Portland decades: the 1930s

To say times were tough would be a vast understatement, but the City of Roses persevered, surviving economic and social struggles.

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Cast-iron buildings line Front Avenue in this photo taken in 1939.

Photo by Minor White via Oregon Historical Society

The dawn of the 20th century’s third decade was rife with hardships. As the prosperity of the Roaring Twenties soured under the onset of the Great Depression, Americans were forced to muddle through years of economic strain and restructuring.

Portland wasn’t immune to the Great Plains’ misfortune; development slowed, unemployment skyrocketed, and New Deal programs worked to rekindle the American Dream. It was a time of unprecedented difficulty — and yet, Portland endured.

Population: 301,815

Mayors: George L. Baker (1917-1933), Joseph K. Carson (1933-1940)

1930 — Portland high schools started selecting a Rose Festival princess from their senior classes.

1931 — A young orca swam into the Columbia Slough, attracting widespread local attention for two weeks as local leaders debated its fate, but the creature ultimately met a tragic end. Its remains are buried in Clark County.

1932 — Veterans led by Sgt. Walter W. Waters amassed in Portland under a political movement dubbed the Bonus Army, then headed east to Washington, DC, where they unsuccessfully petitioned Congress to pay their enlistment bonus 10 years early.

1933 — The “Great Renumbering” effort to mark every house and business with an official address was completed after nearly two years of steady work, eliminating longstanding confusion — particularly for postal workers.

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Banners and wires crisscrossed Portland streets in 1937.

Photo via Portland City Archives

1934 — On the morning of May 9, more than 12,000 union workers with the International Longshoremen’s Association sparked a months-long strike up and down the West Coast, bringing commerce to its knees and costing some 15,000 Portlanders their jobs.

1935 — As growing pains overwhelmed Portland’s still-new Swan Island Municipal Airport (and modern aircraft were barred from using it), the city of Portland went looking for a solution, purchasing 700 acres along the Columbia River.

1936 — A German cruiser flying a Nazi flag sailed into Portland on a training tour where it remained moored for over a week, marking the ship’s only US mainland stop; officers met with local leaders while crewmembers played soccer and attended events organized in their honor.

1937 — Charles Ray Jordan was born on Sept. 1 in Texas and would later become the first Black person elected to Portland City Council.

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The Bonneville Dam is named after Army Capt. Benjamin Bonneville who is credited with blazing parts of the Oregon Trail.

1938 — Construction on Bonneville Dam was completed by the US Army Corps of Engineers at a cost of $52 million, creating 3,000 jobs and boosting the aluminum industry, which in turn supported the production of airplanes for WWII.

1939 — The Works Progress Administration hired a young Minor White to photograph Portland’s numerous, ornate cast iron buildings before many were demolished in the name of progress; White would go on to become one of the most celebrated photographers of the century.