28 March 2008

[Address_Nerd] Reader Question: Why Does The Washington County Grid Do That?

1453. A couple of days ago, in email, I recieved the following question from a reader named Alan. Here it is:

I've noticed that the Washington county grid doesn't seem to line up with the origin where I thought it did. I always thought that the origin was in downtown Portand at Burnside and the Willamette river. But recently I've been playing around with Google Earth, and have noticed something different. The Washington county north/south dividing line appears to line up with W Stark Street and possibly the Willamette Stone, but they aren't at the same latitude as W Burnside at the river. Also, if I extrapolate the Washington county numbered avenues, zero doesn't line up with the Willamette, but a few blocks west. In essence, it seems like the Washington county grid has an origin around SW 5th and SW Stark downtown.

That is some very thorough looking, and good on you. Readers may remember that for a time I found it odd that the mere name of the official Washington County n-s divider was West Stark Street, rather than West Burnside Street (extended). Then Isaac Laquedem (I think it was) pointed out that the street on the west side lined up with the street on the east side (which both so happen to lay on the Willamettte Base Line) so there was a logical rationale for why the street name Stark was preferred over Burnside.

There are also a handful of Portland-origined street names that pop up as little extensions in greater Beaverton, but that's for another post ...

Anyway, the first part of the question seems to be why it is that the line dividing NW from SW in Washington County does not line up with the line on the ground in Multnomah, which is Burnside Street in Multnomah. A casual glance may not make that clear because the lines are pretty close and most of it in Washington Co isn't marked (there is very little of Stark Street).

Regrettfully, there is no record I've been able to find as to why this is. I do have some assumptions I've drawn from years of looking at the map and wondering what decisions I'd make if it were up to me to define the greater metropolitan address system based on what was already extant when the time came.

I think the best way to espy all this would not be to look from Washington Co inward but consider the grid from its origin (Burnside Street and Willamette River) and think outward. That's the way Portland grew in general, and the address grid being based on the Portland axes was governed my a few early (and very possibly arbritrary) decisions.

I've always found it coincidental that the original town's Donation Land Claim owners, Couch on the north and Lovejoy and Pettygrove on the south, surveyed the boundary between the two DLCs right about the point where the Willamette makes a notable dogleg. I've the very strong feeling that they saw that physical feature and thought that it would just make a good starting point. Now, also for reasons only known to the original planners, Couch thought that the blocks on his plat should be aligned to the North Star (take a good look and you'll see that that area of town is rotated ever so slightly to the left of cardinal north) and Lovejoy/Pettygrove thought that it would be nifty that their bit should align to the river.

These decisions were likely make independently of the laying out of the public land survey system, which is dependent on the Willamette Stone, which so happens to lay on a line that would be right in the middle of Stark Street.

Now, as the town grew west, a road formed by what we now call West Burnside Road developed to provide access to the Tualatin Valley. This road so happened to come very near the Willamette Stone, before (in the current time) shedding its name and becoming the modern SW Barnes Rd. The people laying out these roads at the time doubtless couldn't have forseen the pattern of growth nor the need of an address system covering hundreds of square miles to facilitate the mails and modern emergency service.

However, as development spread west and the need arose for a more sophisicated system than the old fashioned rural route mail delivery system, it no doubt occurred to someone that basing the N-S division extension on an already well-surveyed and established line would simplfy things a great deal. I don't think it was missed that the line of the Willamette Base Line and Start Street was five blocks south of the line of Burnside if it was extended, rather I think it was seen as an acceptable tradeoff, especially inasmuch as there was no surveyed or built logical extensions of Burnside west from the Willamette Stone itself.

Or, to be less wordy, it was a convenient way to solve the problem.

Now, as far as extrapolating the Washington County pattern back into Portland goes, since the decision that ruled how the original streets of Portland ran was (I am assuming) made based on certain human points of view (aligning the streets with the river was convenient and functional for a river town whose frontage street handled all that river traffic), it seems that the logical thing to do would be to consider where it all started and how it all grew. Even in Portland proper, allowances had to be made; while the river is a great human reference point, the river has had a mind of its own, not running straight N-S as we move south from the city center while the streets maintain a rigid grid. The result – a long sliver of land between the 00 address block and the riverbank itself – required a bit of creative thinking. Thus, in the Johns Landing area and the new South Waterfront districts, addresses actually count up as you close on the river but are still prefixed with the SW directional. The solution was to prefix addresses on the E-W streets with the number zero. This is why locations such as the Old Spaghetti Factory (at the foot of Bancroft) is addressed at 0715 SW Bancroft St.

Increasing SW addresses as you go toward the river is counterintuitive, but makes sense when you consider the problem that had to be solved.

And that's why things like Alan noticed not always jive, though they work in the greater sense. We are imposing a human exactitude over a natural and irregular form, and things do tend to give in places.

But considering the thing from the proper POV may not completely resolve the question, but it can suggest an answer that might make everything make sense.

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