The Milwaukie-Gladstone Trolley Trail

by J.D. Roth

Kris and I went for a walk through the neighborhood tonight.

As we strolled up Lee and onto Oak Grove, we noted the two houses that had recently sold. We turned onto Rupert and walked past the church. “I wonder what they’re doing there,” Kris said. “It almost looks like the church is developing it for their own use. There’s a driveway that cuts back behind it.”

“And look at that,” I said. “That old house has subdivided its lot; there’s a new building going up.”

Just then a couple in a red station wagon slowed to a stop. “Can you help us?” the driver asked. “We’re looking for the trolley tracks.”

“I think they’re down there at the bottom of the hill,” I said, pointing the way. “Or used to be. There’s just a divided street now.” The man thanked me and drove way.

As we reached the bottom of the hill, we noticed that there were, indeed, trolley tracks still visible, running from Arista back through some yards and out onto the other Arista.

The Interurban Line was one of the first rural trolley lines in the United States. (In fact, I think it was the first.) It was built in 1893, and ran from Portland to Milwaukie to Oregon City. It is likely that our house was built soon after the trolley went in. What is now our back door used to be the front door, and the lot extended back another hundred feet to the trolley. The land was subdivided long ago. When the Superhighway (99e) came in the thirties, trolley usage declined, and it was shut down in 1959. What happened next?

As Kris and I were marveling at the short section of remaining track, the red station wagon happened by again. We waved it down. “Look,” we said, pointing at the track. “There’s some rail still here. We think it used to run at an angle back thataway.”

“It did,” proclaimed a voice. We turned, and there was a man sitting on his front porch, listening to our conversation. “The rail line ran back through there, and then up the other Arista to Milwaukie. And from here, it ran all the way to Gladstone. Over the years, the right of way has been ceded to landowners, but Metro and the Clackamas County Parks District have acquired the entire length. They’ve got the funding and are going to turn it into a trolley trail. You could walk it now if you wanted to.”

The woman in the passenger seat of the car leaned over. “I know a man who has photographs of the old trolley line, all along its entire length. He has photos of every stop.” (Here I was stupid — I should have got the woman’s name and phone number.) The couple in the car waved and drove away, but we stayed and talked with the man on the porch, who introduced himself as Doug Woods, a member of what passes for Oak Grove government. (Oak Grove is actually part of unincorporated Clackamas County. It’s a fiercely independent area that refuses to incorporate even though the larger governments ache for it to become a city.)

Doug was full of area history. He explained how upper Arista used to be split level. “One lane of traffic was several feet higher than the other,” he said. “A few years ago, the county got tired of that and leveled the whole street out, removing the old railway median. Now they’ve got to put it back in.”

In fact, along whole stretches of the old trolley line, people are going to have to make concessions. It’s lain “fallow” for decades, unused, and slowly residents and businesses have staked claims to the unused land. Doug pointed out that the lady who lives next door to him was cranky that the proposed linear park would cut behind her property. It would essentially take away a twenty-foot wide stretch of land that she’d come to use as her own, even though the right-of-way belonged to the county. Further down the line, in Jennings Lodge, the trail has been annexed by a car dealership and by the parking lot of Buster’s Bar-B-Q. These residents and businesses will lose some land they’ve been using for free.

We live due east of the “e” in River Road, just west of the trail.
I’ll let the other neighborhood bloggers share their location if so inclined.

“When it’s all done,” said Doug, “there will be a multi-use trail that runs all the way from Milwaukie to Gladstone. It will be eight-feet wide and completely paved with asphalt. It’ll have soft shoulders. The local high schools can use it for cross-country training. Local equestrians can use it. Bicyclists can use it, but they won’t be able to dominate it like they do the Springwater Corridor. It’ll be a truly multiuse trail.”

I asked him what the timeline for completion was, but he couldn’t say. Plans were already behind schedule. He hoped it would be done in five years, or maybe ten, but there just isn’t any way to know for sure.

We asked him about other stuff in the neighborhood. He told us that the church at the top of the hill used to own the vacant lot, but sold it. It’s being developed, and the fire department had demanded another accessway into the church. That’s why there’s a new road back there. Doug told us about the big white house on the bluff overlooking River Road. The woman who bought it came before the county with a proposal to turn it into a bed-and-breakfast. “Or,” she said, “I could subdivide it. I could legally turn it into a fifteen-lot development.” The country approved the bed-and-breakfast.

We talked for a long time. Twenty minutes? Half an hour? Eventually we took our leave and walked home, better acquainted with our neighborhood than when we’d started.

(I first wrote about the Trolley Trail on 08 February 2005.)

Updated: 22 August 2006

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