For me, one of the more interesting hidden hydrology stories of Portland is Guild’s Lake. Located northwest of downtown, this history of this 250 acre lake is a poignant story of water and the transformation of a waterbody from international destination, with eventual filling for development. A tale of erasure – literally and figuratively – from the minds of Portlander residents, who still hear fragments of names and history, but now placeless. In this first of three pieces, we talk about the humble origins of the lake.

From the original General Land Office survey map from 1852, the lake (approximately center of the map below) occupies the zone well north of the nascent city, with creeks running off the West Hills and outlets into the adjacent Willamette River.

1852 Map of the General Land Office Survey – BLM

There’s a footpath, along with a couple of cabins, one of which is affixed with the label ‘Gwiles’, which perhaps is a misinterpretation of the original settles Peter & Elizabeth Guild, which is also important to note, was pronounced like “guile”. From the Oregon Encyclopedia entry:

“Today, the curve of St. Helens Road in northwest Portland skirts the edge of a shoreline that no longer exists, leaving a visual echo of a riparian marsh once located there. The crescent-shaped marsh, known as Guild’s Lake, was likely an oxbow cutoff of the Willamette River formed by changes in sediment deposits and river flow. It was fed by hillside runoff and linked to the equally marshy Kittredge and Doane lakes. ”

The 1897 USGS map shows the lake with the similar two lobes, along with some of the natural context remaining in the vicinity, including the aforementioned Kittredge Lake, and across the river Swan Island and the lowlands areas. A photo from approximately this era gives a hint at the scattered cabins adjacent to the still picturesque lake.

View of the future exposition site taken from Willamette Heights looking north. – via Oregon Encyclopedia

You see the amount of development and encroachment and Portland expanded northward and eastward, with what becomes a thin strip of flat land where the lake exists, pinned between a roadway connection along the foot of the Tualatin Mountains (West Hills) and the Northern Pacific Railroad along the east bank of the Willamette River. At this point the inflow from adjacent Balch Creek and a few other local streams from the hills are still intact, and much of the natural margins along the river have not yet developed.

1897 USGS Topo Map – from Historical Topographic Map Collection

Although the origin of the name Guild is established, the usage is a bit of a moving target, with variations such as the Gwiles that shows up on the 1852 survey above, and then on subsequent maps with variations like Guild, Guilds, and the apostrophized Guild’s that seems to have stuck. An interesting tidbit on this is the documentation of this naming through ‘Decision Cards’ which allow you to trace this across time. Part of the process of USGS mapping process, these are available via the US Board on Geographic Names and their database Geographic Names Information System (GNIS).

From the entry for Guild Lake (historical), you see the naming associated with other maps, and how it was approved usage on other maps, but even at this time in 1897, there two distinct names, but the agreed upon use was Guild.

By 1914, the next decision, this had persisted, with maps interchanging between the two versions of Guild and Guilds, with the preference for Guild. By the 1939 map, the Lake has been gone for some time, but the reference by Lewis A. McArthur indicates the continuing resonance of the place name.

“In Portland, the expression ‘Guild Lake district’ is universally known even though the lake has been gone for many years. I think the origin of these names should be preserved, although it could be indicated that the geographic feature has undergone a change.”

From Wikipedia – citing multiple sources including the “Guild’s Lake Industrial Sanctuary Plan” from 2001, includes some more context. “In 1847, he [Peter Guild] acquired nearly 600 acres of the wetlands through a donation land claim. After Guild’s death in 1870, various landowners modified the area to accommodate sawmills, railroads, shipping docks, and Portland’s city garbage incinerator. The Guild’s Lake Rail Yard, built by the Northern Pacific Railway in the 1880s, became an important switching yard for trains. Beginning in the 1890s, channel-deepening in the Willamette River improved the city’s status as a deep-water seaport.”

While minimal development was happening at the margins, it didn’t radically change the function of the lake. Per the Oregon Encyclopedia: “At approximately 250-acres, Guild’s Lake remained connected to the Willamette River by an underground water table, and it rose and fell with seasonal fluctuations. Balch Creek meandered out of a canyon into Guild’s Lake until city workers diverted it into an underground sewer pipe in the early twentieth century.” There’s minimal information I’ve discovered on the indigenous use of the lake, beyond this note from this brief history as part of the Guild’s Lake Industrial Sanctuary report:

“The area that would become the City of Portland was populated by Chinook-speaking tribal groups prior to settlement by European Americans. Like much of Portland’s low-lying west side, the area now called the Guild’s Lake Industrial Sanctuary was swampy and not especially favored by the indigenous Multnomah people.”

Another entry from the Oregon History Project mentions that, similar to Tanner Creek, “In the 1880s, the area’s residents included Chinese immigrants who farmed small plots on the lake’s edge. “

This c.1904 photograph was taken near Balch Canyon, today in Macleay Park, looking northward toward Guild’s Lake and the Willamette River – via Oregon History Project

An image from 1904 above showed that the lake was still sparsely developed. This came at a turning point, which also coincided with the next iteration of the history of the Lake comes soon after, as Guild’s Lake takes on a new level of importance in civic boosterism, part of many sites evaluated around the City to become the key event — vital to placing Portland ‘on the map’ in terms of US cities.


HEADER: Cabins around Guild’s Lake, circa 1900 – via OHS

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