The community of Milwaukie made its place out of thick Northwest forests, Willamette waters and transportation links. Through 170 years, downtown Milwaukie has reflected changing trends of transportation, economics and culture. Here's a glimpse at how downtown has changed over the years.
These four men are celebrating a great catch – a remarkable sturgeon – on Milwaukie's rocky waterfront in the early 1900s. The photo gives a sense of a somewhat remote community along the wide Willamette, but at the far left a steamship shows how Milwaukie long connected with Portland downriver and Oregon City upriver.
In the 1850s, a city history records, Milwaukie had 500 residents and founder Lot Whitcomb launched a steamship he named for himself to compete (temporarily) with Portland's shipping dominance.
By the 1860s, flour and lumber mills became the key industries, as new wagon roads and railroads connected Portland and Milwaukie. And when this photo was taken, it's likely that men like these would travel by another means to other parts of the region: streetcar.
A century ago, this is how most people came to Milwaukie: On a streetcar, to get off at this station. The streetcar begn running in 1893 between Portland and Oregon City, kicking off a major period of growth in Milwaukie. Milwaukie had incorporated in 1903 in an attempt to build these basic community assets; these sidewalks were likely around a decade old.
Some of Milwaukie's 100 or so residents posed in front of the streetcar station around the same time. City histories record that in these days, downtown Milwaukie featured an eclectic mix of businesses, residences, sheds and accessory dwellings, along with many undeveloped buildings. Downtown's oldest buildings date from this period.
Shortly after this photo, Milwaukie began growing more quickly.
By the 1950s, the automobile had firmly claimed its place in a bustling downtown. The streetcar stopped running in 1958, but downtown clearly looks like the heart of the community, the place one would go for many kinds of errands, from banks and pharmacies to groceries and furniture.
Note the big "state bank" sign on the upper left, clearly positioned to attract drivers on nearby McLoughlin Boulevard, now a busy state highway.
During this time, the community's waterfront was inaccessible, home to a log dump on the other side of a highway.
For its future, Milwaukie looked east, booming with new suburban development and annexation of lands to its east. The 1940s saw the city's population nearly triple to just over 5,000 residents, then nearly double twice again in both the 1950 and 1960s, reaching 16,444 in 1970.
By the 1970s, Milwaukie still had a lot of cars downtown, but some redevelopment had taken place. The bank and old wood frame buliding in the 1950s photo have been replaced with a new modernist bank building. Trees have been planted, too. The pharmacy in the distance is now one of several downtown buildings owned by Dark Horse Comics.
Downtown looks busy here, but stagnancy was looming. The city's history notes that "downtown entered a period of decline in the 1970s from which it is still recovering." Growth in the city also slowed considerably. From 17,931 residents in 1980, Milwaukie reached only 20,500 residents 20 years later – a small fraction of its growth rate in the previous few decades.
Today, those little saplings in the photo from the 1970s provide welcome shade for a downtown that's resurging with boutiques and restaurants. Milwaukie has emphasized creating a pleasant place for walking and relaxing, and Milwaukie carries a quiet air most of the time, except on Sundays when the farmers market is in session or on First Friday's art walks.
Now, local residents and leaders wonder how the city's recent major arrival, MAX light rail, will shape a new era for downtown Milwaukie.