Up in the Air and on the Street: Another OHS Digital Collections Mystery

June 30, 2020

By Jay Cosnett

In a photograph taken between 1923 and 1936, a wing walker flies above Portland, Oregon, on a biplane. OHS Research Library, Org. Lot 1368, box 371, 0371N6204 https://digitalcollections.ohs.org/wing-walker-on-biplane-2

As I shared in my May 28, 2019, blog post “A Streetcar Named Sellwood,” I’ve long been fascinated with historical images of Portland, which also feeds into my interest in streetcar history and Portland’s urban development. When the Oregon Historical Society (OHS) launched its digital collections website in Spring 2017, this image from the Oregon Journal Photographic Negative Collection immediately caught my attention. It shows a person walking on the wing of a biplane over a crowd gathered in an urban area. Its location, however, is unidentified, and I set out see if I could figure out where the stunt took place.

The area seemed geographically unique — the bluff in the lower-left and what might be the Columbia River in the distance at the top — but the landscape seemed to lack business or street names, or unique features of the built environment that would help determine the specific spot. That is, until I noticed a streetcar in the image and an unusual-looking curved building behind it! Comparing modern maps with maps of Portland streetcar lines, there seemed to be only one place in North Portland where a streetcar line made a turn from east-west to north-south around a curved building like the one shown in the photo — the corner of North Killingsworth Street and North Greeley Avenue. Fortunately for us, the building is still standing, and as of June 2020 is occupied by a Mio Sushi restaurant.

I managed to align a Google Earth image with the historical photograph, which ended up being far more time-consuming than identifying the location. Readers will also notice that the image had to be stretched and distorted to line up streets and houses near all four corners of the original. You can especially see the skewed proportions of the white two-story house on the left.

Google Earth image showing the corner of N. Killingsworth Street and N. Greeley Avenue.
This Google Earth image shows the corner of North Killingsworth Street and North Greeley Avenue. Imagery ©2019 Google, Map data ©2019 Google
Slide the arrow to the left and right to see the wing walker on a biplane photograph matched with a 2019 Google Earth view of the same area below the plane.

After figuring out the location in Portland below the biplane, one last mystery remained: what streetcar was that, and where was it going? Because the trolley pole was not visible in the photograph, it was impossible to determine the direction of travel. The tracks are clearly visible, however, on Greeley Avenue, heading out of the image to the southeast. Based on streetcar maps, I determined it was the St. Johns streetcar line, one of the city’s oldest, which was opened  in 1888 using steam locomotives and converted to electric operation in 1903. In 1918, the route changed to follow the newly constructed “Greeley Cutoff,” which should have meant that the car would have come up (or down) Greeley Avenue rather than turning the corner onto (or from) Killingsworth Street. Why would it make the curve? There is at least one possibility that I could think of.

Killingsworth was the route to (or from) the Piedmont Car barns, where cars for the St. Johns line were stored and maintained when off duty. It is possible that the car could have been beginning or ending its day, with “Out” showing on its roll sign to indicate it was out of service.

For those willing to indulge my streetcar fascination one step further, we can try to figure out the actual car in the photo. It’s difficult to make out the streetcar number, but if we count the number of windows (nine), we can at least determine the type of car. It just so happens that there was only one series of streetcar that ran in Portland with nine windows per side: “C&S Standards.” According to author and Oregon electric railway historian Richard Thompson, these cars were “used regularly on those lines that were not heavily patronized” (which would have included the St. Johns line at the time this photo was taken), and “they lasted well into the 1930s.”

Wing walker on biplane (detail). OHS Research Library, Oregon Journal Negative Collection; Org. Lot 1368; box 371; 0371N6204
This detail shows the curved building below the biplane that helped identify the location, as well as the number of windows on the streetcar which led to an educated guess of the type of streetcar. OHS Research Library, Org. Lot 1368, box 371, 0371N6204 https://digitalcollections.ohs.org/wing-walker-on-biplane-2

There are many additional photo-location mysteries waiting to be solved. Besides posts tagged “Help Us Out!” at Vintage Portland, OHS Digital Collections contains countless others, including one titled “Unidentified street, Portland” and this image “likely of Union Avenue (Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard) at an unidentified location.” The streetcar line goes from single- to double-track just before the road curves to the left — another clue! Perhaps you will be the one to solve it!

Sources

John T. Labbe, Fares, Please! Those Portland Trolley Years (Caldwell, ID: The Caxton Printers, 1982)

Richard M. Thompson, Portland’s Streetcars (Charleston, S.C.: Arcadia Publishing, 2006)

Richard M. Thompson, Portland Vintage Trolleys

Categories: Staff ReflectionsAudience(s): Visitors, Researchers

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