THE MUNICIPAL AUTOMOBILE CAMP 1921-1926

In 1908 Henry Ford introduced the Model T and made cars affordable. In the years following that epoch-making event, American took to the road in great numbers, to make trips, both for business and pleasure. Boosters in the up and coming cities on the West Coast soon realized that they needed to provide accommodations for these travelling tourists and business people, because if they could keep them in the city or state for some time and give them positive memories, they might come back and buy a house or start a business. The solution that cities came up with initially were municipal automobile camps, basically campgrounds with amenities, in which people slept in their cars or in tents they brought along. These parks were run by the city, in the same way as regular city parks.

The very first municipal car park in the nation was in Ashland in 1913, and before 1920 there were already multiple car parks in the North-West. In Gresham, for example, and, more threateningly, in Washington. Portland was late to the game. But there was good news in the Sunday Supplement of the Oregon Daily Journal of December 12, 1920.

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For those who want to zoom in to read the text, here is the URL. The continuing text on page 3 is at this URL.

If you look at the little map in the article you will see the car camp was going to be constructed on a 25 acre piece of land, between Ainsworth and Rosa Parks (then Portland Boulevard), and between Albina and what is now the freeway. In other words, in what we now call the Gainsborough Subdivision, the south-western part of of modern Piedmont.

The land was leased by the city from the Ukase Investment Company, after considering various other sites. Forestry Park was considered, so was 82nd and Sandy, and a section on Alameda Hill. On this last location: “Negotiations were opened for the lease of the property and things were about arranged when, with its characteristic honesty, the city let its intentions be known and the good people near the proposed park rebelled.” No such characteristic honesty was in play for the Albina lot. It was flat empty space, with some bushes and trees, and those did not object.

Also note that city had dealt with the Ukase Land Company before. The ULC was incorporated in 1907 by William Kanan Smith and his two sons, the same William Kanan Smith that the city had bought the 20 acres for Peninsula Park from in 1909. In the meantime father Smith had died in 1914, and W.K. Smith Jr. had taken over as president of the company.

Initially the city leased the northern half of the 12.5 acres for two years at $ 215 per year, with a possible extension of two more years, and an option to lease the additional 12.5 acres for another $ 215 per year.

The Portland Municipal Automobile Camp opened May 15, 1921. The city put up 300 metal signs to direct traffic to the camp, the Chamber of Commerce distributed 3000 flyers. The camp had showers, bathrooms, laundry facilities, a car wash, and kitchen facilities with rows of gas stoves. There was a nice administrative building as well. One of the major attractions for visitors was the pool at Peninsula Park, just across the road. In fact Peninsula Park served as the green garden space for the camp. “Not only are all regular privileges extended free of charge to the visitors, but a special privilege is provided in the way of hot and cold showers from 8 to 10 o’clock every morning. Without doubt the biggest single attraction offer by the park is the swimming pool. There are at least 700 in the tank every day and easily 10 percent of them are automobile tourists. The tank is open from 6:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. every day. Suits and towels are furnished free of charge. The children’s playground swarms with kiddies every day, the wading pool, the sand court, the tennis court and the ball grounds are in practically constant use.” (Morning Oregonian, 08-22-1921).

During the first season the Chamber of Commerce added an Information Bureau. Relentless boosterism went on, partially because of the upcoming 1925 World Fair, but also because the city and the chamber wanted to sell houses in Portland and to lure businesses. The Morning Oregonian and the Daily Oregonian had almost daily articles about the camp, with little stories about the various interesting visitors (and their cars), and with headlines such as “Even Californian Enthused”.

The city charged 50 cents for registration, with a maximum stay of 10 days, and “full privileges of the free gas for cooking, laundry tubs, firewood, and water”. Initially City Commissioner Pier, in charge of Parks, announced that use of the park would be free (because he feared for his safety, and wanted to “preserve himself for his wife and children”), but before the first season was over there were already proposals to charge a 25 cents day use fee in addition to the 50 cents registration fee. The next season the fee actually went to 50 cents per day — a ten-fold increase. The average stay in 1921 was 5 days, but clearly some people used the camp for temporary housing. People started to arrive in camper vehicles and driving bungalows.

