History Details

The History of Transportation in Washington County

by Mark Granlund / Washington County Historical Society
Tualatin / Atfalati / Kalapuya Trails and River Routes

The history of transportation in Washington County did not start with the Old Plank Road, nor will it end with the WES commuter rail. It goes way back much earlier, to the rivers, streams and early trails used by the numerous native tribes and bands of Indians that first arrived here, lived and traded here for hundreds and even thousands of years.

It is estimated that over 15,000 Kalapuya natives traveled throughout the Tualatin and Willamette valleys, as did the neighboring tribes who traded with them. They used well-traveled routes to move from one camp to another, following the seasons to travel from one hunting or gathering ground to another. Some might stay to watch and prepare the camp for the next season, while others went on to their jobs at the next important station. These peoples, for thousands of years, sustained themselves through a practice of living with and from the land. And they traveled.

They traveled by dugout canoes up and down the numerous streams and rivers. They didn’t call the Willamette River by one name, but instead had separate names for various spots along the river. They also traveled by foot along well-traveled trails, especially along waterways. Exporting goods is a very old practice. Early in this land’s history, local Indian tribes were using popular routes to take their trading goods out of this area to well known trading places, such as the annual gathering at The Dalles, where tribes from throughout the Pacific Northwest traded their goods. Fort Vancouver became a major trading location during the fur trade era starting in the early 1800s, and Oregon City was more important later on in the mid-1800s.

These popular trails were also used by early explorers, trappers, traders, and settlers of European descent, and eventually became stage coach routes, and later roads. Some of these trails still are in use today and bear names like Skyline, Springville, Cornelius Pass, and many others.

Stage Coach

How the Oregon Territory was formed and how most of the Indian land holdings were ceded to the federal government is another story. Following the practice of granting land to settlers, the federal government began granting land for wagon roads in the 1860s. This resulted in almost 2.5 million acres of public land being granted in Oregon for wagon roads.

Local speculators provided small amounts of capital to form road construction companies, in return for which they received land. The West Side Stage Co. built and ran stage coaches from Portland to Hillsboro from the 1870s to 1904. The West Side Stage line ran along Cornell Road through Cedar Mill, up Kaiser Road to Bethany, along Springville Road to West Union, up Cornelius Pass Road to Phillips, then west to Helvetia, Lenox and Glencoe before turning south to Hillsboro.

Plank Road

There were two primary reasons for Portland being located where it was. The first was that it had a year-round deep-water port, and the second was that it had relatively easy access to the Tualatin and Willamette valleys.

Access to the Tualatin Valley early on was by a muddy road that had just been opened along the canyon of Tanner Creek. The Portland and Valley Plank Road Company received a charter from the territorial legislature, and managed to lay ten miles of planks west from Portland before funds ran out at the end of 1851. This Plank Road is known today as Canyon Road. For Tualatin Valley farmers the road barely sufficed, and calls to improve and complete it continued for several years. People complaining about the condition of the roads is an old story! A final attempt was made in 1872 to improve the Plank Road, but the idea died when railroads proved more effective.


An alternative to muddy or dusty roads was the Tualatin River. In 1856 the legislature chartered the Tualatin River Transportation and Navigation Company to improve the Tualatin for navigation and to connect the Tualatin and Willamette rivers. The company drew up plans to connect these two rivers either directly by canal, or via Sucker Lake (now Lake Oswego).

In another scheme, the Tualatin River Navigation Project produced a “railroad” at the head of Sucker Lake over which horses could draw a wagonload of lumber in 20 to 25 minutes. Thus logs from the Tualatin Valley could be brought to Oswego on the Tualatin River and on to Portland via the Willamette River.

The Tualatin River was navigated as far as Hillsboro in 1867 and the side-wheeler Yamhill was placed in service until 1869, when the Onward began to operate. By 1927, the Onward was traveling as far up the river as Solomon Emerick’s donation land claim south of Cornelius (a site known as Emerick’s Landing).


Like the “national wagon grants”, another federal land program called “Oregon and California Lands” was created in 1866 when Congress passed a law granting land for the construction of a railroad line from Portland to San Francisco. It contained a provision that the Oregon legislature name a local company to build the railroad through the state. Joseph Gaston won the grant for his Oregon Central Railroad and set about building on the west side of the Willamette River. His route would pass through the Wapato Lake area, where he established the town that now bears his name, Gaston.

However, before Gaston could build the 20 miles of track required by the grant, he was beaten by his rival, Ben Holladay and the Oregon and California Railroad. Holladay acquired the Westside line in 1870, and by the end of 1871 train service was available to Hillsboro, a new town called Beaverton, and other stops along the line. Because citizens of Hillsboro and Forest Grove balked at giving Holladay free land in exchange for building stations in their towns, Holladay made sure to build the tracks some distance to the south. As a result, the town fathers had to devise ways to transport rail passengers into town.

Holladay also established the town of Cornelius, tried to have it named the county seat, and told local residents they must ship their wheat through the warehouse of Thomas Cornelius (a member of the railroad board of directors and the man for whom the town of Cornelius was named). In retaliation, local residents mounted new efforts to build a plank road and for a time hauled their wheat by wagon, a move that cost the railroad $4,000 in lost revenue. However, in the second half of the 1870s Hillsboro had its own station, as well as two new businesses related to agricultural export. No longer was Hillsboro merely a seat of county government. Now it was a shipping point for farm produce and lumber.

Forest Grove also could afford to adopt a “take it or leave it” attitude towards the new railroad. By the time the trains arrived, Forest Grove had daily stagecoach service for mail and passengers, making it unnecessary to rely entirely on rail transport. When the first train arrived in Beaverton in 1871, the newly platted town consisted only of a log store and the train depot.

For the most part, the towns of Washington County – even those along the new rail lines – grew at a modest pace until interurban electric trains, providing clean, quiet passenger service to Portland several times a day, began to run in 1908. This is when the Oregon Electric Railway initiated service to Washington County. In 1914, the Southern Pacific’s “Red Electrics” began to run commuter trains six times a day, offering fierce competition with Oregon Electric, and both companies operated profitably. The last Red Electric train left Portland for Corvallis in 1929.

Roads and Highways

The internal combustion engine triggered a frenzy of road building. As new highways were built and businesses sprang up along them, established town cores sometimes suffered. Both Tigard’s and Sherwood’s old business districts were bypassed when the new Capitol Highway (Route 99) was built in the 1920s. The same was true of Beaverton and Hillsboro when the Tualatin Valley Highway went in a few years later. However, Hillsboro welcomed a new highway, as did Banks when the Wolf Creek Highway (now the Sunset) was on the drawing board in the early 1930s. Leaders in both Hillsboro and Banks reasoned that the construction projects and new highways would bring jobs and prosperity to their communities.

Air Travel

In response to demand for air access, Hillsboro Airport got a modern control tower in 1965. The airport, now part of the Port of Portland system, is especially useful to the local high-tech firms.

Mass Transit

The Great Depression hit the trolley and train systems hard. Less expensive gas and electric buses began to replace trains in the 1930s. From the 1930s to 1969, private bus companies operated these lines. In 1969, these were folded into a public transit system and TriMet was established. In 1983, a light rail line to Beaverton began to be studied and in 1995, construction of the Westside MAX line (short for Metropolitan Area Express), began from Portland to Beaverton and Hillsboro. Today thousands of passengers rely on MAX to conveniently take them where they need to go.

In 2008 a new Commuter Rail line (called WES for Westside Express Service) will begin to serve stations from Wilsonville north to Beaverton, connecting with the MAX line.