When one of my coffee shop buddies invited me to joint him and a few friends on a bike tour of Swan Island, I gladly accepted. The ride on the next morning was exactly right for a hot summer day: a slow and easy ride filled with interesting things to see and experience.
Swan Island is a sandy spit of land in the Willamette River eight miles upstream from the river’s confluence with the Columbia and close to downtown Portland, Oregon. In the middle 1800s, it was an island with shallow channels on both sides. In order to develop shipping capabilities in the Port of Portland, a deeper channel was dredged on the western side of the island and the excavated material was used to fill in the eastern passage and connect the island to the mainland.
Our guide assured us that the river remembers how it used to be, and when a 500-year flood comes, the river will reclaim its previous right of way.
From 1927 to 1940, the city’s airport was on Swan Island. During World War II, one of the nation’s most productive ship building operations flourished on the island. Today, 70 year’s after the war came to an end, major dry dock repair facilities and ship building operations continue. Other industries maintain major facilities on the island, including Daimler, Cummins, Georgia Pacific, and the Union Pacific Railroad. Major construction of new facilities is currently in progress.
Access to Swan Island is by way of N. Going Street, which is heavily travelled and not friendly to cyclists. On the island itself, motorists sometimes exceed 80 miles per hour as they blast their way along Channel, Lagoon, and Basin Streets, the short, multi-lane arterials that provide access to the manufacturing facilities and office buildings. 11,000 people come to Swan Island on working days.
Fortunately, there is a wide sidewalk on Going Street and sidewalks along the three Island streets. Furthermore, a network of trails suitable for easy but interesting cycling is being developed. They offer the best view of Portland’s traditional harbor-related industrial might that I have seen.
There were only five of us on the tour; we were gray-bearded old men on an interesting array of interesting bicycles. Our guide knew the territory, having spent most of his working career on Swan Island. Currently, he devotes much of his attention to npGREENWAY, an organization that is developing trails through North Portland, with frequent access to the Willamette River, from the Esplanade at the Steel Bridge near downtown to the Columbia 10 miles distant.
The website includes maps of the projected system of trails.
Although I have been closely connected to Portland for more than 70 years, this was the first time I have ever been on Swan Island. During World War II, my dad worked in a shipyard located there. In more recent times, a family friend from Indianapolis spent several years as an executive with one of the Swan Island industries.
For several years my parents in law lived on the bluff overlooking the Island and adjacent industrial land on the eastern bank of the Willamette. The smell of creosote from Mock’s Bottom still comes to mind when I drive or bicycle along the crest on Willamette Boulevard that goes past the house where they lived.
I stopped to have my picture taken in front of a sign for Cummins Engine Company. For generations the family that developed and controlled this company included Butler University and Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis among the many religious and cultural causes that they supported. I and two of my children are graduates of Butler and I spent most of my career on the faculty of the seminary.
In order to leave Swan Island, our group of cyclists used the Maud Bluff Trail that was opened March 14, 2013. According to an article by Jonathan Maus, this project cost $3.2. Financial support included a grant from a Congressional earmark that Representative Earl Blumenauer had made. The trail itself is 1,700 feet long and includes a steep footbridge over Union Pacific tracks. This part of the bluff hosts the northern-most Madrone-Oak habitat in the Willamette Valley, which persists because the steep hillside faces in a direction that is bathed in direct sunlight much of the day.
My long-time habit is to be a solo cyclist who pushes hard, taking only an occasional break. I will continue that kind of riding most of the time, but mornings like this one—easy going, with congenial companions, riding in a place of historic interest, with a well-informed guide—will become increasingly important as I move forward into a new phase of my life as an open road cyclist.
(Photos by A. J. Zelada; used with permission)