Saturday, June 9, 2007

West Burnside: Logging the Skid Row

Typically when you walk down West Burnside these days it can be difficult to image that at one time, not too long ago, all of the West Hills lay barren. Loggers in the late 1800's cleared the Hills, and it was possible to view the naked dirt from the Willamette River to Council Crest.

I grew up here with my people referring to Burnside as Skid Row. Naturally I assumed this came from the congregation of down-and-outers who populated its street and sidewalks. In fact many attributed the name to the condition of the people surviving there. It was not until years later I learned that the origin of the name had a far more interesting story:

(Taken from this site)

This term, which is used to designate the area of town where conditions are poor, originated in Portland and other logging towns in the Pacific Northwest. When they were faced with the difficult chore of dragging felled trees out of the forest to the mill, loggers built "skid roads" – roads paved with "skids," usually railway ties or heavy wooden planks. The loggers discovered that the logs were far easier to move down the roads if the "skids" were greased, and the saying "grease the skids" became a popular metaphor to describe speeding up a process.

"Skid Road" also became associated with the part of town where the loggers typically lived. These areas were characterized by bars and flop houses. The "skid roads" were magnets for poor, often alcoholic, transient workers, said to be "on the skids."

Burnside Street, currently Portland's busiest street, was used as a skid road. Loggers would "skid" logs down Burnside and load them onto boats on the Willamette River. Over time the term "skid road" became "skid row."

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