The only vertical street in North America
How many times have you discovered a new place in town and exclaimed “I didn’t know this was here!” Even after living most of my life in the Pacific Northwest, I had never stopped at the Oregon City Elevator until a few years ago when out exploring with my kids. Being an explorer in your own backyard is a learning experience for young and old alike.
What is the Oregon City elevator? It is the oldest municipal outdoor elevator in the United States, and only one of four worldwide. It acts as a vertical extension of 7th Street and carries you from the downtown area along the banks of the Willamette River to the heights above. At the top of the cliff there is a nice easy paved walkway through a small park which parallels the cliff. The park has grassy areas, rock outcrops, benches for seating, and spectacular views.
History of the elevator
Oregon City is the oldest city in Oregon and the first incorporated city west of the Rockies. It was established in 1829 by Dr. John McLoughlin as a lumber mill and was later Oregon’s territorial capitol city. While the Euro-American settlement was originally home to fur traders and missionaries, the town grew to include fishermen, millers, and provision suppliers, and goods transporters. Steps were added to access the cliff above in 1867 to supplement the early Native American trails used by city residents. It was an arduous trek to the top and plans began to build the elevator as early as 1912. This early wood and steel version opened in 1915 and was run by water-powered electricity. The ride took 3-5 minutes and was unreliable. Riders occasionally had to wriggle out of a trap door and down a ladder when it wasn’t working properly. If they made it to the top, riders had to cross a 35 foot catwalk that bridged the two side of the city. This system was improved with a hydraulic power lift in 1924, reducing the ride to just 30 seconds. But by the 1950s, the elevator was showing its age and it became obvious it was time to replace the wooden structure completely. The newly redesigned elevator was opened in 1955 and showcases the futuristic style popular in the 1950s during America’s race to space. It looks like something more at home on the Jetsons than in Oregon.
The ride has always been free and is staffed by an operator from morning until evening. At the top of the ride is an enclosed viewing platform so you can enjoy the view in any weather. The walls are decorated with cool 3D photos that morph from a vintage photo to modern day as you walk past. As you exit the platform, there is a nice paved walk along the edge of the cliff with views over the river below. As you get to the end of the walk, you are rewarded with an up-close view of Willamette Falls – a natural horseshoe shaped waterfall in the center of the Willamette River which was unfortunately almost completely taken over by industry, the remains of which are still there. The unattractive industrial views aside, the view up and down the river is beautiful and you can even see as far as Mt. Saint Helens in Washington. As you look at the Falls, look with hope, as there is a project in the works to work on cleaning up the falls and the old paper mill to create something more attractive and hopefully return the falls to their natural state.