Throughout the history of Portland, there have always been different reasons to map the city from the early days of just keeping track of who owned what (especially after the 1850 federal Donation Land Claim Act) through the era when maps were used primarily for transportation purposes, to today’s need for visitors to access the city in a meaningful way and find great things to do. This post has to do with the former of these three topics, when the land went from marshy wetlands into a thriving town center at the edge of the continent. Of course none of this would be possible without help from our friends at the Oregon Historical Society (

Early Portland maps include the Lownsdale map, dated sometime in the late 1840s. At this point one of the early city founder Daniel Lownsdale had just purchased most of the city with a large quantity of leather from his tannery on the west edge of town. Here he accounted for who resided where, and where the features of the growing downtown could be located related to each other. This plan was what was used when Portland was officially incorporated in 1851.

A curiosity to us today is that if you look closely at the notes along the measurements done all over this map, you’ll notice a unit of measurement that you don’t see very often. The City of Portland in this source is measured in ‘chains’. A ‘chain’ is equal to 22 yards or 66 feet, and was useful in measuring things longer than yards but shorter than miles. If you look closely to the right side of the map, you’ll notice that the Northern boundary (with the property of Captain Couch) is measured at 92 52 chains from the waterfront to the spring of Tanner Creek.

Now, if you measure out 9,252 chains, it will work out to about 116 miles, which will put us well out into the Pacific Ocean. However, if we take that value as 92.52, then that leads us to 1.16 miles, which is the actual distance from the river to the base of the West Hills. It appears that there was a time before people regularly used decimal points, and that Lownsdale found it appropriate to just leave a small gap to denote the different tens spots. Presumably his audience knew what he was trying to convey, or Portland might have been mostly inhabited by sea lions and kelp.

After Portland was incorporated, there were a slew of maps from the late 19th century from the City Surveyor in 1866 through various development interests. In the picture of W. Burrage’s map, you can see the names there of many of our earliest Portlanders, many of which can be found on the streets of Portland today. Of course, we can also note the development of the East side of the river throughout the maps. East Portland was a separate town until annexation in 1891. There around 12th Avenue, we can also see the famous “Lunatic Asylum Grounds,” where Dr. Hawthorne did his compassionate work.

Here we also have a small collection of the ornate map titles that were done during these times. It was great to see people’s pride in the growing township as they created such beautiful, flowing titles. Next time, we will look at maps from the first half of the 20th century.