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Albina - A New Home in Portland

The small settlement of Albina is shown to the left of this 1879 map.

The oldest Volga German settlement in Oregon is in the Northeastern part of Portland in what is known as the Albina neighborhood. The settlement dates to 1882 when Volga Germans, after having worked for the Union Pacific Railroad, were either brought to or terminated their employment in San Francisco. From San Francisco they were transported to Portland by ship. In the 1930's this settlement numbered about 500 families.  

The Volga German neighborhood was concentrated in an area generally bounded by NE Alberta on the North,  NE 15th on the East, NE Russell on the South, and NE Mississippi and NE Albina on the West. This area was known as Rooshian Town or Little Russia by the locals and was the residential area for most families until well into the 1940's. Many of the churches and businesses in this neighborhood were founded or owned by Volga German families.

Williams Avenue was once the fashionable street of Albina and the equivalent of today's shopping mall for the Volga Germans. At that time the road was planked from Russell to Alberta.  Later a sandstone brick was put down when the ferry landing was put in at Alberta. Early settlers told stories about how they would zigzag the horses back and forth across the steep hill near the Willamette River.

Volga German family in Albina

Photograph of a Volga German family living in Albina during its early days. Photograph courtesy of Stacy Hahn.

Union Avenue (now Martin Luther King Boulevard) later became the heart of the Albina business district and was home to many German-Russian businesses. Before the large chain stores moved into the neighborhood, families patronized local businesses such as Repp Brothers, Hildermann's, Krumbein's, Bihn's, Hergert's, Grenfell's grocery and meat markets, Geist Shoe and Department Store, Trupp Shoe Repair, and Weimer's Hardware and Furniture Store. Other stores were sprinkled throughout the neighborhood such as Danewolf's on NE 13th and Failing and Lehl and Popp on NE 10th and Failing who supplied groceries to the local residents. Store representatives contacted housewives at their homes or orders were phoned for delivery. Pad and pencil recorded each item and clerks retrieved the articles for the customer. After cows and chickens were no longer allowed within the city limits, milk trucks delivered milk to doorsteps. In the early days, children delivered milk in gallon buckets and quart jars to relatives and neighbors.

NE Union and Russell

NE Union and Russell. According to Carol Gass (nee Hergert), "this is the very same building that the Hergert Tavern was located in, only then there were horses and wagons on the street".

Lower Albina, along Russell Street, was a rough area. Some thirty saloons spread out from the top of the ferry slip to the corner of Russell and Union Avenue. As late as 1929, Albina was connected to Portland via ferry service.

Albina 1909 Union Avenue

Left: The intersection of Vancouver Avenue and Russell Street in the Albina area of Portland, Oregon (1909).
Right: A view of Union Avenue in the early 1900's.

Many remember riding the street cars down Union Avenue to the Jantzen Beach Amusement Park where you could take swimming lessons, visit the haunted house, ride the wooden roller coaster and drive bumper cars. 


Albina History

Albina was laid out in 1872 with a plat for the new town filed in April 1873 by Edwin Russell, William Page, and George Williams. Albina was named after Mrs. Albina Page, the wife of William Page. Settlement of the area began in 1874 and the City of Albina was formally incorporated in 1887.

The original dimensions of Albina were modest; from Halsey Street north to Morris Street, and from the Willamette River to Union Avenue (then Margareta Avenue).

Albina Ferry Watercolor

Painting by Portland artist J. O. Foster of a house near the Albina Ferry landing in 1896. According to the Portland Art Museum, Foster was an early Oregon artist who specialized in city scapes. He exhibited in the Oregon Industrial Fairs of 1893 and 1895 and with the Portland Sketch Club.

According to Roy E. Roos, author of the book The History of Albina, the town was originally was formed down by railroad tracks in lower Albina along Russell street, the first subdivision was platted in 1873 and extended a residential area to just east of the current Martin Luther King (MLK) Blvd. and north past NE Morris street.

