The Southern Pacific’s “Red Electrics” –
A walker’s guide to its historic route through SW Portland
A SHORT HISTORY —
Electricity was the symbol of progress and a new modern age back in the early 1900’s. The steam trains and their big black locomotives had been in Oregon since 1869, but they were too big, too loud, and very dirty (all that smoke and soot), and the early city fathers wanted them out of their downtowns. But the new electrified trolley streetcar in the 1890’s brought a clean, quiet and comfortable way of getting around our towns – instead of walking or riding a horse and wagon on the poor or non-existent roads of the time. The electrified interurban rail systems between Oregon’s cities soon followed and made it possible to travel quietly, cleanly, and conveniently from the downtown train station in Portland to downtown Salem, Eugene, Forest Grove, McMinnville, and many other communities in the Willamette and Tualatin Valleys.
The Oregon Electric was the first (on Jan. 1, 1908) electrified interurban passenger rail line that started in downtown Portland and went through SW Portland (now the I-5 freeway and Multnomah Blvd.) on its way south through the Willamette Valley and eventually (in 1912) all the way to Eugene (they also went west into the Tualatin Valley through Beaverton and on to Forest Grove). This was a major challenge for the Southern Pacific Railroad and they were not going to be left behind by this new competition. With its extensive system of steam rail lines already networking throughout the Willamette Valley, Southern Pacific had the tracks to use – all they needed to do was to put in the electric power grid system and install the overhead lines along their existing tracks.
All this work began in 1912, and Southern Pacific’s first electrified interurban passenger rail service in Oregon — the Red Electrics — began on Jan. 17, 1914, on two separate lines from downtown Portland. The “East Side Line” went south along the Willamette River shoreline on existing tracks (built in 1887) all the way to Lake Oswego, and then west through Tualatin, Newberg, and on to McMinnville (and eventually Corvallis).
The other, the “West Side Line”, followed the original steam rail line from Portland’s Union Station, south through downtown on SW 4th avenue, and then into southwest Portland along what we know as Barbur and Bertha Boulevards; then, starting on the south side of Beaverton-Hillsdale Hwy., on west through Raleigh Hills to Beaverton, Hillsboro, Forest Grove, and then south to McMinnville. Construction of the tracks used by the West Side Line was part of the original Oregon & California Railroad competition that began on April 15, 1868, in downtown Portland. However, due to its many financial problems it didn’t make it to Hillsboro until Dec. 18, 1871. Steam trains began running from downtown on the completed sections in 1869 and provided the only rail freight service to SW Portland and the Tualatin Valley for the next 39 years — until 1908 when the Oregon Electric extended their tracks to Forest Grove to compete with Southern Pacific.
The Red Electrics (called this because of their bright red color) proved to be very popular for most of the next 15 years. But trouble with ridership developed in the mid 1920’s when modern local roads and new highways were being built, cars and trucks were becoming more practical, and eventually gasoline bus services were being started (Southern Pacific itself helped this along by first having its own bus lines and then investing heavily in the new Western Greyhound service!). All this was just too much competition — the Red Electric’s passenger service ended on Oct. 5, 1929.
The right of way for the railroad was soon abandoned and the tracks were taken out in SW Portland in early 1932 (but they were left in place and still continue today from downtown Beaverton along TV Highway out to Forest Grove). This cleared the way for Barbur and Bertha Boulevards to be built in the mid-1930’s — Barbur Blvd. was officially opened between downtown and Burlingame on Oct. 28, 1934, and completed through to Tigard in 1936.
YOU CAN STILL SEE PARTS OF THE RED ELECTRIC ROUTE JUST AS IT WAS WHEN BUILT IN 1869 —
While there is no visible evidence today of the train’s original road bed along Barbur Blvd. from downtown out to the intersection of Bertha Blvd. and Beaverton-Hillsdale Highway, there is much to be seen from that point on west.
If you walk the street northwest along S.W. Bertha from just east of 25th street to 33rd Place, you are walking on the original railroad right-of-way. Along here you can see two very large road “fills” where the stream gullies were crossed by filling them in with huge amounts of soil (instead of building bridges) – the city later just built the street on top of the original train right-of-way. Going directly northwest from 33rd & Bertha (about two blocks on private property, so we shouldn’t walk there) is the original berm (raised roadbed) that was built up for the railroad. To see this go to the end of Cullen Blvd. at 35th (you’ll need a city map to find this because there’s a long detour up the hill on 33rd and on over and down to Cullen.
Just east of end of Cullen (at 35th), you’ll see a large open area with 3 empty house lots on your left waiting to be developed, and down along their north edge (where it drops off to B-H Highway below) you’ll see the berm still as it was in 1869. (Note that large sections of the original right-of-way here are now private property and have houses sitting where the tracks used to be.)
To the west from there the train right-of-way can be found next to the south side of SW Fairvale Dr. (one block north of Cullen at 42nd), and along the south side of SW Fairvale Ct. between 44th and SW Cameron. This section has houses built on top of the original right-of-way (the ground was already graded nice and flat!) and one of the neighbors along this section told me she’s been digging up old railroad spikes in her yard for years). Behind the Glencullen Baptist Church (at the corner of SW Cameron Rd. and Fairvale Ct.) you can see an open lawn area that has banks on both the north (Fairvale Ct.) and south sides – this was an excavated cut through the ground to maintain a level route for the trains as they made a big curve to the south through where the church now stands.
