Guild’s Lake Industrial District The Process of Change over Time

AT THE TURN OF THE TWENTIETH century, swampy, flood-prone Guild’s Lake occupied approximately 220 acres between the busy Willamette River and the foothills of a rambling, wild forest northwest of the city (today’s Forest Park). The area was the home of Portland’s “undesirables” — Chinese immigrant farmers, the city incinerator, and sawmills. Within a very few years, the landscape would undergo a dramatic change.

The catalyst was the 1905 Lewis & Clark Centennial & American Pacific Exposition & Oriental Fair, which boosted Portland’s image from distant lumber town to modern boomtown. By 1910, the city’s population had doubled, the number of business had increased, and industry had begun to expand beyond the confines of the downtown area. Portland needed more land, and Guild’s Lake was soon to disappear forever in the headlong rush to modernity.

The remade Guild’s Lake landscape, created by man for man, went through a long period of transformation. A garbage incinerator helped fill in the lake while disposing of the trash of early Portlanders. Railroads, warehouses, docks, and factories used the area, and steel and shipbuilding manufacturers moved into the growing industrial district. During and after World War II, temporary housing occupied much of the vacant land, one of the few non-industrial uses.

Photographic evidence of the history of the Guild’s Lake area document the changes as the landscape was altered from swampy flood plain to a modern industrial district. The photos in this essay allow us to visualize the dramatic changes that have taken place, giving greater weight to the important his-tory of the early industrial development of Portland.

IN 1847, PETER AND ELIZABETH Guild (pronounced guile) claimed 598 acres of swampy wetland at the edge of the Willamette River under the Donation Land Act. A lake that rose and fell with the flow of the river and runoff from a neighboring creek occupied nearly half the acreage. When Peter Guild died in 1870, ownership of the land was transferred to his wife and nine children. By the end of the century, several dairies and an incinerator were operating on the land, and a group of Chinese renters were farming some of it. [1]

By the time landscape architect John Charles Olmsted visited Portland in April 1903 to design a citywide parks plan, the swampy lake, considered an eyesore and something of a hindrance to the advancement of the city, had been chosen as the site for the Lewis and Clark Exposition. Over the course of a week, Olmsted visited the site and designed an extensive layout, with the lake as part of the design and an entrance gate facing northwest. It was the perfect entrance for the fair. [2]

Olmsted’s plan incorporated formal landscape elements, including a sunken garden near the entrance to the Exposition, with buildings framing them to take advantage of the spectacular view of Mount Saint Helens. Olmsted visited the site when the lake was flooded with runoff from the winter rains. As a result, the lake became a central design element in the plan. Typically, however, Guild’s Lake was quite low during the summertime, and in 1905 the situation was compounded by a drought. To solve the problem, engineers devised an elaborate system of pipelines to pump water from the Willamette River, which successfully kept the lake full during the fair. [3]

DANFORD BALCH ORIGINALLY the 346 acres located to the south of Peter Guild’s property. Balch and his wife Mary Jane arrived in Oregon on September 4, 1847, and settled the land claim in October 1850.[4] In 1858, Danford Balch murdered his son-in-law and hid for months in what is now Forest Park. On October 17, 1859, he became the first person to be hanged by the state of Oregon. [5]

Today, Balch is most remembered for the creek that bears his name. An early water supply for Portland residents, Balch Creek flows from Northwest Skyline Boulevard into Macleay Park, where it is tunneled underground to the Willamette River. It is one of five sub-watersheds that feed the Willamette River. The creek once entered Guild’s Lake at about the place where the creek now disappears underground into the Balch Gulch Trunk Sewer System.

FROM JUNE 1 TO OCTOBER 15, 1905, 1.6 million people visited the Lewis and Clark Exposition, the first world’s fair on the West Coast. Visitors standing along the Central Vista looked toward the lake, with the U.S. Government building framed in the distance. The large Spanish-Renaissance building was located on a natural peninsula jutting into the lake. Visitors could take a boat across the lake to the U.S. Government Building or walk down the Trail — passing concessions and attractions such as a funhouse and the W.H. Barnes Exhibit of Educated Animals — to the Bridge of Nations that connected the main fairgrounds to the peninsula. [6]

The design of the U.S. Government Building was assigned to James Knox Taylor, a government architect. [7] It was the largest building on the Exposition grounds, covering twelve acres and costing over eight hundred thousand dollars. Exhibits in the building ranged from displays of dinosaurs and fisheries to an exhibit of the “industrial and literacy training” of Indians. [8]

AT THE TURN OF THE TWENTIETH century, Portland was still a young city. Many city services were inadequate, and, as in any rapidly growing metropolis, Portland had a difficult time improving them. One example is the struggle over improving garbage disposal. When the city garbage crematory — or incinerator — opened north of Guild’s Lake in the late 1890s. It was the only place for Portlanders to dispose of their trash.

