Condensed History of the Cully Neighborhood

  Condensed History of the Cully Neighborhood

(and North to the Columbia River, now Portland International Airport)

Susan Nelson, 4 / 2019

In the annals of time, the Cully Neighborhood was probably a hunting and gathering area for the native peoples who lived in villages along both banks of the Columbia River.  The indigenous people, who inhabited the shores of the river for 10,000 years or more, were virtually gone from our area by 1855.  They had no name for themselves but anthropologists call them Chinookans because they spoke a language closely related to that of their Chinook  (pronounced “chin-ook,” not “shin-ook”) cousins on the coast.  By that time, those who survived the plagues of smallpox, malaria and measles were sent to the Grand Ronde Reservation.

While they were here, the Columbia River and its seasonal wetland sustained them.  To the native inhabitants, the river was their source of food, transportation, trade, culture and religion.  The Indians’ forced resettlement to areas “less bothersome” to the newcomers took them away from the river and ended the life they had known for millennia.  In the mid-1840s, European and Euro-American farmers began populating the southern edges of the Columbia Slough.  The Columbia River, to the white settlers who replaced the Indians, meant transportation and a fertile floodplain for crops and livestock grazing.

The white colonialists’ hold on the land was codified by the Donation Land Act of 1850 and other federal land grants.  Land was available free to white or “half-breed” men 18 years or older – or to a husband and wife, if married - providing they lived on and improved the land for 5 years.  The original Donation Land claimants of our neighborhood were Anthony and Isabella Whitaker, Thomas and Rebecca Cully and William Hall.  Between the present Cully neighborhood boundaries (the northern Slough) and the Columbia River, Gideon Millard, and Henry Holtgrieve made claims under the Donation Land Act.   Other, different land claims and purchases within our neighborhood boundaries were made by Isaac Rennison, Isaac Hill, Lorenzo Hill, Terrence Monaghan, John Toohill, Henry Swift, and Charles Burrage.

Land Claims in Cully 1800s. Credit Susan Nelson

All of these early immigrants came from either the eastern United States or the British Isles.  By far, the majority of what is now the Cully Neighborhood, was occupied by the square-mile land claims of the Whitakers and the Cullys.  Most of the early land claimants sold their land within 10 years of their claim.

The earliest maps of northeast Portland, drawn by the first surveyors in 1852, show only two beaten tracks in our area.  Columbia Slough Road (now Columbia Boulevard) and Cully Road (now Cully Boulevard) were the first overland transportation routes between the Columbia Slough land claims and the infant towns of Portland, Milwaukie and bustling Oregon City.  Cully Road was built as a straight connection from the Slough to the Road-to-the-mouth-of-the-Sandy- River (now Sandy Boulevard).  It may have taken its original alignment from an Indian trail.

Oregon was granted statehood in 1859.  The state’s constitution as well as the laws of the Provisional and Territorial governments that preceded it, was written by the new settlers; these men were white, agriculturally-minded, independent and with enough means to be able to forgo a crop season while they traveled the Oregon Trail.  They were like minded and their laws discouraged those unlike themselves.  So the Provincial, Territorial and State laws explicitly and deliberately denied rights of ownership and sometimes even residency, to Chinese, Pacific Islanders and African Americans.

Our region was called “Cully” long before it became an official neighborhood, probably in reference to the road that cuts diagonally through it, a road that was doubtless named by and built by the Cully family.  The only evidence we have of the location of Thomas Cully’s residence is a public notice that was posted, at various locations along Columbia Road, including at the Cully homestead.  Since Cully Road most certainly led to the Cully farmhouse, its location was probably at the intersection of Cully Road and Columbia Slough Road.

Thomas Cully was born in England.  We don’t know when he immigrated to America but we do know he followed the Oregon Trail across the plains and down the Columbia River, arriving in late 1845.  After recording and voiding three prior land claims made under the rules of the Provisional Government, he settled on the Columbia Slough, where he lived until his death in 1891.  His land claim was entirely north of Killingsworth.

Thomas Cully was a stonemason as well as a farmer; he built the first chimney in Portland for the home of Francis Pettygrove near the corner of SW First and Washington.  Although nothing remains of the Pettygrove home, Cully’s brick 1884 commercial building still graces MLK Blvd at SE Oak.

Photograph of Thomas Cully, his wife Rebecca, and his first three children. The girl on the left is unknown. Credit Shiena and Culley Polehn.

