The Golden Bear in a Swan Island drydock (photo by Brian Libby)
BY BRIAN LIBBY
Over the past 25 years or so, American cities have reclaimed vast swatches of riverfront space that used to be the domain of industry and infrastructure. We've eliminated many of the shipyards and factories and highways dotting and clogging riverbanks for a century or more, replacing them with public parks, walkways and expensive condos.
Yet a huge portion of waterways such as the Willamette River as it passes through Portland remain the domain of industrial facilities, from warehouses to dry docks to ports for barges full of goods ready to unload. Because industrial enclaves such as this are closed off to the public, they remain at least partial mysteries.
On dry land outside these places, one encounters chain-lined fences and restricted entries. At best, one can see them from afar, such as the centrally located ship loading facilities near the Broadway Bridge and the Rose Quarter. But from the river, these industrial areas are revealed. Up close, they show off ships and cranes and massive water and oil tanks with a functional but striking sculptural beauty.
I'd first explored Portland's stretch of the Willamette earlier this summer, aboard the MS Wolf, a small, circa-1932 craft captained by Bruce Hebeler that is ideal for river cruises: small enough you can reach out and touch the water, but big enough to feel steady. That cruise had started at Willamette Park in John's Landing, south of the Ross Island Bridge, and continued north to the Steel Bridge before turning around. This time, Captain Hebeler offered to continue the journey so we could see Portland's shipyards.
As we passed under the Steel Bridge, where July's cruise ended, I gazed at the Louis Dreyfus terminal, a grain elevator that is probably the largest and most prominent riverside industrial facility in the central city. The terminal partially blocks views of the downtown skyline from the Rose Quarter, and it prevents an expansion of the Eastbank Esplanade north without diverting from the riverbank. Yet great cities are a mix of many different types of architecture, infrastructure and industry. To have such a large grain terminal sitting beside the modernist minimalism of Memorial Coliseum, for example, or right across the river from the Pearl District, makes the city more vibrant.
After the Dreyfus terminal, the boat continued past my beloved Coliseum. Saved from demolition four years ago, it sits in limbo now, awaiting City Council's approval of funds that would give the building new life. It's already a busy building, hosting as many events annually as the Rose Garden next door and often acting in tandem to attract large events. Yet even with the Portland Winter Hawks pledging millions for this city-owned building, City Council has so far refrained from funding basic deferred maintenance that would pay for itself in bookings.
Still, the building looked beautiful. Because our boat ride was happening in late afternoon, the sun was shining through the Coliseum's glass facade, making the curving upper edge of the seating bowl easily visible. This building is so exquisitely simple in its composition: a concrete bowl in a glass box. Have any of you ever experienced any other arena in the United States, or the world, that was so utterly transparent? It makes the Rose Garden, despite being thirty years newer, look like it was created by Fred Flintstone.
In front of the Coliseum, as our boat went by, was the prime riverfront parcel that is being used as a gravel parking lot for Rose Garden employees. This could be an ideal public space, either as continuation of the Eastbank Esplanade that ends a few feet away at the Steel Bridge. Instead it's a totally wasted piece of prime riverfront real estate.
Passing under the Broadway Bridge, we moved alongside another terminal, this one owned by Temco; a massive ship called the Rosalia D'Amato was there, juxtaposed against the Pearl Disrict condos on the opposite bank. I actually knew this was the ship in port because a local artist whose studio is in an industrial building adjacent to the terminal, Melody Owen, reguarly posts on social media what ships come and go. "BRILLIANT SKY came in as the actual sky darkened last night," she wrote on Twitter today, for example. "Now, a cool white morning. The sound of sirens echo across water."
When we passed under the Fremont Bridge, my attention to the riverbanks temporarily subsided. This is the most beautiful bridge in Portland's central city (which does not inlude the city's best bridge, the St. Johns) yet one of contradictions. It was completed in 1973, a period not known for great design. 1970s buildings, for example, have not stood well the test of time with their overemphasis on concrete and monumentalism. Yet this elegant arched span is timeless. One can't help but laugh, though, knowing the bridge is named after John C. Fremont. It's not that Fremont isn't deserving: during the Civil War as commander of western armies, he freed the slaves in his jurisdiction and was the first to promote Ulyssees S. Grant. He also explored the Oregon territory extensively. But Fremont was also the first presidential candidate from the Republican party and one of the first two US senators from California.
After passing the Fremont Bridge out tour headed for Swan Island, where much of Portland's terminals are concentrated. First passing a trio of massive Ash Grove tanks, we came in view of several giant cranes at the waterside, attending to the massive ships parked there. Here we also came across what seemed to be the city's main dry docks. A huge ship called the Golden Bear was being worked on.
