Pittock Mansion hike from Lower MacLeay Park
Portland is neither an old city, nor a city particularly known for preservation. I, coming from Helena, Montana, where the ghosts of the past live on and often loom larger than the current living residents find this ability to let go disconcerting at times.
That being said there is one lovely notable exception. The Pittock Mansion stands high over Portland in the West Hills, a dominating reminder of a time when the city was little more than a backwater port where the Columbia and the Willamette met. It stands solemnly reminding us all that this town was earned with sweat, influence, tenacity and not a small bit of corruption.
The confluence of these two river’s was the originally a meeting place of several native peoples who utilized the Willamette River, as it was a fertile run for Salmon. These people were very successfully pushed out and wiped out, as the Oregon Trail became a viable land route for immigrant settlers willing to risk their lives and travel hundreds of miles by wagon train in pursuit of fortunes untold. Oregon’s native peoples now own only a paltry portion of land in the state and make up a small minority of its population. Their legacy lives on most conspicuously in name, as so many areas: lakes, rivers and valleys still bear the original names often of Chinook origin, as it was the language shared by many area tribes.
Henry Luis Pittock and Georgiana Burton were two of the many who had made this implausible journey in wagons, the latter likely without any other option having been ten years old when her family charged off across the plains and over the Rocky Mountains. She was would be married to Pittock five years later at the ripe age of fifteen. The Pittocks did not begin at the top of the hill, they clawed their way there with ruthless and unrelenting ambition.
Henry Pittock began as work as a typesetter for the Oregonian and would go on to take over the newspaper, other real estate ventures, railroads, and basically any other capitol venture that he could avail. He like other barons of that time, had his hands in everything including politics. Pittock made an enemy of Will H. Daly, a labor reformer who exposed a scheme that Pittock had concocted to plumb water to his mansion on the city’s dime.
Georgiana Pittock by contrast devoted her life to civic projects, perhaps out of penance or maybe because the two were never cut from the same cloth. She was one of the originators of Portland’s Rose festival and known for giving time and money to the unfortunate especially Portland’s destitute women.
Henry Pittock spared no expense in building his Xanadu from which to survey all of Portland and environs surrounding. The home has every modern innovation that the era offered and yet is built in the style of a European manor, with clearly delineated areas for dining, lounging, reading and smoking (although neither he or any of his kin were purported to be smokers) There are ample quarters for the many servants such a house would require to run. If indeed as legend would have it that Pittock had arrived in this town without shoes on his feet, he was out to transform himself into a Duke and his family the royal heirs to his personal dominion.
The best way to reach the mansion is by taking the scenic route from Lower MacLeay Park. There is parking at the trailhead. The trail follows a tiny creek, Balch creek, a cutthroat trout habitat, and branches off to Wildwood trail crossing over Cornell Road and switch backing uphill to the mansion. The trail is moderately difficult, but if you have no health conditions that prohibit excursion; I recommend this route.
Admission to the house is 8.50 for adults, 7.50 for seniors and 5.50 for children eight and up. Tours are generally self-guided and the home often features an exhibition of era relics. Placards explain the utility of each room and catalogue the history of the house and its former occupants. Original furnishings are showcased with tags.
As you walk through the houses many rooms it is the attention to detail that strikes, the innovative lighting and one of kind fixtures, the tiny jigsaw linoleum in the kitchen, the showers that seem more like contraptions from the future than the past, each room and are laid out with care to preserve privacy while providing beautiful leisure spaces for all who lived there. One feels that this house was occupied with people who may have lived together and yet operated independently with vast spaces and various states of mind and health disconnected. Many believe that the house is haunted, if so, I believe it is haunted by these spaces, silences and that the grand old home itself is saturated in loneliness.
The views of the Willamette Valley are spectacular both inside and out, the town buzzes quietly below and both Mount Hood and Mount St. Helens are visible. There are ample outdoor seating areas to rest and take in the view for as long as you wish to linger.