface. Whereas before it was glacial floods that carved our corner of the universe into what it is today, eventually the Cascadia earthquake will reshape this land in ways we cannot control or predict or even imagine. The most impacted areas will be along the rivers, where loose sediment creates unstable grounds beneath some of the most valuable land in the city, and what is waterfront today might very well be underwater tomorrow.  

As we look forward with ambitious plans such as the Albina Vision to reimagine and redevelop the waterfront area around the Rose Quarter, it’s important to respect the fact that we are not the ones who ultimately shape our city; that’s nature’s role. And the waters of our two rivers are, in the end, the ultimate deciders on where Northeast begins, and ends.