Thomas Cully’s young wife, Rebecca Jones, was also an Oregon Trail pioneer.  She arrived in 1847 with her family when she was only 12.  Thomas and Rebecca raised 14 children in their homestead along the Slough.  After Mr. Cully’s death, his daughter Christina managed the farm and what became the Boulevard Dairy on Columbia Boulevard.  (An audio clip on the dairy is available on the Oral History Project section of the CAN website). Thomas Cully is buried in Lone Fir Pioneer Cemetery in SE Portland.  Rebecca is buried with her second husband, Henry Meyer, in Columbia Pioneer Cemetery at the juncture of NE Killingsworth and Sandy Blvd.

Anthony and Isabella Whitaker arrived in the Oregon Territory in 1846, after many long months on the Oregon Trail with their first of four children (born on the trail) and a year in California. Their land claim covered NE 45th to 65th, just west of the Cullys’ and wrapped around a lake that was later drained; the Oregon National Guard property now sits atop that drained lake bed.  Surveyor field notes identify the location of the Whitaker homestead in the industrial area north of Columbia Boulevard.  Anthony Whitaker, an Irishman, was trained as a carpenter; his trade certainly came in handy in building a home for his family.  Isabella Whitaker, born in Scotland, started the first school in the Columbia Slough district in 1861 on an acre of the Whitaker claim.  This and five subsequent schools, all in the Cully Neighborhood, bore the name  “Whitaker.”  Our present-day Whitaker Ponds Nature Park, accessed from NE 47th Avenue, is a reminder of this family’s legacy.   Anthony Whitaker died in 1900; his and his wife’s remains lie in Lone Fir Pioneer Cemetery.

Records show that William Hall arrived in 1851.  His land claim of ½ of a square mile spreads west from NE 45th Avenue into the Concordia Neighborhood.  Mr. Hall must have stayed just long enough to get legal title to the land; he soon thereafter moved to Washington County.  He and his wife, Christiana, are buried in the Hillsboro Pioneer Cemetery.

Another early settler and school teacher at Mrs. Whitaker’s school purchased the west half of Henry Swift’s land claim and made a permanent imprint on the neighborhood.  Sylvester Paddock built a house in 1870 that stands yet today.  He and his wife, Harriet, raised 9 boys, including several who stayed on the property well into the mid 20th century.  A large number of descendants still live in the Portland area and some elders remember the boys.   The Paddock House, just north of Alberta on Cully Boulevard, is the oldest house in the neighborhood.  For more information on this vintage farmhouse, listen to a story recounted by an owner of the Paddock House in the Oral History Project section of this website.

The land north of Columbia Blvd, and in particular, the land north of the Columbia Slough, lay in a natural floodplain so it was rich in alluvial soil.  Until 1919 when a dike was built along the south shore of the Columbia River, the area north of the Slough flooded at least once a year.  The dike made the farmland more usable.  Before 1900, property was minimally subdivided.  The dairymen and truck farmers who populated the area came from many different cultures but with a dominance of Swiss-German, Italian and, to a much lesser extent, Japanese.  Horse-drawn wagons or trucks brought cabbages, pole beans and potatoes from Cully to the Yamhill Public Market in downtown Portland and also to some local markets. Old-timers tell of fruit and vegetable stands lining much of Columbia Boulevard, but they probably clustered more to the west and east of our neighborhood than within our boundaries.

During the first half of the 20th century, the automobile increasingly became standard equipment of the progressive American family, pushing development away from the central city out along arterial spokes.  Cully became one of the outer “automobile suburbs” in the 1920s.  Single-family homes were built here-and-there south of State Highway 30.  About 1939, Lombard, which terminated west of NE 42nd, was extended east to Killingsworth; the new segment was christened “NE Portland Highway.”

The death knell of the floodplain farms came when, in 1936, the then new Portland Airport outgrew its limited runways on Swan Island.  Land from the Columbia Slough north to the Columbia River was chosen as the best location.  Remaining wetlands vanished as drains were hand dug all around the new site.  The airport’s eminent domain authority forced houses north of the Columbia Slough to be moved to new locations in the nearby Cully neighborhood.  NE 47nd Avenue that at one time provided access to the Fazio pickle processing plant, but now passes Whitaker Ponds Nature Park and Wood Waste Management, was the original road to the Portland Airport terminal.

