The Mysterious (Historic? Curious? Enigmatic?) Brier Place Trench

A little-noticed manmade feature in our neighborhood offers an intriguing confluence of 19th-century trolley history and the modern-day sewage system. And if the so-called Brier Trench is preserved, it may one day provide a historical trail and overlook.

The trench, shown here in green, is located between Barbur Blvd and the I-5 freeway:

Brier Trench location marked in green on modern Apple Map

The street, Brier Place, is just a developed, paved, continuation of the trench at this altitude.


The Metropolitan Railway Company (MRC)

It is believed that the Brier Trench was dug in 1889 for the tracks of the Metropolitan Railway Company (MRC) electric trolley. Portlanders and visitors rode the MRC through this trench for about ten years, beginning January 1, 1890.

Astonishing Google StreetView image of the Brier Place Trench, where an electric trolley came up into Fulton Park.

You need to see this to believe it.

History

The Portland-Fulton·Park-Cemeteries electric trolley ran from Portland, traversing the hillside above Johns Landing, crossing trestles and passing through similar cuts to "Fulton Park", where there was a 32'x120' wood-burning power plant, trolley barn, and dormitory. The power plant was located approximately where home plate is now on the ball field behind the Fulton Park School.

The Trolley crossing a trestle near SW Seymour St & Slavin Rd. OHS Photo. Photographer Unknown.

Beginning Memorial Day 1891, the trolley line was extended from Fulton Park over a 900' trestle (Not the trestle shown above!) to what is now South Burlingame, then went through Collins View to Greenwood Hills and upper River View Cemeteries. No photos showing the aforementioned trestle have been uncovered.

Fulton Park, Then and Now

"Fulton Park" at the time was not a park, but an attempted real estate development, billed as the "Greatest Building Enterprise Ever Inaugurated in the World". The planned development included areas above the Town of Fulton on the river, plus all of what is now South Burlingame, and an area along Terwilliger over to Beaverton-Hillsdale highway. Unfortunately, the economy stalled, and the development was a bust. The city parks bureau acquired what is now the Community Gardens. The school was part of the Portland School System until it became a community center managed by Portland Parks.. Now it is leased by a French immersion grade school.

Other than houses built during that period, the trench is the only other vestige of this enterprise. I-5 obliterated most of the MRC Right-of-Way between the trench and approximately SW Seymour St & Slavin Rd.

A Reporter's account of the inaugural trip through the trench

Here is the Morning Oregonian account of the inaugural run of the Metropolitan, made on Wednesday, January 1, 1890:

Oregonian account of passing through trench (legible text below!)

For easier reading, here is a transcription:

"Turning down Grant street, Front was soon reached, and the cars bowled across the high bridges to Gibbs street, down which they went to Corbett, and soon reached the city limits. Beyond this (the present S.W. Hamilton street) the road runs down a grade and through a deep cut into the timber, and then across a high trestle and through many more heavy cuts, and up a long grade, and finally out on the brow of the hill, along which it follows a little below the O&C line, to the power house in Fulton Park. For the last mile or so there is a beautiful view of the gardens along the White House road, the town of Fulton, the Willamette river and country beyond, extending to the Cascades, with Mt. Hood looming grandly in the distance."

For more of these kinds of articles, see the References below.

The End of the F-Line

The MRC F-Line Electric Trolley ran till 1899 when the line was abandoned.

The iron tracks, power lines, poles, ties, and trestles were no doubt removed and reused elsewhere, probably to build out the City & Suburban (N-S Line) the following year. The N-S Line originated in North Portland, passed through the city, then went along Corbett, Nebraska, Virginia, and finally up a short stretch of Taylors Ferry to the lower northwest extent of River View Cemetery. This new route was at a lower elevation, but still managed to reach River View Cemetery.

You can read about the MRC's Portland-Fulton·Park-Cemeteries (F) line, and the N-S line on a web site devoted to researching the two trolleys that went to southwest cemeteries. References to the Trolley Project are below.

Going down through the Trench?

If you go...

The Trench is a continuation of SW Brier Place, northward, alongside Barbur Blvd. To view the trench, walk, bus, or drive to the Fulton Park School on SW Miles. Walk on SW Brier Place toward Barbur. At Barbur, Brier Place turns north. Keep on walking down hill.

If you do go to Fulton Park you can also admire two houses that existed when the trolley passed through. One house was built down along the trench, back in the day. The paved portion has six houses of various ages. 7010 SW Brier Pl was built in 1890! Over toward the school, 85 SW Miles was likewise built in 1890.

If you Really do go...

Be advised, as you start down through the trench on foot, you may encounter various items that have been thrown off Barbur Blvd, which is just above the trench — for example a tire, or a discarded sofa bed.

Nice Sofa for Lounging, anyone?

Moving further along, we find -- A Modern Sewer??

Not very far along, you will come to a sewer manhole cover.

Manhole Number XXX? Photo Jan 8, 2021

What?

The Trench lay quietly for a quarter century, when in 1925 a city sewer project capitalized on the existing trench, likely disturbing any rail bed material (ballast).

The 95-year-old plans for the sewer have very little info

No records of the actual sewer construction project remain, other than the obligatory line drawings of sewer cross-sections, etc.