E.L. Daggett, the site superintendent, estimated that fifty to seventy-five tons per day were delivered to the site. The building was riddled with problems stemming from inefficient construction and overuse, and a large landfill accumulated next to it. Portland had no formal garbage collection at the time and had to rely on scavengers who collected trash at night, loading the refuse into horse-drawn wagons and transporting it to the landfill. [9]

BY THE TIME OF THE LEWIS AND Clark Exposition in 1905, the original incinerator at Guild’s Lake was in need of replacement. Spurred by its inability to adequately handle the loads and the complaints of local residents, the City of Portland finally built a new garbage incinerator at the same location in 1910.

Garbage incineration was a common practice in cities at the turn of the twentieth century, but eventually sanitary issues such as odor, disease, and rat infestations contributed to their elimination. Portland built a new incinerator in North Portland in the 1940s — a site that today houses the Portland City Archives — and the landfill in Guild’s Lake was finally capped.

AFTER THE LEWIS AND CLARK Exposition closed in October 1905, the site of the fair became the target of land speculators. The land had been leased from various owners, and the buildings, most of which had been intended as temporary structures, quickly fell into disrepair or were demolished. The Oregon Building, designed to house the displays from Oregon’s counties, lasted longer than some. Located to the north of where the nine-story Montgomery Park building (originally a Montgomery Ward warehouse) stands today, it was located directly inside the Exposition gates. With its six high pillars and bright white façade, the Oregon Building made a fine showcase for the state’s agricultural products.

Within six months of the fair’s closing, the buildings and much of the land were purchased by Lafayette Pence, a land speculator and former congressman from Colorado, who intended to clear the land, fill in the lake, and redevelop the area for residential and industrial uses. [10]

LAFAYETTE PENCE FOCUSED HIS initial efforts on the hills overlooking the fair site in an unsuccessful attempt to transform them into terraces for building houses. He began by constructing a series of wooden troughs — which eventually ran for over fourteen miles — to transport dirt from the hillside to the lake. Pence’s works, however, trespassed on Macleay Park, and Portland city leaders protested that they threatened the park and the waters of Balch Creek. After working for over a year without city permits, Pence’s operation was stopped briefly when the mayor and his supporters marched up the hill and destroyed one of the larger flumes. [11]

Pence was able to resume the sluicing after some wheedling in City Hall, but in 1907 his finances dried up and he shut the project down. The land, and all the flumes, sat idle for over a year before new investors could be found. [12]

A more successful entrepreneurial group acquired the land in 1909. Several prominent citizens of Portland joined with the Lewis–Wiley Hydraulic Company, a group of investors from Seattle, to resume the terracing activities. They expanded and improved the sluice works that Pence had abandoned, creating high trestle works capable of moving huge quantities of earth from the hillside to the lake.

In 1913, about fifty acres of the lake had been filled in, enough to allow for the sale of fifty-six industrial lots on the newly created land. [13] The terracing was also a success, and by 1920 residents had begun moving into the newly formed Westover Terraces.

ON APRIL 1, 1911, ENOUGH WORK had been completed on Westover Terraces to warrant a visit by the Realty Board of Portland. The population of Portland had more than doubled between 1900 and 1910 — from 90,426 to 207,214 — and city leaders were eager to use the gradually filling Guild’s Lake to create a new industrial district.

The hills overlooking the lake were being transformed into a neighborhood for the city’s elite, and new land was taking the place of the swampy marshes that had once been the site of the Lewis and Clark Exposition. By this time, little was left of Balch Creek, as the flumes altered the creekbed and construction workers used up the water.

As 1920 approached, the population of the Northwest district was growing, with new residents in Westover Terraces and an expanding industrial district on the former lakebed. The open gulley of the Balch Creek flume, however, was still the area’s only sewage line, carrying discharge from the creek as well as the industrial district directly into the Willamette River. In February 1921, the city council approved a project allowing the Portland Public Works Department to construct the Balch Gulch Trunk Sewer System.

