At the same time, however, another type of economic and social development was emerging in the town of Portland and around Puget Sound. Portland quickly became the leading city of the Pacific Northwest.
Situated at the confluence of the Columbia and Willamette rivers, and used as a port by ocean-going vessels, its location and enterprise made it the leading commercial center north of San Francisco. Farm products from the Willamette Valley, minerals from Idaho, and wheat from around Walla Walla all flowed to market by way of Portland. While Portland grew, San Francisco capitalists discovered the forests on Puget Sound. California mines, cities, and ships required prodigious amounts of lumber, and the deep waters and forested shorelines of Puget Sound offered the most convenient place to get that commodity. At Seattle and Port Gamble and Port Ludlow and a host of other sites around the Sound, docks and sawmills appeared to deliver wood products to the ships that sailed away to San Francisco and other Pacific ports. Around Puget Sound and in Portland during the 1850s and after, one can detect the emergence of an urban and industrial economy that would eventually surpass and engulf the farm economy started in the Willamette Valley. The rural economy and society were more traditional and, being so strongly associated with pioneers, became the focus of much attention Over the long term, however, the urban and industrial economy and society were much more influential in the Pacific Northwest, forming the basis for the modern region. These will be our focus for the remainder of the course.
Map of wheat export route, c.1880 (above left). (D. W. Meinig, Great Columbia Plain. Seattle, 1968. 252.) Columbia River sternwheelers (below right) were one means of transporting the wheat from the Walla Walla Valley to Portland. This view shows one passing through the Cascade Locks prior to the construction of the Bonneville Dam at this location. (Special Collections, University of Washington, Postcard Files. Photo by Cross and Dimmitt.)
Here I want to describe the spatial organization of the urban and industrial Northwest during the 19th century, and in particular I wish to develop the idea of metropolis and hinterland. As part of the North American West generally, the Pacific Northwest was divided into a series of subregions or hinterlands, each of which produced extractive commodities that moved to market by way of a hierarchical series of towns and cities. For example, the Walla Walla Valley of southeastern Washington became known as farming country during the 1850s and 1860s. Grain grown there was gathered in towns like Walla Walla, which served as points of export and import for the surrounding farms. From Walla Walla, the grain was shipped to the Columbia and then downstream to Portland on river-going vessels. The Walla Walla Valley, and indeed virtually all of western Idaho, eastern Oregon and Washington, and the Willamette Valley, were hinterlands for Portland—the metropolis or leading city. That is, the goods they produced made their way to market by way of Portland; goods they imported from around the world made their way to these hinterlands by way of Portland; and Portland also served as the chief financial and retail center for these regions as well. At Portland, furthermore, goods moving up and down the Columbia River system were transferred to different sorts of vessels for the next stage of their trip. Walla Walla wheat, for example, was there put aboard ocean-going vessels for shipment to other ports, most likely San Francisco. San Francisco was the leading city of the entire Far West, and the Pacific Northwest—including Alaska as well as British Columbia through the 1880s—was its hinterland. Within the Northwest, Portland played the role that San Francisco played for the entire North American West. That role was largely economic—based on its command over commerce—but it was also cultural, as Portland initially hosted the region’s leading cultural institutions, e.g. churches and newspapers.
Spokane in 1909. Stevens Street looking south from Main Avenue, left. (Special Collections, UW. Dennison Photo taken for the Spokane Chronicle. UW negative #5344.)
Put another way, the region came to be organized around a host of towns and cities such as Portland, Victoria, Tacoma, Seattle, Spokane, and Boise. The power of each city was commensurate with the extent and wealth of its hinterland. Each town prospered as the interior region that it served, and that relied upon it, prospered. And these interiors were creations of systems of transportation. While many of the pioneer settlers of the Willamette Valley did not so much mind isolation, the majority of Euro-Americans in the region wanted to be linked up to the global market economy.So long as river travel remained the cheapest method of transportation, the city that dominated that traffic would dominate the Northwest. Thus the city of Portland, commanding the Columbia River watershed through its location at the junction of the main stem of the Columbia and the Willamette, remained the premier city of the region into the 20th century.
Beginning in the 1880s, however, the arrival of railroads in the region began to undermine Portland’s predominance. Portland depended upon the natural transport system of rivers to bring produce and profits to it. Railroads, on the other hand, were a man-made transport system that provided an alternative to river travel. Once railway lines were completed to and through the Pacific Northwest, other cities capitalized on them to carve out their own hinterlands separate from Portland’s control. Thus in the 1880s and 1890s the cities of Tacoma, Vancouver, B.C., and Seattle began to chip away at Portland’s leadership on the Pacific coast, while Spokane emerged as the metropolis for what was called the “Inland Empire.” As the following charts show, the arrival of the railroads also stimulated an enormous population boom, both in cities and throughout the region, beginning in the 1880s.
Tacoma (above right), the terminus of the Northern Pacific Railroad, in 1878. (Lithograph after a drawing by E.S. Grover. Stokes Collection, New York Public Library.)
Camp of Northern Pacific Railroad engineers (left) in the Cascade Mountains in 1886 during the construction of the Stampede Tunnel, below left. Up until this time the Northern Pacific transcontinental line, completed in 1883, ran through Portland. With the completion of the Cascade line into Tacoma–and later Seattle–trains could by-pass Portland and wheat, as well as other freight, was shipped directly to Puget Sound ports. (Special Collections, University of Washington. UW negative #5815.)