Roos goes on to say that, "The first arrivals were mainly Irish and Germans, separated of course. Then by early 1880s, Scandinavians came who preferred upper subdivisions north of Eliot neighborhood such as along N. Mississippi up to about N. Prescott street. New plats that stretched further out were filed like mad by 1891, even out towards St. Johns past the University of Portland and east of MLK up to Killingsworth, as the Albina city limits expanded. From my findings, most of Russian Germans settled in the area north of Fremont and east of N. Williams Avenue out in the Lincoln Park subdivision (south of NE Prescott street). This area was more sparsely settled early and it is likely the reason they preferred it. The lots were cheaper too."

The construction of the Union Pacific Railway and the terminal yards caused both the population and the property values in Albina to soar.  From 1887 until 1891, Albina city ordinances primarily addressed the economic interests of the railroad and other large investors, making it essentially a company town. 

Prior to the opening of the Morrison Bridge in 1887, some parts of Albina were uninhabited wetland. However, as transportation from the central district became easier, population in Albina continued to rise, as did land prices, quadrupling in the first decade of the 20th century. 

In 1889, Albina annexed the land north to Killingsworth Street and east to 24th.

According to the February 15, 1890 Albina Weekly Courier, the city grew rapidly and haphazardly:

"One of the great blemishes of our great city is her short, jagged streets, many of which begin nowhere and end nowhere.  The owners of the various additions [to Albina] have laid out their streets regardless of neighboring additions.  There are now 25 additions to the original Albina townsite."

In 1891, growth continued as Albina annexed everything north to Columbia Boulevard and west to the Portsmouth area. Most of Albina at that time was unplatted farmland. It is important to note that Albina remained an independent municipality, with the City of Portland being entirely confined to the west bank of the Willamette River.

An 1890's wood engraving antique bookplate map of Portland, Albina and East Portland from a book titled "Topography, History, Geography & Inhabitants of North America - ca. 1895."

To acknowledge the frequent and integral connections between activities on both sides of the Willamette, voters in Albina, East Portland, and Portland were asked in 1891 to vote on measure that would consolidate the three municipalities into one city. The results of the consolidation vote showed 10,126 people in support and 1,714 against the measure. The Oregonian was especially impressed both by the large voter turnout, and by the importance that downtown businessmen placed in the measure.

With the consolidation measure approved, Portland’s land area increased to twenty-six square miles and its population grew to at least 63,000.  At the time of consolidation in July 1891, Albina’s land area covered thirteen and a half square miles including St. Johns, more land than Portland and East Portland combined.

Just days before Albina’s planned incorporation into the city of Portland was finalized, Albina’s city council hurriedly passed ordinances and signed contracts for such expenditures as paved roads, city parks and lighting, which benefited property owners but created a financial burden for the taxpayers of the newly combined city.

The streets in Albina were laid out in the "Philadelphia pattern" with numbered street paralleling the Willamette River and named streets running east-to-west. Many street names were changed in 1891 because of duplication in the three consolidated cities. Another major street plan change was made in 1931 which created the system now used in Portland. This system established 100 numbers to the block and five geographic regions (N, NE, SE, NW, and SW).  Portland's address style that places the geographic designation between the house number and street name (rather than following the street name as in Seattle) was also established at this time.

By 1910, the population on the east side of Portland reached 120,000.

Ethnic map of Portland circa 1910

The ethnic settlements map is from E. Kimbark MacColl's book The Shaping of the City, p.463. MacColl credits the sources as a Portland Public Schools Annual Report, and Ethnicity in Portland, 1859-1970, A Brief Demographic History to be published in 1976 by the Center for Urban Education. The German-Russian population circa 1910 is indicated on the map by the circled number 8.

Over time, many of the neighborhoods in North and Northeast Portland were considered part of the Albina Area.

A wonderful website titled MLK in Motion by historian Alan Silver covers the history of this well known Portland street (formerly Union Avenue). Featured on the site are some Volga German landmarks such as the Weimer Hardware Building, now known as the Heritage Building.


Sources:

Richard Sallet, Russian-German Settlements in the United States, North Dakota Institute for Regional Studies, 1974.

Roy E. Roos, The History of Albina, 2008.

Wanda June Schwabauer, The Portland Community of Germans from Russia, Portland State University, May 1974.

Emma Schwabenland Haynes, My Mother's People, Unpublished, 1957.