The creek was funneled into a grate in today’s Macleay Park, crossed Northwest Thurman Street, and then flowed north along Northwest 30th Avenue and northeast across what was left of Guild’s Lake, crossing land owned by the Reed Institute, the Portland Terminal Investment Company, John Kiernan, J.B. Yeon, and L. Therkelson before emptying into the Willamette River. [14]

AS THE REMAINING DEPTHS OF the lake were filled in and developed in the late 1920s, temporary wooden extensions were added to the sewage system, but little was done to improve the older portions. [15] In the early 1940s, the Works Progress Administration finally upgraded the dilapidated system by adding 2,800 feet of sewer and once again redirecting the drainage of the creek. The new section carried the outflow of Balch Creek northwest along Yeon Avenue, under the railroad tracks to the north side of Front Street, and into the Willamette River. [16]

Today, the creek flows freely down from the hills into a grate in Macleay Park and then through a sewer system underground to the Willamette. The stream and lake were originally an important part of the Balch Creek watershed, which was marked by intense seasonal flooding and a diverse collection of flora and fauna. The lake absorbed high water flows from the Willamette River in the spring, and the land surrounding it was described in an 1851 surveying report as heavily wooded. [17] Though today’s stream is hardly recognizable as the same body of water that flowed at the turn of the twentieth century, it is nevertheless healthy. Flowing down from Forest Park — the largest urban park in the nation — it is one of the few urban streams today with a native cutthroat trout population.

THE MONTGOMERY WARD BUILDing opened its doors and loading docks in Portland on January 1, 1921, one block northwest of the Forestry Building on a ridge overlooking what had been Guild’s Lake. The warehouse proved to be a catalyst for development, and soon after its construction other industries found a home in the district. The American Can Company, one of many steel-working businesses in the area, built a facility; and by 1932, its neighbors included the United Foundry Company, Weld and Steel Plate Works, and the P.T. Ainge Company lumber warehouse. [18]

The Montgomery Ward building was designed by employee W.H. McCaully to facilitate the shipping and receiving of a large number of mail orders. The U-shaped building had two sets of dedicated tracks to bring rail cars into the building, with the Northern Pacific Terminal Company operating the switches. This innovative design allowed workers to load and unload freight as the car was pulled through the building. With nine stories, the warehouse was large enough to include a restaurant and medical facility for employees. [19]

The Ward building operated as the company’s catalogue distribution center until 1976. In 1984, Bill Naito of H. Naito Properties renovated the vacant warehouse and transformed it into a commercial space, devoting three floors to convention and exhibition space, three to wholesale businesses, and three to offices. Naito changed the building’s name to Montgomery Park, necessitating the change of only two letters on the giant sign that adorns the roof. [20]

THE FIRST SET OF RAIL TRACKS in the Guild’s Lake area were built by the Northern Pacific Railroad in 1873, connecting Portland with Tacoma, Washington. The single set of tracks, located along a low embankment that separated the lake from the Willamette River, was used to transport freight, mail, and passengers. After expanding its holdings to include some of the land surrounding Guild’s Lake in the 1890s and early 1900s, the Northern Pacific Terminal Company (NPTC), an offshoot of the Northern Pacific, leased a portion of it to be used for the Exposition.

Rail usage began to expand soon after the first industrial lots at the Exposition grounds were sold in 1915. By 1923, the NPTC opened Guild’s Lake Yard, the first of its switching yards. The Guild’s Lake terminal, owned by five different rail companies, included twenty-six miles of track in the freight yard and two miles of industrial track. The facilities included a seven-stall roundhouse with a machine shop and a heating plant, a large yard to store passenger coaches, and a two-thousand-car freight yard. During World War II, the U.S. Government laid an additional nine miles of track, which were later purchased by the NPTC. [21]

By the 1950s, the nptc was one of the most valuable operations in the area, with fifteen hundred employees. Seventy-five industrial spur tracks and private sidings switched over three hundred freight cars each day. The facility provided rapid service from Portland to its customers in states west of the Rocky Mountains and, via the docks in the Willamette River, to Hawaii and Alaska. Although trucks have become the major means of transporting finished goods out of the district today, several of the spurs are still in use, moving raw materials to and from local buildings in the industrial district.

