Neighborhood Histories

Neighborhood Histories (NH)

Lake Oswego’s History

Lake Oswego’s history is unique. Within the span of a lifetime the ugly-duckling, Oregon town became a swan. Historic buildings are often adapted to a new use, but rarely is an entire town reinvented.

Herbert Letcher Nelson recalled the Fourth of July in 1910 when he rowed the principals of the Oregon Iron & Steel Company to Lake Grove, “I think on that date the Ladds and the Corbetts had that picnic for a special purpose. It was to see if anything could be done with Oswego Lake, to see if it was worth anything. At that time it had been so neglected, so ignored and forgotten that they probably wondered if it was worth anything or not.”

Lakeshore lots that were practically given away almost a century ago are now among the most expensive real estate in Oregon. Multi-million dollar mansions have taken the place of unassuming summer cottages. Gone are the population fluctuations that spiked in the summer months. Between 1880 and 2000, population increased from 97 to 35,278. The city has grown from a single neighborhood to over twenty-five.

Change is encapsulated in the succession of watercraft on the lake.  One of the first were John Trullinger’s steam scows, the Minnehaha and the Henrietta, which were used to ferry wheat and passengers followed by canoes, rowboats, real estate launches, wooden motorboats, and powerboats. The activities on the lake and its shores also transitioned from milling, mining, and logging, to fishing, sailing, swimming, and water-skiing. All of these progressions signaled a move from industry to leisure.

The Ladd Estate Company changed our local vocabulary by changing “Sucker” to “Oswego” Lake and renaming the Duck Pond “Lakewood Bay.” Milestone annexations such as Old Town and South Town in 1922, Lake Grove in 1959, and Mountain Park in 1969 altered the fabric of the city and even changed its name by adding ”Lake” to “Oswego.”

The lake was a diamond in the rough. Once it became a jewel, stewardship was required to maintain the water quality, levels, and monitor activities. The Oregon Iron & Steel Company transferred these responsibilities to the Lake Oswego Corporation in 1941. Today 3,000 homeowners, with deeded access to the lake, pay annual fees to accomplish these tasks.

Dynamite and shovels permanently changed the natural landscape, but the point was to improve upon nature, not to erase it. Natural materials such as stone, brick, and wood were selected to blend houses with the landscape.

Only 82 of the more than 500 plats in the Oswego area predate 1945. Clearly the city’s greatest housing boom followed World War II.  Prior to that time, development was concentrated at the east and the west ends of the lake and in the three original neighborhoods.  Density is now an issue throughout the city.

Paul Cole Murphy’s vision of creating a resort-like community of fine neighborhoods out of industrial land holdings, a neglected lake, and a marshy duck pond was an utterly transformative alchemy that turned iron into “gold.” A 1928 newspaper article sums it up: “Nature (assessed by the Ladd Estate Co.) has done its share.”