Given its popularity today, you’d never know that up until about 20 years ago, Portland remained the undiscovered city of the West Coast. Frankly, many Portlanders liked it that way. If you lived in Portland, you knew how special it was and you didn’t want to see it spoiled.

The slogan “Don’t Californicate Oregon” applied to Portland as much as to the rest of the state. Portland wasn’t a wealthy city, like San Francisco to the south, and it didn’t have the boom-or-bust bravura of Seattle to the north. Although it was the largest inland port on the West Coast, Portland didn’t feel connected to the larger world, the way the ocean seaports of San Francisco and Seattle did. It was a quiet, lovely, liberal, and somewhat insular mid-sized metropolis that people loved for its family-friendly neighborhoods and proximity to the ocean, mountains, and high desert. It was a place where residents were aware of their environment and proud of their gardens. The city was progressive enough to install a light rail system back in the 1970s and turn a six-lane highway into downtown’s Tom McCall Waterfront Park. There was a large countercultural scene to keep things quirky, and a homegrown arts scene that produced some fine work.

As you might have guessed, it was all of these elements that eventually attracted a new wave of residents and visitors to Portland. The city has gone from hippie to hipster, and from provincial to pop-culture icon, in a very short time. Watching its evolution has been nothing short of astonishing.

This change has led to a kind of inner-city density and sometimes stress the likes of which house-with-big-yard Portland has never known. It has also led to clogged streets and traffic jams that may be the norm in other cities but are frustrating and bewildering to Portlanders accustomed to getting from one side of town to the other in 10 minutes instead of 90. I suppose micro-apartments and crowded streets are inevitable when you surround yourself with a green belt to help fight sprawl, as Portland did decades ago. It’s worked beautifully, and saved the endlessly gorgeous countryside around the city from turning into an endlessly depressing suburban parking lot. But in the process it has squeezed more people and cars into Portland.

I’m just being honest here. Portlanders used to pride themselves on being low-key and off-the-radar. You never went into a bar, coffee shop, or restaurant and had to listen to an actor talking about their agent, or a developer talking about real-estate prices. That just wasn’t Portland. But now it is. Some folks love the endless construction that is transforming the main thoroughfares, and the buzzy food and coffee scene. Others wonder if all this growth might end up diminishing the very qualities that draw people to Portland. It’s quite a balancing act to keep the charm that was here while building for what’s to come: more people.

You don’t come to Portland for its cultural benefits so much as to just hang out. It is the cultural capital of the state, of course, and has long had a lively arts and literature scene. Powell’s City of Books is one of the finest bookstores in the world and is justifiably a tourist attraction by itself. The Oregon Symphony can hold its own with any orchestra in the country. Portland was one of the originators (after Seattle) of the phenomenally popular First Thursday gallery-hopping idea. The garage-band and grunge music scene is not as feverish as it was a decade ago, but it’s still out and about.