AFTER THE SUCCESS OF THE Lewis and Clark Exposition, Portland’s business leaders and Guild’s Lake landowners wanted to expand the economic and industrial potential of the area. On April 25, 1919, the city council appointed a group of local businessmen — the Committee of Fifteen — to formulate a plan “for the development of water ways, public terminals, and industrial sites.” [22] The Committee included Port of Portland executives, dock commissioners, bankers, a newspaper owner, and a trustee of Reed College. [23] It was headed by the chairman and president of Northwestern National Bank, Emery Olmstead. The plan adopted by the city council on April 28, 1920, determined that the city needed “provision for ample and convenient sites for industrial development.” It proposed that the city acquire “all of the low land in the so-called Guild’s Lake district, lying between the St. Helens Road and the Willamette River opposite Swan Island.” [24]

The Committee hoped to tie this development to a channel change in the Willamette River. The plan was to move the shipping channel from the east to the west side of Swan Island, with Guild’s Lake serving as a convenient dump for the fill that would be dredged from the river. This would create a deeper and longer channel for the docking of ships while creating almost nine hundred new acres of land for industrial development.

Although Portland voters declined to undertake the large public project, the Port of Portland Commission purchased Swan Island in December 1921 and proceeded with plans to move the river channel. [25] In April 1922, Guild’s Lake property owners negotiated a plan with the Port of Portland Commission to also acquire fill from the project, which would make the land more desirable. [26] More than twenty million cubic yards of silt, approximately 65 percent of the total removed from the river, were eventually deposited in the lakebed, with most of the remainder used to connect Swan Island to the eastern bank — creating approximately a thousand acres of new land.

LIKE THE REST OF THE NATION, the Great Depression of the 1930s hit Portland hard. Little development occurred in the new industrial district, and the three-month-long longshoremen’s strike in 1934 severely affected most of Portland’s industries. [27] The 1940s brought improved economic conditions, as steel industries prospered and Portland became one of the largest shipbuilding centers on the West Coast. [28]

Housing rapidly became scarce as thousands of workers migrated west to build combat ships and merchant vessels for the war effort; temporary wartime housing was built in the Guild’s Lake district to accommodate them. Guild’s Lake Court was the second largest wartime housing center in Portland, with more than ten thousand residents (Vanport was the largest).

The Guild’s Lake development was built on landfill between St. Helens Road and the Willamette River. Between May 1942 and December 1943, over 2,200 four-duplex row houses were built for both black and white shipyard workers and their families. In 1848, a dike holding back the Columbia River broke, completely destroying Vanport; over 18,000 people were left homeless. Temporary accommodations were constructed at Guild’s Lake and other project sites to provide much-needed housing. Previous segregation laws in Portland left many African American families no option but to take up residence in the temporary barracks and trailers that constituted the housing projects at Guild’s Lake. With the sharp increase in the residential use, industrial interests began to push hard to force public housing out of the area. [29]

BEFORE THE VANPORT FLOOD, the Housing Authority of Portland (hap) had approved the petitions of four industrial firms to build on their property in the Guild’s Lake housing area — Arrow Transportation, Dolan Building Material Company, William Volkner & Company, and the Texas Company. [30] Throughout the early 1950s, the residents of public housing in the district were forced to move and the buildings were torn down. Between 1946 and 1954, the Guild’s Lake Industrial Area surpassed the growth rate of any other area in Portland as aluminum, paper, auto parts, tires, lumber, warehousing, pharmaceutical, and coffee companies prospered. [31]

By the 1970s, urban renewal had come to Portland, and clashes emerged between residents and industry in the Guild’s Lake area. South of Northwest Nicolai Street, skirting the edge of the industrial area, a residential neighborhood struggled to maintain its hold on land and community. A proposed freeway through the neighborhood deterred many local residents from maintaining and improving their property, and the area began to fall into disrepair. [32] In 1974, the freeway extension plan (dubbed the i-505) was abandoned after neighborhood residents united in opposition, and within a few years development was revitalized with several new apartment and condominium projects. [33] This clash of uses would continue to be an issue as residential areas were built ever closer to the industrial district.

Today, Guild’s Lake is a bustling, vital industrial district, but there are still several issues at work. Residential tensions continue as neighboring residential zones collide with what is now an Industrial Sanctuary. In December 2001, the Portland City Council adopted the Guild’s Lake Industrial Sanctuary Plan, which preserves the area for long-term industrial use. The plans objectives are to expand employment and promote private investment in infrastructure and facilities. [34] By combining new high-tech industry with older manufacturing and processing plants, the city hopes the mixture of uses will help improve Portland’s economy. In many ways, today’s sanctuary is the showcase of industry envisioned by the city’s planners after the Lewis and Clark Exposition closed a hundred years ago.