Development came in earnest after World War II.  Couples, united in a now peaceful world, decided it was time to marry and start a family.  Lots in Cully were subdivided and developed; houses were available at reasonable prices with generous back yards for children and gardens.  For those who couldn’t yet afford a house, a few scattered apartment buildings were built.  Trailer parks provided refuge for the truly budget conscious.  Commercial areas blossomed along Cully Boulevard and NE 42nd Avenue, servicing the locals.  Mom and Pop grocery stores and numerous service stations dotted the landscape.

World War II was also a keystone period for the land north of Lombard Street, and in particular, north of Columbia Boulevard.  In the late 1940s, the dairy industry began requiring pasteurization and other regulations that small dairies couldn’t afford. Interest in farming subsided, as the sons and daughters of farmers saw that they could make more money with less effort in mechanized industries – a lesson from the shipbuilding mania.

As farms were sold, the land along Columbia Boulevard became more valuable for industry. Columbia Boulevard was paved and then widened, taking with it the front yards of remaining houses.  The proximity of the railroad and Highway 30 made that arterial ideal for businesses that moved goods in and out of the city.  Displacement probably happened in a spotty, checkerboard fashion, until the farms were gone and businesses centering around commercial transportation equipment gradually took over.  Industrial businesses, mostly truck and construction equipment related, adopted old farmhouses for their offices, or simply demolished them, changing the character of the highway entirely.


South of Columbia Boulevard and north of Alberta, farmettes consisting of filbert and fruit tree orchards, berry fields and poultry barns, tiny dairies and horse pastures shrank and then disappeared.  The large, non-standard residential lots remained.  So did the unpaved roads, the lack of sidewalks and storm sewers.  Gradually, the city of Portland absorbed parts of the neighborhood culminating in its complete annexation in 1985.

Cully Annexation by Decades. Credit Portland City Archives

At that time, Cully had city water but not city sewer.  Residents were forced to pay high prices to decommission their septic systems and replace them with connections to sewer lines in the streets.   Even now, in 2019, few Cully streets are equipped with storm sewers and sidewalks.  Many are still gravel and poorly lighted.

A dramatic change came to the Cully Neighborhood in 2004.  Mrs. Kathy Fuerstenau was then voted as Chair of the Cully Association of Neighbors (CAN) and remained so until 2015.  During that time, she invited Mayors Tom Potter and Sam Adams to tour the neighborhood, and then brought each of the city councilors to speak at neighborhood meetings.  Through her, Cully became noticed as an underdog that needed, deserved, and then received the attention of the city.  Her leadership also stirred the enthusiasm of the neighbors and dramatically increased attendance at CAN meetings.

With the attention of the Portland City Council, park space increased dramatically.  The one small, undeveloped park in the neighborhood, Sacajawea Park, was enlarged.  Khunamokwst Park was completely developed from a private lot purchased by the city with traditional and nature-based play structures, a skate dot and picnic area.  Twenty-five acre Thomas Cully Park transformed a former landfill with truckload after truckload of soil into a 3-dimensional play area; 2 soccer fields; garden space for community members; a native plant gathering garden envisioned by the Cully neighborhood Native American Youth and Family Center and 12 additional acres reserved for future sports fields and a parking lot.  The privately owned Colwood Golf Course, through the encouragement of Cully residents and neighbor testimonials at the Portland City Council, retained most of its “Open Space” zoning status and was purchased by the city. In 2014, the former 18-hole golf course was downsized and now focuses on drawing beginning players into the sport.  The remaining acres of grass and trees will continue to be undeveloped.

The Cully Neighborhood, in 2010, encompassed the most ethnically and culturally diverse census tract in the state, a fact that has not been lost on neighborhood residents.  In recent years, the Cully Neighborhood has embraced social justice and its own ethnic, racial and economic diversity.  An infamous adult club was purchased, razed and is planned for a structure offering 141 affordable residential units.  Sidewalks along Cully Boulevard now connect low-income housing to a grocery store.  Neighbors have joined to support residents in trailer parks and elders living alone. The Cully Neighborhood has also been the only neighborhood in all of Portland to receive two Neighborhood Prosperity Initiative (NPI) zone grants.  Both the 42nd Avenue and the Cully Boulevard Alliance NPIs strive to support business development that benefits the local residents.      


Change has definitely arrived for Cully.  But the most obvious and unique visual feature of the Cully Neighborhood that remains from its early days is its large lots.  Over the past 150 years, the area has evolved from large farms to small farms to homes on large lots to homes with large gardens and small urban farms.  Chickens and goats and a good many coyotes now share this area that realtors and residents alike like to call “a little country in the city.’’

Partial History of Thomas Cully