A different view from 1960

The Joseph Gaston House is one of the most spectacular homes in Portland’s West Hills. It’s a beautiful house to look at, but it’s hard to stay focused on the architecture without being distracted by the view from the house. Downtown Portland. A view up the mouth of the Columbia River Gorge. Mount Rainier to the north, Mount Hood to the west, and St. Helens and Adams in between. I love the house for intrinsic beauty and for its breathtaking view.

Joseph Gaston House in Portland

Joseph Gaston’s house at 1960 16th Street, from a 2015 real-estate brochure, offering the property at $4 million.

I love the house also because it was built by Joseph Gaston, founder of the town I call home and about which I have written two history books, with at least two more in the works. I admire Joseph Gaston for his vehement opposition to slavery, for his sometimes courageous career as a journalist, and for his sometimes fierce fight against government corruption.

You might notice that I modified the last two traits, because Joseph Gaston was deeply flawed man as well. His tremendous intellect, empathy, and compassion were balanced by bouts of avarice, bitterness, and pious self-aggrandizement in the name of Jesus Christ.

That’s my view of Joseph Gaston and of his house. Here’s another, this one from Neil Nakadate in his book, Looking After Minidoka:


The year before the stroke that robbed her of her voice and gesture my mother asked that I drive to see the house at 1960 SW 16th Street. “I want to show you something.” It is a large Craftsman bungalow up in Portland’s southwest hills, built in 1911 now listed in the National Register of Historic Places as the Joseph Gaston House. History says that Joseph Gaston was a post-Civil War speculator and promoter of the Oregon Central Railroad, one of the railroad brotherhood that exploited immigrant laborers like Grandpa Marumoto for half a century. A realtor will tell you that 1960 SW 16th Street is a single-family dwelling with eight bedrooms and six baths and, at the age of 100 is worth nearly two million dollars. If only for the view.

In the mid-1930s, Japanese consul Toyoichi Nakamura and his wife and two children lived there, and with them, my mother, serving as their governess, a young woman with life opening up before her, scanning the horizon.

Joseph Gaston abandoned Gaston, the town he built, way back in 1896. His railroad went bust before he was half way through building it. In the wake of that loss, he set his sights on creating a gigantic farm on the drained remains of Wapato Lake. His farm was an even bigger failure than his railroad, and he left Gaston with a chip on his shoulder, intent on rebuilding his lost fortune in the nascent Industrial Revolution. It took him a few years, but he succeeded, and he built 1960 16th Street in 1911 as a tribute to his success. He died of a sudden illness less than two years later.

Twenty years after his death, his dream home was occupied by a successful Japanese family pursuing the American Dream. At the same time, the town he abandoned had a population that was about one-quarter Japanese-American, successfully farming on the drained lakebed that had drained his wealth and spirit.

All of that success, and all of those American Dreams would not last long, however. Nakadate’s title, Looking After Minidoka, refers to “Camp Minidoka,” one the camps built to imprison Japanese-Americans during World War II.

In Creek With No Name, I wrote about how Joseph Gaston and his contractors had abused Chinese laborers while building the Oregon Central in the 1870s, and I wrote about the imprisonment of the Japanese-Americans in World War II, but I hadn’t yet connected all of the dots.

Thanks to Neil Nakadate, I’ll never view 1960 16th Street in Portland quite the same way again.