This essay is the result of the work done in three classes in Portland State University’s Senior Capstone program. The students, in conjunction with the Oregon Historical Society, did all the research and writing for a website on the Guild’s Lake landscape ( ). The authors, who were participants in the capstone, wish to thank their fellow students for the hard work and excellent research that made this essay possible. We especially want to thank Kathy Tucker, the project leader who ushered the project from its inception to this essay and the website. It was a valuable and superior learning experience for us all, and we are grateful for her understanding, patience, and guidance throughout the process.
On the spelling of Guild’s Lake, there are some discrepancies in the historical record. Oregon Geographic Names, by Lewis A. McArthur and Lewis L. McArthur (7th ed., Oregon Historical Society Press, 2003) and the USGS ( ) both advise that the official name is “Guild Lake.” We would argue that “Guild’s Lake” is the correct spelling. While at least one early map does identify the lake as Guild Lake, others use Guilds Lake.There are also spelling and apostrophe variations in newspapers and other documents. From the beginning of the twentieth century, however, “Guild’s Lake” has been the most commonly used form (see, e.g., Oregonian, September 6, 1902). The apostrophe shows a possessive — it was Peter and Elizabeth Guild’s lake.

1. Genealogical Material in Oregon Donation Land Claims vol.2 (Portland: Genealogical Forum, 1959), 71.

2. Kenneth James Guzowski, “Portland’s Olmsted Vision (1897–1915): A Study of the Public Landscapes Designed by Emanuel T. Mische in Portland Oregon” (M.A. thesis, University of Oregon, 1990).

3. Ibid.

4. Genealogical Material, 2:71.

5. Daily News (Portland, Ore.), October 18, 1859.

6. Carl Abbott “Starting a Second Century: The Lewis & Clark Centennial Expo 1905,” Oregon History Project, Oregon Historical Society, (accessed January 30, 2006).

7. Dept. of Architecture correspondence, 1904, MS 1609, box 6, folder 33, Research Library, Oregon Historical Society, Portland [hereafter OHS Library].

8. Abbott, “Starting a Second Century,” (accessed January 30, 2006).

10. “Garbage Crematory,” December 14, 1908, Portland Chamber of Commerce, 16–06–342, City of Portland, Stanley Parr Archives and Records Center, Portland, Oregon [hereafter SPARC].

11. Oregonian, December 18, 1905, 8.

12. Oregonian, February 26, 1906, 1.

13. MacColl, Shaping of a City, 345–55.

14. Oregon Journal, September 28, 1913.

14. “Balch Gulch Trunk Sewer,” 1921, Department of Public Works, A2001–008, box 2, folder 12, SPARC.

15. Oregon Journal, August 2, 1925.

16. “Works Progress Administration Project No. 3399,” 1941, Dept. of Public Works, SPARC.

17. “Willamette Survey Notes of Ino B. Preston for Township and Range,” November 29, 1851, T1NRJE, box 1N, folder 1E, 72, Bureau of Land Management, Government Land Office.

18. Sanborn maps, vol. 1, 1932, 1955, 1965, OHS Library

19. James B. Norman Jr., Portland’s Architectural Heritage: National Register Properties of the Portland Metropolitan Area 2d ed. (Portland: Oregon Historical Society Press, 1991), 134.

20. Oregonian, February 15, 1999.

21. Walter R. Grande, The Northwest’s Own Railway: Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway and its Subsidiaries, vol. 1, The Main Line (Portland: Grande Press, 1992).

22. “Plans for Waterways, Terminals, and Water Sites,” vol. 1, 10/18/21, Auditor’s Office, City of Portland, 2012–35, box 18, folder 3, SPARC.

23. E. Kimbark MacColl, The Growth of a City: Power and Politics in Portland Oregon, 1915 to 1950 (Portland: The Georgian Press, 1979), 229.

24. “Plans for Waterways,” SPARC.

25. MacColl, Growth, 235.

26. Oregonian, April 13, 1922, 17.

27. MacColl, Growth, 467–89.

28. Oregonian, July 27, 1947, 1.

29. Stuart McElderry, “Building a West Coast Ghetto,” Pacific Northwest Quarterly 92:3 (Summer 2001): 137–48. Housing Authority of Portland records, Guild’s Lake, SPARC.

30. Oregonian, January 10, 1948.

31. “Northwest Industrial Area,” 1979, Portland Planning Bureau, Reports and Studies, box 30, folder 20, SPARC.

32. Oregonian, March 19, 1972.

33. Oregonian, August 14, 1979, B2.

34. “Guild’s Lake Industrial Sanctuary Plan (GLISP),” City of Portland, Bureau of Planning, (accessed January 30, 2006).



By: Karin Dibling, Julie Kay Martin, Meghan Stone Olson and Gayle Webb