Portland Dateline

  • 1805     Lewis and Clark camp along the Columbia Slough in what is now North Portland.
  • 1830s    The site of present-day Portland is a small clearing in the woods on the west side of the Willamette River, used by Chinookan Indian tribes, including the Multnomah and the Clackamas, and French-Canadian fur traders traveling between Oregon City and Fort Vancouver, the Hudson’s Bay trading headquarters on the Columbia River.
  • 1842     Opening of the Oregon Trail.
  • 1843     Asa Lovejoy and William Overton file a joint land claim for the riverside clearing. Overton, who lacked the 25[ce] filing fee, later sells his portion to Francis W. Pettygrove.
  • 1845     Pettygrove wants the new townsite to be called Portland, after his hometown in Maine. Lovejoy wants it to be called Boston. The two New Englanders flip a coin and the site—today's downtown—becomes Portland.
  • 1848     Congress establishes the Territorial Government of Oregon, and nearby Oregon City becomes its capital the following year.
  • 1850     Under the Donation Land Act, males arriving in the Oregon Territory by Dec. 1, 1850 can claim 320 acres (twice that amount for married couples) if they agree to cultivate the land. As a result, land-hungry pioneers—about a quarter of them from New England and New York—pour into the Willamette Valley. In 1848, when Lovejoy and Pettygrove platted the first streets, Portland had a population of about 80. Two years later, an 1850 census counted just over 800 people. Stumps of fir trees cut down for the newly laid-out streets gave rise to the city's first nickname: Stumptown. Puddletown, another nickname, referred to the rain-filled tracks and ruts.
  • 1851   The city officially incorporates, and the first plank road (part of today’s Canyon Rd.) is laid, providing a trade route between Portland and the farmlands of the Tualatin Valley.
  • 1850s–[‘]80s   Situated at the head of navigation on the Willamette, Portland quickly emerges as the region’s best site for the development of a shipping port and trade center. Passengers and cargo from the East Coast come in ships sailing around Cape Horn; trade extends across the Pacific to China. The California Gold Rush and the rapid growth of San Francisco fuel the city's river-trade economy. The region’s vast conifer forests provide lumber for ships and the new towns springing up throughout the West.
  • 1860s      A second wave of immigrants, this time from Ireland, Germany, China, Japan, England, Scandinavia, and Canada, starts to arrive in 1860. East Portland, where most of the city’s newly arrived foreigners and transient workers live, is laid out in 1850–51 and incorporated in 1870; it remains a separate town until it being annexed by the City of Portland in 1891.
  • 1872–1873   Disastrous fires destroy all of Portland's early wood-framed waterfront buildings and lead to the construction of brick buildings with cast-iron facades and structural supports. A significant number of late-19th-century cast-iron commercial buildings—more, in fact, than in any other city west of the Rockies—still remain in the Yamhill and Skidmore/Old Town districts along 1st, 2nd, and 3rd avenues.
  • 1880–1900   Major expansion continues as immigrants from around the world arrive, hoping to make their fortunes in shipping, farming, lumber, and gold.
  • 1883   Arrival of the first transcontinental railroad.
  • 1887   With the completion of the Portland-San Francisco rail line, the city's reliance on the river begins to diminish. East and West Portland are joined by the Morrison Bridge, the first span across the Willamette.
  • 1889    Downtown streets are illuminated by electric street lamps fueled by hydropower from Willamette Falls in Oregon City.
  • 1890s    The business center gradually shifts to the west, away from the waterfront, as fashionable new buildings and public institutions begin to rise on downtown's Morrison Street in the 1890s.
  • 1900–1910   Portland's population doubles.
  • 1905   Lewis and Clark Exposition is held in northwest Portland. The city’s growth is due, in large part, to this well-planned exercise in city boosterism that introduced tens of thousands of visitors to the city. In 1903, to help prepare for the event, noted Boston landscape architect John Olmsted (stepson of Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed New York’s Central Park) is hired to design a site plan for the exposition and to develop a citywide park plan.
  • 1905–1929   Early land claims are subdivided as the city experiences two major real-estate booms, one from 1905 to 1913 and another from 1922 to 1928. Electric trolleys carry people throughout the downtown area and to new east-side flatland neighborhoods such as Sellwood, Ladd's Addition, and Irvington, Portland's first "streetcar suburbs.” More affluent Portlanders built homes in the "highlands" of southwest and northwest Portland on streets that curve around and rise in sharp switchbacks up the hills. Tall commercial buildings with steel frames and distinctive white terra-cotta facades with classical detailing were constructed along the major downtown streetcar lines.
  • 1929   Construction of the seawall on the Willamette River ends the floods that were a regular occurrence in downtown Portland since the city’s founding.
  • 1930s   Construction in Portland comes to a virtual standstill.
  • 1941–1945    The demand for workers in Portland's shipyards creates a phenomenal wartime boom. Men and women are brought in by chartered trains from the East Coast and employed by the Kaiser shipbuilding yards in Vancouver, Washington and Portland. At the peak of wartime production in 1943–1944, metropolitan Portland counted some 140,000 defense workers. The city’s population leapt from 501,000 to 661,000. A significant number of these workers were African-Americans who settled in North and Northeast Portland.
  • 1942   FDR signs order sending Japanese Americans from the West Coast to internment camps; thousands in the Portland area are forced to abandon their homes and businesses.
  • 1948   A catastrophic flood completely destroys Vanport, a suburban Portland city built to house 17,500 wartime workers.
  • 1950s–1960s   As streetcars vanish and a car culture takes over, many of Portland's oldest buildings and west-side neighborhoods are demolished to make way for highways and parking lots. The city's first high-rise towers appear on the downtown skyline in the late 1960s.
  • 1970s   Portland's reputation as one of the country's best-planned cities dates back to 1972 when the Downtown Plan was approved by the city council. This detailed agenda, which set forth new strategies for land use, commercial development, architecture, and public transportation, resulted in a series of urban renewal projects that effectively reclaimed the downtown area for pedestrians. In the following years, a new light-rail system was built; a transit mall was constructed; a parking lot in the center of the downtown was refashioned into a public piazza; and the highway that ran along the downtown waterfront was replaced by Tom McCall Waterfront Park. Historic structures were preserved, and ordinances limited the height of new buildings, protecting views of the mountains.
  • 1971   Nike founded. Oregon becomes the first state to pass a bottle bill mandating a refundable deposit on beer and soft-drink cans and bottles.
  • 1980   Mt. St. Helens erupts, coating the city with volcanic ash but otherwise doing no damage.
  • 1980s   Portland’s Urban Growth Boundary is designed to preserve neighboring farmlands and open spaces from unchecked commercial development.
  • 1980s–1990s   The city is roiled by several virulent and costly anti-gay rights battles fomented by a homophobic right-wing “Christian” group called the Oregon Citizens Alliance (OCA).
  • 1993   Soon after a geologic study verifies the existence of two earthquake faults under the city, a quake measuring 5.6 on the Richter scale rocks the entire region. Its epicenter is located about 30 miles south of Portland. Since that time, city seismic codes have been updated to make buildings more earthquake-resistant.
  • 1996   A flood causes considerable damage in low-lying areas north and south of downtown. The same year, rapid snowmelt and above-average rainfall combined with tree-cutting and erosion results in mudslides and property damage in residential sections of the West Hills.
  • 1998   Oregon is the first state to legalize euthanasia with the Death with Dignity Act.
  • 2004   With no advance warning, Multnomah County (Portland) issues marriage licenses for same-sex couples. Over 3,000 couples rush to get married.
  • 2005   After a court challenge and public referendum, Multnomah County rescinds same-sex marriage ruling and sends all married same-sex couples refund checks for their license fees.
  • 2008   Oregon Legislature passes the Oregon Family Fairness Act, which makes it possible for same-sex couples to legally establish a domestic partnership.
  • 2008–2013   Nationwide recession results in unemployment figures in Portland that are among the highest in the nation. It doesn’t matter. People keep moving to Portland anyway.
  • 2014   Voters pass Measure 91 allowing for the non-medical cultivation, use and sale of marijuana.
  • 2014-2017   Portland grows at a phenomenal rate, resulting in a citywide building boom and traffic problems.
  • 2017-2018   Summer forest fires in the Columbia Gorge and southern Oregon burn over 150,000 acres and blanket the region with smoke that makes the air quality in Portland the worst in the country. Sixth and final season of the TV series Portlandia airs. People continue to pour into Portland. 

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.