As anyone who has ever lived on a hill can attest, going anywhere when you’re short on time can be a pain. Winding roads and switchback paths are better than rolling straight down out of control, but they take a while to traverse. Such was the dilemma in the late 1800s for some residents of Oregon City who lived between Washington Street and the bluffs overlooking the Willamette River.
At the time, pedestrians who did business on Main Street could walk down a steep wagon road or Native American trails at the base of 7th Street, or they could use one of four sets of wooden stairs set into the cliffs. The main route required a climb up 722 steps — but who wants to walk up that many steps at the end of a workday?
So after three years of planning, city officials came up with a creative solution: an elevator.
The original contraption was made of wood + steel in 1915 to the tune of $12,000 and was powered by water from nearby Singer Creek. Nearly the entire town (with the exception of some wealthy residents living on the bluff who opposed a public means of transportation near their properties) turned out on the day of its grand opening for the chance to take the three-minute ride to the top.
Fun fact: Each time the elevator was activated, the water pressure in nearby houses would drop for three full minutes — probably not a fun time for anyone in the middle of taking a shower. But that inconvenience was nothing compared to what happened when the elevator stopped working. On those occasions, passengers trapped inside were forced to wriggle through a trap door and climb down a narrow ladder. Uh, no thanks.
This went on until about 1924 when the hydraulic power was replaced by electrical motors, cutting the ride time down to just 30 seconds. A $175,000 bond measure funded a replacement elevator (that you can see and experience today), which was finished in 1955 and included the creation of a covered observation deck. It took more than 751 tons of concrete and steel to build the 130-ft lift, which now takes a zippy 15 seconds to transport passengers up and down.
Today, the Oregon City Municipal Elevator is one of four municipal elevators in the world + “Elevator Street,” as the route is called, is the only vertical street in North America because it’s essentially a continuation of 7th Street. It’s also listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
You can visit the elevator and take a ride for free Mon. + Tues. from 7 a.m.-7 p.m., Wed.-Sat. from 7 a.m.-9:30 p.m., and Sunday from 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Pro tip: Just north of the elevator, you’ll find a flight of gently inclining steps up the bluff that provide access to Singer Creek Falls — the water source that not only powered the original lift, but also a flour mill owned by a man named William Singer in the 1880s and 1890s.