History of the Portland Rose Festival

A black and white image of four horses pulling a float past hundreds of people.
Horses pull a Japanese-themed float in the 1908 Rose Festival parade. | Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Wake up and smell the roses, Portland — the city’s biggest festival of the year is almost here. The Portland Rose Festival bursts into bloom this Fri., May 27 — ushering in parades, fireworks, and century-old traditions to the City of Roses. 

We’ve already told you a bit about the city’s rose garden history, but that story is intertwined with the festival that shares a name with the fairest of flowers. Let’s jump back in time to the turn of the 20th century. 

During a speech at the Lewis and Clark Exposition in 1905, Portland Mayor Harry Lane said that the city should have an annual “festival of roses.” The idea germinated + came to fruition in 1907 with the inaugural Rose Festival. That year’s parade was a marvelous hit because it featured illuminated floats pulled by an electric trolley system at a time when electricity was still a novelty for most people. 

A promotional poster from 1910
A poster advertising the 1910 Portland Rose Festival. | Photo via Oregon State Archives

Pageantry dates back to that first festival, too, when Carrie Lee Chamberlain, the daughter of Oregon’s then-governor, was crowned queen. Portland even crowned some kings in the early years (one of whom rode an elephant in the parade) before — permanently — bending the knee for a queen in 1914. 

Some events from the early days of the Rose Festival have since gone to seed, like the chariot + harness races of 1909. But many of the original traditions remain: the electric parade is now the Starlight Parade, the Grand Floral Parade is still the signature event, and local queens still reign — but now they hail from local high schools. 

In its long history, the Rose Festival has only been canceled a few times over war worries, construction conflicts, and most recently, COVID-19. All of the events will return in 2022 after a two-year hiatus, and we can’t wait to see the city in full bloom once more.