Oregon City, now a southeastern Portland suburb, was the first incorporated city west of the Mississippi River, established as a lumber mill in 1829 by Dr. John McLoughlin, who would become known as the "Father of Oregon." The geographical situation of the town was advantageous, on the Willamette River near its confluence with the Columbia River. There were only two problems with having a town here. First was the waterfall in the Willamette where the land broke and fell some 40-feet. The falls would be conquered with the addition of the Willamette Falls Locks.
This only left the other problem …
Part of Oregon City is at the foot of a cliff, part of it is not. The part that is not is at the top of the cliff, hence the need for a quick and easy way to travel between the two sections. Initially the only option was to follow an old trail used by the local tribal peoples, which was both time-consuming as well as an act of physical endurance. The trail became a set of steps in the mid-1860s, more direct and therefore faster, but still arduous. What was needed was a vertical street, and so the steps become a water-powered elevator in 1915. The trip had been shortened to a physically relaxed three minutes. After a switch to electricity, in 1924, the trip was shortened to one of merely thirty seconds.
The current "plain as possible without adornment" (the city's request during the bidding process) elevator went up in 1954. The over-all height of the structure is 130 feet, with travel of 90 feet between levels. There is in fact adornment: a series of murals have been added to the inside walls of the observation deck depicting the history of the area.
I‘d say this qualifies as an example of Googie Architecture, which was popular at the time of construction. Googie was very "space age" in design and the "saucer-like" appearance of the observation deck evokes images of the Space Needle in Seattle which is definitely Googie. However, there is nothing in any of the materials I‘ve seen about the elevator which draws attention to this.
The elevator is one of the few remaining run manually by a human operator. It's one of the very few municipal elevators to ever have existed. It’s currently the only exterior municipal elevator in the world. The trip is free. The view is great. The experience is certainly unique.
Hours of Operation: 6.45am-7pm Monday-Saturday, 11am-7pm Sunday
Historic Oregon City Map showing the location of the elevator as well as other historic places within Oregon City.