Researching the Past: Plat Maps

Written by Robert

Oh yeah.  I love maps.  I’m just going to talk about maps for a minute and nobody can stop me.

My fascination with maps started when I was about 5 years old.  My parents would drive my sister and I from Southern California back to Oklahoma, in an un-airconditioned car, to see my Granny every year or two.  My Granny would have hot dogs and popsicles for us when we got there.  It took me a few trips to realize that the hot dogs and popsicles where from the same package each time, coming out of her freezer with just a bit more freezer burn from the previous years visit.  So not only did I foster a lifelong love of maps on these trips, I also developed a lifelong fear of expired food.

My favorite part of these trips were the maps.  My dad would have a stack of maps for our route and I would try and figure out where we were on the map.  At every gas station stop, I would head for the carousel of road maps they would always have and pick through them.  In the car, I would estimate our rate of travel across the map and try to guess when the next road crossing or town would come up.  I would consider how far we would travel on the map over an amount of time, like an hour, and then plot our distance in time to things on the map that I wanted to see like the Grand Canyon, Carlsbad Caverns or the World’s Largest Rubberband Ball.  I would request that we divert to these points of interest.  My parents would tell me it was too far and I would argue my point by telling them how long it would take to get there based on my research suggesting that their claims that it would be “days out of our way” were bullshit.  As I got older, and started school, I think my favorite book was the Thomas Bros Map guides.  My dad had volumes for all of Southern California because he had to drive a lot.

So, just to be clear, I like maps.

I’d spent some time looking for clues about the genesis and history of the Going Queen with the various map sources I found on-line.  I accessed the Assessors Map (aka Plat map), which is easy enough using Multnomah County’s excellent map tools and resources.

Plat maps are used in the United States to identify saleable parcels of land. They have basic information on them which consists primarily of the property line boundaries and the legal description.  The legal descriptions for properties in cities are usually pretty dull.  The Queen’s legal name is “ELBERTA, BLOCK 17, LOT 1&2”.


But Plat maps are still full of excitement.  Consider this tidbit from the Clackamas County Historical Society:

“The creation of a plat map marks an important step in the process of incorporating a town or city according to United States law. Because the process of incorporation sometimes occurred at a courthouse, the incorporation papers for many American cities may be stored hundreds of miles away in another state. For example, to view the original General Land Office plat for the city of San Francisco, California, filed in 1849, one must visit the Museum of the Oregon Territory in Oregon City, Oregon, as at that time Oregon City was the site of the closest federal land office to San Francisco.”

Apparently, San Francisco is Oregon’s bitch.  They have to travel the Oregon Trail, risking dysentery, to find out about their property lines.  They better roll Squad Deep in the Clack and not let on where they are from.

Multnomah County must also be a map lover because they have shared a wealth of map data.

My goal was to find a map that might display the plot where the Going Queen sits that might pre-date it's supposed 1910 construction.

One of the more interesting maps I worked with is a 1906 City of Portland plat.  This is the official map that says what is and isn't considered a recorded and saleable plot of land as far as the city is concerned.

It was difficult to find the Going Queen on this map because the street names were mostly impossible to read in the version available on-line and because many landmarks have changed over time.  To find it, I had to locate something in my neighborhood that could be tied to a modern Google Map, and once I had my bearings, I could count city blocks to find where the house should be.  I used the empty space you see below, in the upper middle area of the map between Oakhurst and Irvington Park neighborhoods.  That empty spot, two short-blocks wide and two long-blocks long, is what will later become Alberta Park.  It's a good landmark because I know it will not ever change, on any old map I use, because today there is park there.  I know there is a park there because I was just there with Jenny a few days ago watching nerds beat eachother with foam swords.

To verify I got this right, I took a snapshot of the current google maps, overlayed it on top of the plat, resized the images so they were the same and aligned the streets and landmarks.  It was exactly where it was supposed to be.

As you can see, the Going Queen’s parcel is not on the official plat map from 1906.  Mystery solved.  The Going Queen wasn’t built until after 1906 which means the 1910 date is probably right.

Or… 

… the map is accurate but the area where the Going Queen is sitting wasn’t considered a part of the city proper and therefore not included

… or, the map is wrong

I’m not sure how to prove or disprove the first possibility yet so lets try to figure out if the map is accurate.  I browsed other resources on the Multnomah County maps site and found an older Paving Map of Portland from 1894.

I zoomed in on the area where the Going Queen lives.   First thing that jumps out at me is that this 1894 map is a little too similar to the 1906 map.  12 years is a long time for a fast growing city and things had to be changing faster than the differences between these maps indicated.  In fact, the looked waaaaay too similar.

I created two images from the maps and overlaid them in Photoshop.  I adjusted the transparency settings on the map layers and aligned them.

They are the same map.  I caught you, you lazy low-effort bastard.  The assessor, when tasked with the creation of an official 1906 plat map for the city of Portland, wanted to get off early that day so he could get a good place in line at the Screen Door and just copied the the 12 year old Paving Map.  I spot checked other areas of the map and found that they were also the same so I’m not having a lot of faith in the 1906 plat.

Consider these population growth numbers from the census.  Compare the 1890 census number, which is just 4 years before the Paving Map was created, to the 1910 census number which was taken only 4 years after the 1906 City of Portland plat was filed.

The growth between the time the 1994 Paving Map was created and the 1906 City of Portland plat was created was phenomenal.  It’s unrealistic to think that the city could double in population without growing it’s physical footprint.  It’s more likely that they were throwing up houses as fast as they could without paying much attention to where they were going and whether they were keeping the records up to date.

Lets prove that the assessor is an asshat.

Using another resource, I reviewed a map colorized by the age of building construction.  Using nerd park, I grabbed an section of the map that would align with the both the paving map and old plat map.

The red blocks are buildings that were constructed between 1846 and 1911.  The Going Queen is circled in the lower right.

My thinking is that if there are a lot of buildings built between 1846 and 1911, colored in red, that are located in the area that the lazy ass city assessor says there’s nothing of interest going on, then it’s reasonable to assume that his map is unreliable and the Queen could have been there before 1910.  I say this because, what is more likely? the map is incomplete or there was a mad building spree in the 5 years between the 1906 plagiarism of the plat map and the 1911 cut-off for colorizing buildings red?

To make it easier to read, I stripped out all the yellows and oranges and then overlaid it on the 1906 map.

It’s clear to me that there was a lot of unaccounted for construction in the areas not included on the 1906 plat map so the lack of the Going Queen's lots showing up on the map doesn’t rule out anything.

I’m starting to form a theory about how the 1910 date could have been arbitrarily assigned to the house.  But first, I need to find the descendants of the 1906 assessor and make sure they aren't air traffic controllers or anesthesiologists.