As we moved into the interior banks of Swan Island, there was suddenly a succession of ships along its docks, but because two of them were historic it felt not like a modern shipyard so much as a kind of graveyard of the past.
Once we passed the silver Global Sentinel, a present-day vessel, our boat came across the Empress of the North, a paddle-wheel ship that looks like it's from the 19th century but was actually constructed in 2002, to take tourists up and down the Columbia as well as up into Alaska. It's been sold and is being rebranded as the American Empress. I'd actually spent time on the Empress of the North 11 years ago when it first was christened, on a press tour as it sat docked near Jantzen Beach on the Columbia - its trite faux old timey tackiness almost overpowering. Part of me enjoys the heritage of still having paddle wheelers on the Willamette and Columbia. Part of me rolls my eyes.
Another faux-historic riverboat, the Columbia Queen, was also in port, but seemingly not for the renovation happening to the Empress. It too isn't nearly as old as it looks, for the Columbia Queen was completed in 2000. After just one season of ferrying passengers along the Columbia, its parent company, Delta Queen Steamboat, filed for bankruptcy. It was taken over by another company, Great American River Journeys, but that company too went bankrupt. In 2009, its third owner, Majestic America, also went out of business. Today the ship is reportedly for sale, but as we passed alongside, the Columbia Queen was alongside another ship called the Salvage Chief, apparently in the process of dismantling it.
What does the string of bankruptcies experienced by the Columbia Queen say about river travel? Rather than a precipitous drop in tourists wanting to travel up and down these rivers, I wonder if the deliberately old style is a turn-off. If you were taking a rail trip, would you do it in a faux choo choo made? If taking a plane, would it be on a propellered DC-3 or in a 747? A good riverboat should get out of the way of the beautiful natural scenery. We don't need to go back to the days of Mark Twain for the vehicles that take us down river. We just need to smoothly travel over the water.
Rounding back out of Swan Island, we returned south along the Willamette, this time along its western banks. Here there were Port of Portland terminals not only for loading and unloading ships, but long rails extending into the water that seemed to denote ships being launched from here.
The journey brought us alongside one more massive ship: the Port Pegasus from Hong Kong, docked just north of the Fremont Bridge, emblazoned on its side with "PACIFIC BASIN." It seemed longer than two football fields, yet I suppose it would still seem like a tiny structure as it crosses the ocean.
By this time, central Portland was again coming into view. And if I wasn't already a proponent of saving historic Centennial Mills, I certainly was after seeing it from the water. We see the tall grain-elevator buildings when we see the facility from the Pearl District and Naito Parkway on dry land. Yet it's the smaller wharf buildings and dock along the water that indicate the most potential for future development. Centennial Mills stretches out into the Willamette like virtually no other space in the city. This is a chance to preserve our maritime heritage, but also to create a great 21st Century place.
Coming past downtown reminded me once again that, while there is much to like about our central city, from the small blocks and pedestrian-friendly streetscape to the myriad transit options, we do not have many buildings that stand out from the river. Ours is a banal skyline if judged only by sculptural standouts. What is more compelling on the water is the bridges: not the Burnside or the Morrison, but the heavier structures like the Steel Bridge, the Broadway and the Hawthorne. As we passed under the Broadway Bridge, one could see its temporary installation, a massive multicolored quilt, swaying in the breeze.
By now, though, the river was more alive with people. As we moved first beneatht the Hawthorne Bridge, passing the Riverplace marina, and then continuing past the under-construction TriMet bridge, our boat continually encountered teams of dragon boats enthusiastically and rhythmically gliding along the top of the water.
Perhaps this is one of the things that makes a Willamette River excursion so pleasurable: that there is every size of craft on the water here, from the largest ocean-going ships to the tinest human-powered boat.
I love looking at the as-yet-unnamed TriMet bridge, precisly because it's not yet finished. With its spans reaching from either side but not yet touching, one senses its betweenness, a sense that at no other time moving down the river will the bridge look like this.
TriMet rejected the most compelling and visually attractive bridge design offered to them, by the talented Boston-area engineer Miguel Rosales. Instead, they chose a design by Donald MacDonald that, while certainly not an eyesore, lacks that same streamlined elegance. But the construction itself is beautiful and fascinating to behold, the first time in 40 years that a new bridge has been assembled over the Willamette.
Heading back to port at Willamette Park we made our way past another area undergoing lots of change: the Zidell Yards and South Waterfront. One senses from the water the gap in access that exists between Riverplace to the north and the Ross Island Bridge to the south. But here, particularly at Zidell Yards, is a chance for Portlanders to have a more direct access to the river and its banks.