Lost Oregon: In Oregon City’s vertical street

United States

Parked in the middle of downtown Oregon City near Portland, a spaceship-like elevator from America’’s mid-century is one of the country’’s four remaining “vertical streets” in operation that continues to move locals and tourists up the town’s steep cliffs.

The elevator, which sits at the end of 7th Street, dates from the mid-1950s, a sturdy replacement for the rickety 1912 original. Before ascending take some time to explore Oregon City’’s Main Street. It’’s the birthplace of Oregon and has all the elements of a typical U.S. city built in the mid-1800s: western boom town, growth, streetcars, paper mill, and a healthy Main Street that supported its citizens. Then the post World War Two crash, as residents left downtowns for the comfort of suburbs. The 1980s and 1990s weren’’t kind to Oregon City, many of the historical buildings fell into disrepair and its downtown became desolate. Today, it’’s seen some growth as the cheap rents have attracted creative residents and restaurants, yet it retains a healthy blue collar vibe though the paper mill that employed many residents closed down a couple years back. It’’s the perfect mix of the past, with enough of the present, to keep one’’s interest.

After your stroll down Main Street (be sure to check out the antique toy store and homebrew place) hang a turn down 7th and you won’t miss the elevator. Walk through the hallway to the elevator door. You’’ll also notice the operator sitting in the corner –- some are interested in speaking with you and others won’t look up from their reading.

At the summit, you’’ll want to take in the view of downtown Oregon City and surrounding Portland metro. On a clear day, one can see the tip of Mount Saint Helens and surrounding foothills. Then you have two options. Take the walking path to the historical district and explore architecturally significant houses from Oregon’s pioneers (many are now museums run by loving and sometimes obsessive volunteers) or walk straight on the path that travels along and above the Willamette River.

As you take that path, you can’’t miss the abandoned paper mill and the surrounding Willamette Falls. The mill is ripe for its own exploration, but do so at your own risk. That and the falls are currently on the books for renovation, which would make Oregon City a serious destination, though even its current state current the mill is fascinating in its rusting, post-industrial vastness.

The path then turns and winds and if you’’re inclined can slip off into the surrounding neighbourhoods. If you’’re thirsty, keep walking. At the end of the path sits the Highland Stillhouse. With rooms and nooks throughout and an outdoor seating area that overlooks the falls, they serve pub grub, local pints and offer the largest selection of single-malt scotch in the Portland metro area. Somehow, sipping on scotch after soaking up the dusty recent past is a great way to cap off your walk.

Oregon City is fairly accessible from Portland. There’’s a freeway (I-205) or highway (99e) that will get you there. Public transit is an option though it’’s a long haul. If you’’re inclined you can bike there on the new Trolley Trail and mostly off-street.

Ocpath: the winding path from the top of the elevator overlooks the Willamette and abandoned paper mill

One of many views of downtown Oregon City from the elevator

The spaceship has landed: side view of the elevator that overlooks downtown Oregon City

Calling all urban explorers: the abandoned paper mill

The natural beauty of the falls meets industrial age

Discover more of Oregon at John Chilson's Lost Oregon

Published 6 September 2013

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