The land that is now Kenton was sold to the Associated Banking & Trust Company which had been organized in 1892 for the purpose of investing in and developing real estate. The corporation became indebted to the Ainsworth Bank, and on October 28, 1897, the tract was sold to cover debts by the Multnomah County Sheriff to J.C. Ainsworth for $15,000. The tract remained relatively undeveloped for years, and owes its development to the evolution of the meat industry.
Cattle were herded down Kenton’s main street (Denver Avenue), with the last drive taking place in 1928. Originally an independently operated business model, butchers Adolph Burckhardt, Thomas Papworth, Morton M. Spaulding, James and John O’Shea, and Emanuel Masy joined together in 1893 to form the Union Meat Company. In 1906, Swift & Company purchased the Union Meat Company, though the company continued to be known locally as the Union Meat Company. The next year Swift sent C. C. Colt to Portland as president of their operations, and Colt immediately formed Kenwood Land Company in order to purchase acres of land along the Columbia River for a new meat packing plant, as well as adjacent land for a company town. Planners hoped to name the company town “Kenwood,” but this name was in use elsewhere in Oregon, so they settled for “Kenton.”
The area along the Oregon Slough became increasingly inviting to factories. By 1911, there were no less than twelve major manufacturing firms located along the slough, making this area second only to St. Johns as a manufacturing center. Swift & Co. was the catalyst for this development, with a plant that included the Portland Union Stockyards, Portland Cattle Load Company, Columbia Wool Basin Warehouse, Kenton Traction Company and others. Swift employed over 1500 workers, and by 1911 Portland had become the central livestock market in the Northwest.
Kenton was distinct because it was one of the few examples of a complete company town. Denver Avenue, originally Derby Street, became the main street of the new community and was its “Executive Row” with the fashionable homes of the Swift officers located either on, or east of, Denver Avenue. Rows of smaller, nearly identical houses were constructed on the side streets west of Denver Avenue for the workers’ families. In 1909 the Kenton car line opened, and on June 27th of that same year, the 40-room Kenton Hotel was opened. The hotel was intended to provide lodging and meals for visiting cattlemen.
The first movie house was in the back of Berg’s Store in 1911 (on the NE Corner of Kilpatrick and Denver). In 1925 it was moved to Denver and Schofield where the Chaldean Theater was built, and the theater was finally completed, they opened to a sold-out crowd. The electric sign in front of the theater was equal to any in the city of Portland and gave the business district of Kenton a metropolitan appearance when lighted.. A representative of the Multnomah Theater Corporation said that the theater in Kenton was second only to the Egyptian for beauty. He predicted it would be one of the finest picture houses on the east side of the river. The theater building had capacity for 600, with a balcony, manager’s offices, and even a separate glassed “cry room” for mother’s with babies with a full view of the screen.
Within what is now the Kenton area was the second largest city in Oregon – Vanport. According to Kenton resident, Marge Davis, “Vanport City had a terrible effect on Kenton. The demise of Kenton was due partially to the highway — Interstate Avenue. Highway 99 used to come right through Kenton.
Mr. Berry, from the confectionery store in Kenton, was on the liquor commission. Vanport had one liquor outlet. Vancouver, Washington had a “blue law” which meant no liquor could be sold on Sundays. Kenton, being the closest to Vancouver, and also to Vanport, prompted Mr. Berry to do his friends a favor by allowing them liquor licenses for taverns in Kenton. That is why Kenton was so saturated with liquor outlets. Kenton had too many for such a small area. All they wanted was to capture that Vanport business. That is when Kenton started ‘going downhill.’”
The 1959 Oregon Centennial celebrations were held in Kenton. A large statue of Paul Bunyan was built at the intersection of North Interstate Avenue and North Argyle Street (just north of Kenton’s historic business district on North Denver Avenue) as a reminder of those centennial festivities. The statue now stands at the corner of North Interstate and North Denver, across from the N Denver Light Rail station and is considered a symbol of the neighborhood. The Paul Bunyan Statue was added to the National Register of Historic Places on January 28, 2009.
Information courtesy of History of the Kenton Neighborhood, by Alta Mitchoff