Across Cameron from the church is the continuation of SW Fairvale Ct. going southwest toward Hayhurst School and Pendleton Park.— this street is built on the original Red Electric right-of-way and you can see how the roadway has a slight tilt to the right as it begins its curve to the west. There is a short roadway fill here over little Pendleton Creek. This is just north of Hayhurst School and the street ends here; you can then walk a trail on your left up through the trees and along the north side of the school grounds. As you walk along the school grounds fence you are on the south side of the original railroad right-of-way—here they made a long cut in 1869 through the gradual sloping hillside for the train to stay on a level grade.
At the opening in the school fence on you left (for a paved path that goes across the school’s playing fields) you’ll see another trail that goes down a short hill to your right—this leads you (in about 25 feet) to the middle of the railroad right-of-way just as it was left when they pulled up the tracks in 1932. Go another 25 feet north and you’re at the end of 52nd street. Now walk back up to the school fence and follow a narrow trail along the north side of the fence to your right (west); this will take you over and down into Pendleton Park. Continue along the north side (on your right) of the park and you will be walking along the railroad right-of-way.
When you reach the area of the children’s playground you’ll see a trail leaving the park on the north side at the end of a long fence (trail goes down to the end 54th street). Standing at the top of the little hill before you would leave the park on this trail you will find yourself standing on a long raised berm where the tracks were raised about 3 feet above the surrounding landscape to, again, keep them on a level grade. From here you can see the railroad continuing due west through another cut in the landscape (along the north edge of Vermont Hills United Methodist Church) as it heads for Shattuck Road and Alpenrose Dairy. Unfortunately it’s very hard to follow it here because of all the brush and small trees (plus it gets pretty wet and muddy in the winter) .
It’s important to note here that this entire ½ mile route along the north side of Hayhurst School, Pendleton Park, the Methodist Church (just west of the park), and on to Shattuck is city owned public right-of-way . It’s never been developed and is still just like it was when they pulled the tracks out in 1932 (except for all the brush!). This is truly historic land showing us what our pioneer ancestors could do in 1869 with just hand labor, horses, plow-like scrapers, and wagons . On the city’s PortlandMaps.com this route is designated as “SW Fairvale Court” in anticipation of it eventually becoming a public street. Instead of that, we can now make it a “rails to trails” project, and clear the brush, lay down a rock foundation, and pave a beautiful walking/biking trail for all of our neighbors and their families to enjoy!
If you go on over to Shattuck Road you can see where the train right-of-way crossed Shattuck. It’s now being used as a private access road by a nursery company (there’s a chain across it); it’s just north of the entry road for the nursing home parking lot across from the north edge of Alpenrose Dairy property (across Shattuck Road Pendleton St. runs west from here a short ways, but it was on the north side of the original train route).
There’s no evidence left of the original train roadbed west of Shattuck across the north side of Alpenrose Dairy’s property, but that’s where it went. However, if you go over to SW Oleson Road, 325 feet south of the corner of S.W. Ames Way, you’ll find a wide cut through the low hill on the west side of Oleson (visible about 10 feet back through the brush), plus you can still see some of the old pilings for the railroad bridge across Fanno Creek another hundred yards to the west.
On towards Beaverton most of the line is now under city streets (SW Jamieson Road), buildings, and parking lots, but there is one obvious place where you can see the original roadbed: on the south side of Beaverton-Hillsdale Hwy. in McMillan Park at S.W. 99th, just north of Cypress Street, there’s a long raised east-west berm for the tracks there in the middle of the park. The next location to the west from there is not-so-obvious, but very likely: the south edge of the Beaverton Kaiser Clinic’s parking lot is right along the old route, and it still looks like that’s why it’s built the way it is.
Although the tracks are long gone for the Red Electric’s “West Side Line” through SW Portland, they are still there and being used to this day in downtown Beaverton. The original Oregon & California rail line from downtown Portland arrived in downtown Beaverton in 1871, and it continues to be in use today from Beaverton on west to Forest Grove along the south side of the Tualatin Valley Highway – 143 years of service to our community!
This information came from these outstanding (both in detail and in photography) Multnomah County Library books, “The Northwest’s Own Railroad” (for Oregon Electric), and “The Red Electrics”; Richard Thompson’s “Willamette Valley Railways”; and Lowell Swanson’s research on the Oregon Electric and “Early Interurban Railways in Southwest Portland” in the Winter, 2005, Multnomah Historical Association newsletter. Numerous others sources are also available.
A wealth of historic maps for our area can be found at the Historic Map Works website — http://www.historicmapworks.com/ , and easy-to-access topographic maps can be found at the TopoQuest website — http://www.topoquest.com/ . The Metsker’s maps from 1927 and 1944 show the railroad line very clearly (on historicmapworks.com and in the downtown library), and even PortlandMaps.com still show parts of the route in the way the property lines were set along the route.
Text prepared by Doug Rogers, 503-244-7703, email@example.com (May, 2014)