Position and Advantages of Portland

Although of a different order, the history of the modern city should be no less interesting than that of an ancient metropolis like Jerusalem or Athens. It treats no less of human endeavor, and no less segregates and epitomizes human life. If that in which men busy themselves, and that which they produce is anywhere, or at any time, calculated to attract attention and demand investigation and analysis, why not here in Oregon, on the banks of the Willamette, as well as five to ten thousand miles away, in Spain or in Turkey?

Unlike the ancient or medieval city, it does not embrace within its walls-in fact, boasting no walls-the whole life and history of a people. The Roman Empire without Rome would be like Hamlet without Hamlet. But America without New York City would still be America, lacking only some million and a half of people. In our modern life the process of civil and social organization has gone so far that the center of supreme interest is in the whole confederation, in the whole national life, or broadly, in the people themselves, and not restricted to any one locality, individual or race. It would, therefore, be impossible to discover in any one American city a civil or political principle apart from that of the surrounding country. Furthermore, the motives or inducements that led to the building of a city in bygone times were unlike those of the present. Then a town was established by a tribe who first believed, or soon assumed that all its members had a common descent from some hero, or some patriarch, or from some divinity, who was still patron and guardian. They threw around themselves the walls of a city in order to be secure from dispersion and from intermixture with the rest of mankind, and to have a place where they might cultivate their own religion, practice their own customs, celebrate their own festivals, and rear their children in their own traditions. For this purpose they chose a secure retreat, where they might easily put up fortifications, and cover the approaches by forts or walls. A cliff, a peak, or some huge rock, commended itself to their purposes. Jerusalem was set upon a high hill surrounded by mountains. The Acropolis in Athens, a rocky eminence with level top and steep sides, was the site of the original city. At Rome the Tarpeian Rock and kindred heights fixed the site of the mistress of the world. The termination “Tun,” or “Ton” (Town), of many cities throughout England signifies a rock or bluff; and the “Burg” of the Germans has a kindred meaning; all going to show how the people in old times, and almost to the present, were accustomed to look around for a hill or crag as a site for their tribal or family seat. Round about these bluffs and hilltops the cities grew. Those cities which were successful gained in population by simple natural increase, or by means of raiding of other tribes and bringing in captives, who were set to work upon the outlying fields, in the shops, in erecting fortifications, or in constructing royal palaces. Free migration was practically unknown; for, although the citizens of one city might go on military or commercial, or occasional literary excursions to other places, it was unusual for them to abjure their rights in their native seat, or to acquire privileges elsewhere. The ancient city was a social aggregation which had its origin in an intense tribal idea, dominating religion and controlling social life, naturally allying itself to a military type, since only by force of arms could its existence be preserved or its dominion be extended. Commerce was a secondary or even more remote consideration, and the free exchange of residence was, with few exceptions, impossible.

How unlike all this is a modern American town! A city here is but a spot where population is more dense than elsewhere. The residents claim no blood relationship, have no common traditions or religion, and seek its limits only from eligibility of life. The wants of commerce or manufacturing chiefly determine its site, while all the uses and advantages of existence add their interest. There is absolutely no compulsion, either of ancestry, religion, tradition, social or political necessity; or fear of death, slavery, or loss of standing, or of wealth, impelling an American to live in one corporation rather than another, or to forsake the fields for the city. The arm of law rests over each of the seventy million inhabitants of the United States, and upon every acre of the national domain. Upon the high seas also, and in fact, in almost every part of the world, every American feels the potent protection of the flag of his country. Residence is therefore simply a matter of personal choice. One suits his place of abode to his business, to his aim in life, or to his physical or moral necessity. If his object be the acquisition of wealth he goes where he can get money fastest. If he have some special field of labor, as invention, art, or literature, he seeks that center which affords him the highest advantages. Some are guided to a choice by a religious or philanthropic mission to which they have deemed themselves called. Multitudes have no other incentive than an eagerness for amusement, or excitement, or the attraction of noise, and the exhilaration of being in a large place. The motive which impels the moving crowd on the street to press as near as possible to the scene of an accident or of excitement causes the more mercurial in the community to betake themselves to a large city in order to be near the animating events of the time as they occur. But without exhaustive enumeration, it need only be remembered that whether the motive of residence be grave or trifling, it is wholly free, and accordant with the aims and uses of the individual life.

The growth of the city in our times is therefore much more than of old an accommodation to human wants and needs. Although the purpose to live in a certain municipality may, in many cases, spring from sordidness, in any case the choice is made from some sort of personal attraction which frequently, perhaps commonly, rises to a feeling of affection, making the attachment of our citizens to their cities one of almost passionate energy. No ancient city ever commanded from its most eminent people a more enthusiastic devotion than is accorded to our American cities by those who dwell in them; and in none of our urban life is found a half or two-thirds of the population held by chains to a locality that is hateful to them.

In modern times the principal thing that determines the building of a city at a particular place is the fact that at the point of its site the requirements of human life are found to exist in greater abundance than elsewhere in the near surroundings. Its growth is but the unfolding of its natural advantages; together with the attractions, facilities, and amenities that may be added by man. The natural advantages, however, are the dominating principle, since improvements will not and indeed can never be added to any great extent where there is a natural obstacle. In the fierce competition of modern life, natural advantages will play more and more a controlling part. The man who can lift one pound more than his antagonist will just as surely surpass him as if the difference were one hundred pounds. The city that has commercial or manufacturing advantages over others of even a small part of one per cent will make that advantage tell in every transaction, and this will be just the feather that turns the scale. However great may be the enterprise of the opponent, or however willing it may be of sacrifice, it will find itself at last beyond its strength and its hopes must perish.

In this view the growth of a modern city is of vast interest; necessarily so to the business man, for he must know precisely what are those circumstances which give empire to a town. Otherwise, he will fail to make the best investments. To the student of human life and social science it is no less attractive, for he is thereby assured of the laws or principle which guides the human mind when acting individually and freely. It also illustrates how nature, and through nature providence, is the maker of the centers of our modern life, and thereby, determines, or predetermines, the lines and bounds of civilization.

In entering, therefore, upon this history of Portland as we withdraw our view from the larger circle of the early history of Oregon, we should not be understood as regarding it worthy of occupying a sphere of equal size with that of the nation, or of some ancient city which filled the Old World; but as treating of human action in an interesting phase, and as making clear what has been done in a city which will one day play an important part in the progress of our country. It will be nothing against it, that, as in a home or family it treats of men that we have known personally. History in all departments is ever pushing more closely to the roots of individual life, and what was once deemed beneath the dignity of the historian’s pen, as altogether too insignificant for notice, is now eagerly studied as making clear the progress of events. The crown and scepter and the false magnificence of antique pomp have at last fallen from the pages of history and the every day doings of people on the streets, in their homes and fields are seen to contain the potency of civilization. No human feelings or motives are despised, but are all recognized as the fountain from which are gathered the stately river of national life and social advancement. In no place can these primary endeavors be better examined or comprehended than in a young city like Portland.


Geography, History,

Harvey Whitefield Scott. History of Portland, Oregon: with Illustrations and Biographical Sketches of Prominent Citizens and Pioneers. Portland, Oregon. D. Mason & Company, 1890.

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