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Family camped unnoticed in downtown Portland — for 4 years

Why is there 5,000 acres of near-wilderness at the heart of Oregon's largest city? Because nobody could develop it — although many tried. So, all the land reverted back to the city for unpaid taxes, and the city turned it into Forest Park.

Forest Park, Portland, Oregon
A scene from deep inside Forest Park (photo courtesy of the City of
Portland's Forest Park Neighborhood Association) -- click the photo
above to see a really large version of this photo on their Web site)

Downloadable audio file (MP3)

The two cross-country runners, running through a trailless part of the city park that was supposed to be off-limits, were breaking the law. But then, so were Frank and Ruth, the father and daughter the runners found camping there.

Frank and Ruth — police never released their last name — had been living in the park for four years, and in that entire time the runners were the only people to find them.

What’s really unusual about this story is, it took place in downtown Portland.

A real urban jungle

Portland is probably the only city in which you can get lost in the woods badly enough to get in real trouble without ever leaving city limits. Several other cities can point to larger urban parks, but good old Stumptown is the only one that has so much wild acreage so close to the center of the city.

Photo of Forest Park, Portland, Oregon
This photo of Wildwood Trail, deep in Forest Park was made by
Wikipedia editor EncMstr. To see a larger image on WikiMedia Commons,
click the picture.

It’s called Forest Park, and it’s a 5,000-acre finger of thickly wooded land stretching into Portland from the northwest, along the Willamette River.

The man who designed Central Park

Forest Park’s roots go back to 1903, when John Charles Olmstead came to town to help Portland with its parks plan.

Olmstead, one of the brothers who designed New York City’s Central Park, urged the city to set aside a huge piece of land right smack in the middle — the very piece, in fact, that later became Forest Park. But the city had no money to buy the land, and private developers were already carving it up.

Developers frustrated: Why such bad luck?

And over the next few decades, those developers gave the place their best shot. But it was almost as if Forest Park were predestined by a Higher Power — as if the efforts of mere puny mortals to turn it into subdivisions were fetching up against the bulwark of divine wrath. Roads would be built, lots would be sold and then just as people were getting ready to start swinging hammers, the rains would come — and with them the mudslides, which would wash out the roads. The city would fix the roads, at great expense, and send the bill to the lot owners.

Car on Leif Erickson Drive in Forest Park in 1915.
A scene from Leif Erickson Drive (then called Hillside Drive) in what is
now Forest Park; this image was made in 1915. This vintage photo is
from Oregon Public Broadcasting's Website for Oregon Field Guide,
which did a program on Forest Park in 2010. To see OPB's coverage
and view the episode, click the photo. (Oregon Historical Society photo)

This happened at least two times. By the mid-1940s, the owners of the lots had all given up, every one of them, and quit paying the city’s assessments for road upkeep. Their lots were forfeited to the city. And for years the city just sat on the land. During the Depression it set up woodcutting camps there, to help keep people employed. Hopeful citizens, eager to stake out mining claims on the now-publicly-owned property, drilled oil wells in hopes of hitting something that would enable them to grab a piece of it — with no luck.

City Club's mission: Make it a park

Finally, in 1945, the City Club of Portland took up cudgels to make the land a park. Members had found Olmstead’s recommendations in the original parks plan and thought it a great idea — after all, the city now owned the whole thing anyway.

So three years later, on Sept. 25, 1948, a crowd of people gathered at the site of one of the dry oil wells for the official dedication of Portland’s newest — and America’s largest — downtown city park.

Not that it was much to look at. Most of it was clear-cut and much of it was very ugly.

But the years have been kind to it, and generations of volunteers have worked to replant and restore it.

Forest Park, in downtown Portland. (Google Maps)

Today, it’s thickly forested, and large swaths of it haven’t known a human footstep in decades.

Why were Frank and Ruth camping there?

As for Frank and Ruth, the father and daughter who were found camping there, they came to Portland in 2000. Frank, jobless and broke and living on a $400-a-month veteran’s disability benefit, decided that rather than raise his third-grader on the streets, he’d set up housekeeping deep in Forest Park. And so he did, and there they lived, for four full years, while he home-schooled her with a set of encyclopedias and a Bible. He apparently knew what he was doing; when they were found, she was of the right age to be in the 7th grade, but tested at the 12th grade level.

After the story hit the news, reporters and camera crews got very interested in them. Uncomfortable with all the attention, Frank and Ruth disappeared again, this time into the Coast Range mountains west of Portland. Their whereabouts today are unknown.

(Sources: Amen, Steve and Patton, Vince. “Forest Park: Portland’s Backyard gem,” Oregon Field Guide (Oregon Public Broadcasting), Oct. 14; Houle, Marcy C. One city’s wilderness: Portland’s Forest Park. Portland: OHS Press, 1996; Rose, Joseph. “Father and daughter relocated from Forest Park slip away,” The Oregonian, June 2, 2004)

TAGS: #ForestPark #FailedDevelopment #FrankAndRuth #JohnCharlesOlmstead #OilWells #Veterans #StealthCamping #SteveAmen #VincePatton #MarcyHoule #JosephRose