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At the end of the 1921 season the number of registrations was 6,518. Since the average number of people in a party was about 4 (they say), this means the camp was visited by about 25,000 people. At the height of the season 350 cars per day was not uncommon. This was considered to be quite successful. At the end of the 1921 season the city decided to lease the southern 12.5 acres as well. Also they authorized a concession for a general store, which arrived in 1922, complete with radio service to listen for free to “news, concerts, and other forms of entertainment”. But the city decided to take the camp out of the line-item budget, and required it to be self-supporting. This is always a bad sign. Either the project is not self-supporting and gets terminated, or it is self-supporting, and private enterprise will take over and starts increasing its profit margins.

In 1922 the camp registered 10,898 cars, approximately 40,000 people.But. more or less as expected, the Blue J Company made a bid to take over the camp. Unfortunately for them, somebody had been paying attention. “C.F. Keyser, superintendent of parks, received five shares of stock in the Blue J Company, for which he paid nothing and served as a director of the company, while negotiations were pending for the acquisition by the company of the municipal auto camp, which was operated for the city under the direction of Mr. Keyser.” (Morning Oregonian, 04-03-1924). In 1924 35,000 cars registered, with 150,000 tourists, compared to 18,000 cars with 76,000 people in 1923. Many people said they would be back for the Exposition in 1925, or that they had decided or were contemplating moving to Oregon. But again, bad developments. The city had not provided for sufficient sanitary facilities for the growing camp, and there had been complaints by the visitors.

The city renewed its lease for another two years on December 1, 1924, now paying $ 500 per month. That did not really leave financial room for improvements. Another bid was made by the private Portland Auto Camp Company, but the neighbors in Piedmont and Kenton pressed the city to hold on to the lease for now, and to pass an ordinance prohibiting all auto camps within city limits when the lease expired. A new community house with 18 gas plates and hot and cold water was finished, as was the camp theater. “There are no shower baths at this camp as yet, but campers who wish such conveniences use the shower baths located in the Peninsula Park, directly opposite the auto campgrounds.” (Morning Oregonian, 04-25-1925). What we are seeing is familiar. The city cannot keep up with the growth and does not want to make the necessary investments, the neighbors are starting to object, and private enterprise is moving in.

In 1926 the city decided not to renew the lease. There are various possible explanations for this. Private car camps were becoming more popular, and pretty soon there would be such car camps in Piedmont, for example, at the intersection of Columbia and Union (i.e. MLK). Also, it seems clear the city bureaucracy was not able or willing to handle the increased financing and maintenance required for the park. And finally there may have been some pressure from developers, particularly from the landlord, the Ukase Investment Company.

Originally the city planned to auction off “the buildings, gas plates, cook sheds, laundry trays, and other equipment.” But one last failure was still to come. “.. the city discovered its lease required it the leave the camp grounds in the same condition in which they were leased, which would mean that the city would have to dig out concrete wash racks and other property which would be expensive to move. Because it would cost more to move the buildings than the city would get for them, the buildings will be given to the Ukase Investment Company, owners of the property, which, under an ordinance effective January 1, cannot be used for an auto camp again.” (Morning Oregonian, 11-24-1926).

And the Ukase Investment Company did not waste time. In 1927 the 25 acres were platted. The “small fir, cedar, vine maple, and dogwood” was removed. Development was put into the hands of the Henderson-Bankus Company. Early in 1928 the streets, sewers, sidewalks and curbs for a the new Gainsborough Subdivision were put in. The 120 lots will be 100 by 50 and 100 by 125 feet. The first batch were 63 lots north of Holman. Except on Albina all buildings would be single-family residential, and on Albina there was the possibility of “bungalow courts”. As before in Piedmont, homes were restricted to cost at least $ 3500, to make sure that only the right kind of people moved in. By April 1928 there were 15 houses under construction, with five more under contract.

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