This particular sewer line was scheduled for maintenance in 2023. Oops. Now more likely Summer 2024. See FUTURE below.

At the End of the Trench

The trench abruptly ends in thin air, probably where a trestle connected to the other side of the Vermont ravine... I-5 has altered the landscape. In fact, the Metropolitan right-of-way was used by a later electric railroad, and then essentially obliterated by I-5. Progress marches on.

At this point, the sewer line goes steeply down into the Vermont ravine, to join a main sewer line that was buried by I-5. A stormwater pipe line also goes down the ravine and under I-5. (To protect I-5!)

Overlooking I-5 — and Mount Hood

Imagine..

It is really amazing to stand at this point, overlooking I-5 and Mount Hood. Imagine electric trolley riders in 1890's taking in this view!


From the end of the Trench one can see the EXIT sign on I-5 for Terwilliger Blvd. Also from here one can see Barbur Blvd going over the Vermont Viaduct. This is similar to the IOWA (Newbury) viaduct that SW Trails #5 passes under (further north on Barbur).

Looking up at Barbur going over the Vermont Viaduct

Unfortunately, this place has been a homeless camp for years, with layers of detritus. "Campers" can scramble down from Barbur to the viewpoint (rather than coming down through the trench). Sometimes there is a camper under the bridge. Note shopping carts in the ivy.

This site and the trench has been mostly cleaned, perhaps as a result of recent survey work by the city. Hopefully more restoration can be done by volunteers.

One can bush whack down into ravine. But beware of ivy-covered old wire fencing of the type used all along I-5 in the 1950's. This is not at all recommended! If you go down into and work your way up through the ravine, you'd come up at the SASQUATCH VIEWING AREA on Terwilliger Blvd. So watch out!

The FUTURE -- in progress

The sewer line may undergo an upgrade in Summer 2024. Interestingly, the work will be non-intrusive - no trenching. A contractor will insert a flexible liner into the existing sewer pipe through a maintenance hole. The liner will be hardened to seal cracks and form a new smooth pipe. [See CIPP in References.]

A new SW Trail? A down & back trail to the viewpoint would be a pretty easy project. A loop down the trench into the ravine and up to Terwilliger Blvd would be cool, but fairly ambitious. It would complement the existing SW Trails system... imagine being able to walk from Fulton Park (eg SW Trail #5) down the through the trench and up the ravine to Terwilliger at Nebraska -- without crossing Barbur or a single stop sign!

A simple 'Trolley Trench' path could be a side trip, part of a multi-mile 'Trolley Walk' retracing the MRC and N-S Lines.

How about a clean up event after the sewer project is completed?

References

Editor's Note

All contemporary Photos by J Miller. Written and edited by J Miller and CD Stowell. Extensive research by CD Stowell. Intrepid trench explorer: J Miller.

While researching how an electric trolley could have arrived in Greenwood Hills Cemetery, we pieced together old maps, historic accounts, etc. We snooped around a lot. Through a process of elimination, we focused on the strip of land between the freeway and Barbur Blvd. Street View showed that SW Brier PL seemed to continue into the wilderness, so we checked it out on foot. After a moment I realized we were looking into the past. Simply put, it was breathtaking. Date: January 3, 2021. —JM

When I learned of a project to upgrade this sewer line, I wrote to the Bureau of Environmental Services (BES) to let them know that this trench has historical significance, and ask that the sewer crew be made aware of this in any planning. I then set about documenting the historical context for BES, resulting in this article for the blog. —JM

Folklore in Johns Landing says that a street car went up the "Corbett Ramp". No streetcar went up the ramp. See Special Features via the Trolley Project page (in References above).

We believe there may be another remnant of this trench just below old Slavin Road, above the freeway. Campers have also inhabited that area.

This trench would make a really nice Trolley Trail, with interpretive signage at the entrance. I'm afraid however, that the viewpoint will continue to be trashed.

We Repeat: We do not recommend going down the trench alone! You can however walk to the beginning of the trench and look down it... go only as far as you are comfortable, like to the log fallen down across the way. (It almost like it was felled to keep anyone from driving down in there. ??)

Anything else?

Questions for Our Readers

Exercise: When driving I-5 North, before the curve, before the Terwilliger Exit, look up to the right. The trench is up there. It's also to your right went traveling on Barbur Blvd, past the light at SW 3rd & Miles. Imagine it. See map.

Comments submitted on this article

Comments will appear here — To be curated from Nextdoor, then posted a week or so after article is published. (At this time, we don't support commenting directly on the blog.)


Question in Email: Why the trench?

Answer: Good Question! When you are putting down train tracks, if the ground is level you are happy. When there is a dip (ravine) crossing the direction you are going, you build a trestle over it. When there is some unavoidable earth in the way, you have to make a trench. In open places, like over at Greenwood Hills Cemetery, you can just follow the contour of the land to stay at the same level or do a gradual climb or descent.

In the case of the traverse of the hillside above Johns Landing, they had to build about 5 trestles, and do a little trenching. The ascent up into Fulton Park was via that trench.


How this Blog Post should be (was) described on Social Media

Read about a local curiosity - a trench that was dug for an electric trolley, that now holds a sewer line, that someday could become a fun interpretive trail.