Since reading John R. Stilgoe’s Outside Lies Magic, I’ve been waiting for a good day to explore a forgotten place on my bicycle. On his blog, Red Electric, Rick Seifert has suggested just the place: old Slavin Road in South Portland. This meager, partially abandoned street meanders through a gully on the east side of Barbur Boulevard just south of downtown Portland and then heads west into Hillsdale Village where John A. Slavin, his wife Emma Ross Slavin, and their family lived more than a century ago.
Slavin was born of Irish stock in Kentucky in 1825 and came to the Portland community when he was twenty-four. He acquired a large tract of land south of Portland and built a small house. In 1864, he built a big house at the intersection of what is now Sunset Boulevard and Capitol Highway at the top of the ridge in Hillsdale.
When my family moved to the Hillsdale-Multnomah community in 1941, the section of Capitol Highway that runs from Hillsdale down to Barbur Boulevard was still called by its old name, Slavin Road. For seventy years I’ve wondered what old Slavin Road below Barbur Boulevard was like, but as far as I can remember I’ve never been down there.
A reasonably warm, almost bright November day, was the time to explore. I cycled south on Barbur, turned east on Hamilton Street at the Adventist Church, and took an immediate right onto View Point Terrace. In a short distance, it takes a right angle turn to the left onto Seymour. Just before Seymour reaches Corbett Avenue, Slavin Road takes off to the right. I think that at an earlier time, Slavin Road continued toward Portland on the course that now bears the Corbett name.
Remembering Stilgoe’s advice, I rode at an easy pace as the road twists its way along the lower edge of the right of way that the Southern Pacific Railroad constructed a century ago and which in the 1930s became Barbur Boulevard. Some of the dwellings probably date from the years after World War I, but more recently built two- and three-story apartment complexes have filled in vacant spaces. Through breaks between houses and trees, I could see Interstate 5 and the Willamette River off to the left.
After perhaps a mile, I reached the barricade where the road is permanently closed. Co-Motion and I walked around the barricade and then I continued riding into the darkening forest, with a thickening carpet of fall leaves obscuring the rough blacktop surface of the road. A short distance later, in a wide space, the road completely stopped. A trail overgrown with tree roots marks what I took to be its continuation. Time to turn back.
I retraced my route to Barbur Boulevard and continued riding south to the spot where Slavin Road used to come out of the gully and head up the hill toward Hillsdale. Although access is blocked by a ten-feet high chain link fence, the old paved road is still there for a couple of hundred yards. Following Seifert’s instructions, I walked back a little distance, and there the art he described shines on the concrete retaining wall that supports the Southern Pacific-Barbur Boulevard right of way.
Not good enough for the Portland Art Museum, I readily admit, but well worth the time of a bicycle explorer on a cloudy afternoon.
Stilgoe was right. Bicycling is a liberal art.