The Souvenir of Western Women/Early Portland Schools

Early Portland Schools


THE first school in this city was that of Dr. Ralph Wilcox, opened in the fall of 1847 in a small frame building on Front and Taylor streets. It is recorded that a dozen children comprised the first attendance. This first educational venture evidently lasted only a few months, for in April or May of the succeeding year Miss Julia A. Carter, who had recently arrived with her family from Ohio, was conducting a school in a log cabin. The marriage soon after of Portland's first woman teacher to Joseph L. Smith left the settlement without a teacher, and the advent of number three was awaited. He promptly appeared in the person of Aaron J. Hyde, of whom it is related that in the winter of 1848-9 he taught a school in what was known as the cooper's shop. It was located on a lot which, as was commonly reported, a former owner had bought for the consideration of two pups.

The temple of learning in the future Northwestern metropolis seems never to have lacked a priest. Before the close of 1850 no fewer than seven instructors had come and gone in rapid succession. Like everything else on the coast, in those early days tuition was somewhat dear, $10 per quarter being the regulation fee.

Though teachers were changing frequently, it was evidently the determination of the pioneers that the new town should have a permanent school. The historian relates that the fourth to wield the w^and of office, Rev. Horace Lyman, opened a school late in December, 1849, in a frame structure built by Colonel William King for church and school purposes. It was located on the west side of First street, two doors north of Oak. On this building was placed a bell, which now hangs in the steeple of the Taylor-Street M. E. Church. The following year the school, under the fifth teacher, Cyrus A. Reed, had attained an average attendance of sixty-two pupils. The town had come to stay.

Sylvester Pennoyer, afterwards governor of Oregon, was, in 1855, appointed teacher of the Oak-street school, while the other was in charge of J. M. Keller. Rev. N. F. Boyakin, a Baptist clergyman, at this juncture held the post of county school superintendent. Among Governor Pennoyer's interesting recollections of those primitive days is the fact that when the school board formally conducted him to the home of the superintendent for an examination as to his professional ability, they found that official with sleeves rolled up to his shoulders, bravely wrestling with the family washing. Wiping the soapsuds off his arms, he "examined" the candidate, pronounced him quite satisfactory, and the future head of the state was forthwith installed in the Oak-street school.


Not satisfied with merely achieving the establishment of schools, however, the promoters of education began to move in the direction of buildings owned by the city instead of renting. The County of Multnomah had been organized in December, 1855, and in May of the following year a committee of citizens was appointed to ascertain the cost of different sites for school grounds. A report was shortly submitted in favor of the James Field block, on which the Portland Hotel now stands, and the suggestion meeting with approval, it M^as purchased for $1,000. Here a two-story structure, known as the Central School, was erected at an expenditure of $6,000. On May 17, 1858, it was formally opened, with L. L. Terwilliger principal and Mrs. Mary J. Hensill and Owen Connelly assistants. In July following the names of 288 pupils were on the rolls. In 1883 the board of directors sold the block on which the school stood for $75,000.


In 1849 Rev. James Harvey Wilbur, D. D., located in Portland. A pioneer of the highest type, he was destined to leave a lasting impress educationally as well as religiously upon the whole region. Physically strong, himself a competent carpenter, and possessed of unlimited energy, the erection of the Taylor-Street M. E. Church was his opening endeavor. With his own hands he felled the trees which covered the lot. Recognizing that education and the progress of intelligent religion are indissoluble, the church was scarcely finished when Mr. Wilbur set about the establishment of a denominational school, which should be superior to anything yet attempted on the coast. Mechanics' wages were $12 per day and lumber $120 per thousand, but the realization of his project went forward with dauntless zeal, and, under the style and title of "The Portland Academy and Female Seminary," the building was opened in 1850 or 1851 at an outlay of $8,800. Mr. Buchanan was first placed in charge, but he was succeeded the year following by Rev. C. A. Kingsley and wife, who conducted it with success for eight years. Faithful and earnest work was done in "the academy."


With all due deference to the academy, the founders of Portland became desirous of establishing free schools, similar to those of the Eastern states. Most prominent in the movement was the Rev. George H. Atkinson, who began to agitate the subject immediately after the organization of the territorial government August 13, 1848. Mr. Atkinson arrived in Oregon in June of that year, bringing with him a quantity of school books of the latest and best authors. Despite some opposition and after much discussion an organization was at last completed. The board of directors consisted of Anthony L. Davis, Alonzo Leland and Reuben P. Boise. This board announced that John T. Outhouse "would begin a school in the school house next door to the City Hotel on Monday, December 15, 1851. Books to be used, Sanders' reader, Goodrich's geography, Thompson's arithmetic, and Bullion's grammar." Portland's first public school teacher was a young man only 22 years old, a native of New Brunswick. The salary paid him was $100 per month. He began with twenty pupils, but so rapidly did the attendance increase that before the close of the first year an assistant was deemed necessary.

Souvenir of Western Women 0105 Portland High School.png
Portland High School: One of Portland's Many Fine Public School Bldgs.


This division of the city's public school system had its origin in 1869. In 1883 Portland's handsome High School building was projected. Its erection occupied two years. It represents an investment, including site of $160,000. It can safely be asserted that no city in the Union has devoted more attention to education and achieved better results, according to its commercial growth and increase in population, than the City of Portland, Oregon.