Prior to the arrival of European explorers, the native Atfalati tribes used Portland’s west hills for hunting and gathering, moving about the area in a system of winter villages and summer camps.
The land would have been Douglas fir forest, similar to the Willamette River forests described by William Clark in 1803 as containing trunks ranging from five to eight feet in diameter. The forest would have alternated with open grasslands and meadows produced by thousands of years of controlled burning by a succession of native peoples. By the early 1800’s most of the Atfalati had succumbed to malaria and other illnesses.
The Donation Land Law of 1850 spurred a rush of westward migration. In 1851, Eli and Anna Steward filed a homestead claim on part of the Arboretum’s land and the next year, the rest of the Arboretum’s land was claimed by Amos King. These homesteaders cleared some of the forest for farming and harvested some of the timber. Neither of these homesteads was long-lived and by 1865, both of the homesteads had passed into ownership of Multnomah County. In 1889, a forest fire raged through the west hills and burned every building and tree to the ground.
In 1898, Multnomah County established a “Poor Farm” and sanatorium for people with infectious diseases and mental illness near what is now the Oregon Zoo. In 1910 scandals involving lax and corrupt supervision and intolerable conditions eventually caused the closure of the facility which was then moved to what is now Edgefield Brewery.
The property was slated for residential development. However, visionary civic leaders sought to preserve the space as a public park dedicated to the growing and conserving tree species from around the world -- in other words an arboretum. In 1922, Multnomah County deeded the land to the City of Portland for the purposes of establishing Hoyt Park which then later became known as Hoyt Arboretum.
By the beginning of the 20th century, Portland’s urban population would have been surrounded by the bustling flow of commerce and building that marked a growing metropolitan area. Yet for all of the original promise of “God’s country”, much of the natural beauty of their surroundings would have become invisible to most Portlanders by this time. The stately trees lining Portland’s boulevards, the downtown and suburban parks, the large tracts of land set aside for public enjoyment did not exist in 1903. While greenspace still abounded outside of Portland, transportation, time and expense would have put excursions into nature beyond the reach of many Portland families.
In 1903, the Portland Parks Board, a newly-formed committee of citizen volunteers, commissioned America’s pre-eminent landscape architecture firm, the Olmsted Bros. of Brookline Mass., to make recommendations about developing a system of parks for Portland.
John Charles Olmsted’s report to the Parks Board laid out a comprehensive interconnected system of parks for Portland with the caveat that it is always necessary to buy land for future parks to anticipate growing population. Olmsted’s report begins, “All agree that parks not only add to the beauty of a city and to the pleasure of living in it, but are exceedingly important factors in developing the healthfulness, morality, intelligence, and business prosperity of its residents. Indeed it is not too much to say that a liberal provision of parks in a city is one of the surest manifestations of the intelligence, degree of civilization and progressiveness of its citizens.”
Olmsted’s vision of a system of interconnected parks of varying uses and sizes remains the goal for Portland’s parks today. And his insight that parks are an essential element of a prosperous and healthy city has only become more relevant over the intervening 103 years.
John Charles’ step-father/uncle, Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed Central Park in New York City and Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum in Boston, believed that every region of the U.S. should establish an arboretum. He thought Portland had the most ideal climate for an arboretum west of the Mississippi. Although John Charles’ 1903 plan for Portland’s parks did not stipulate the creation of an arboretum, this vision of a world-class arboretum being established in Portland was probably discussed and thereafter championed beginning in 1911 by then Superintendent of Portland Parks, Emmanuel T. Mische. As early as 1913, Mische began acquiring and propagating seeds collected by the great plant explorer, E.H. Wilson, in China via Arnold Arboretum.
Hoyt Arboretum is named after County Commissioner Ralph Warren Hoyt, one of the strong and visionary personalities who contributed to its creation and the legacy that we all enjoy today.
Some of the other people critical to the creation of Hoyt Arboretum were U. S. Forest Service local supervisor Thorton Munger; founder of Collins Pine Company, E.S. Collins; and Mische’s successor as Superintendent of Portland Parks, C. P. Keyser.
The Arboretum’s founders commissioned John W. Duncan to design a plan for Portland’s arboretum. Duncan had immigrated to the United States from Scotland when he was 18 years old, after serving as an apprentice to his father who was the manager for a large estate and gardens in Aberdeenshire. For the next 15 years, Duncan managed various estates in Massachusetts and Connecticut. In the early 20th century, he served as Assistant Superintendent of Boston’s parks and then moved on to the superintendency of Spokane’s parks in 1909 where a system of parks of over 1000 acres, including the Finch Arboretum. By this time, he had become one of the country’s most knowledgeable plantsmen and horticulturalists.
In 1930, Duncan completed a plan for what would become Hoyt Arboretum. The plan provided specific locations for nearly 40 plant families of conifers (gymnosperms) and flowering trees (angiosperms), and envisioned over 500 species. As befitted Portland’s climate and timber heritage, much of the emphasis was on the conifer collections which comprised more than a third of the collections.
Duncan was heavily influenced by the tradition established by Frederick Law Olmsted in his plan for America’s premier arboretum, Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum in Boston. The Arboretum’s landscape is planned to create both a sense of unity and mystery, alternating open meadows and groves of trees, all appearing relatively natural. At the same time, because of the Arboretum’s educational and scientific purposes, the trees throughout the Arboretum are presented in taxonomically organized groups, surrounded by other members of their same genus, family, and order.
The Donation Land Law of 1850 spurs a rush of westward migration. In 1851, Eli and Anna Steward filed a homestead claim on part of the Arboretum’s land and the next year, the rest of the Arboretum’s land was claimed by Amos King.
Neither homestead was long-lived and both pass into ownership of Multnomah County.
A forest fire raged through the west hills and burned every building to the ground, as well as many trees.
Multnomah County established a “Poor Farm” and sanatorium for people with infectious diseases and mental illness near what is now the Oregon Zoo. In 1910 scandals involving lax and corrupt supervision and intolerable conditions eventually closed the facility.
The Portland Parks Board commissioned America’s pre-eminent landscape architecture firm, the Olmsted Bros. of Brookline Mass., to make recommendations about developing a system of parks for Portland.
Multnomah County deeded the land to the City of Portland for the purposes of establishing Hoyt Park. On April 22 Portland City Council established Hoyt Arboretum.
The Arboretum’s founders commissioned John W. Duncan to design a plan for Portland’s arboretum. In 1930, Duncan completed a plan for what would become Hoyt Arboretum. The plan provided specific locations for nearly 40 plant families of conifers and flowering trees, and envisioned over 500 species. As befitted Portland’s climate and timber heritage, much of the emphasis was on the conifer collections which comprised more than a third of the collections.
Planting of trees begins in accordance with the Duncan Plan. Some of the earliest collection trees planted at Hoyt Arboretum are the Coast Redwoods. WPA crews were the original workforce.
Ernie Fischer established connections with other botanic gardens and arboreta, kept meticulous notes and records and the collection grew steadily under his leadership.
All of the 40 plant families listed on the Duncan Plan were now represented in the Arboretum. Planting continued at a slower pace after the end of World War II and has continued ever since. During the 1940's and 50's the boundaries of the Arboretum changed somewhat to accommodate a new zoo and roads serving private developments. Land was added to the north to provide a link to W. Burnside Rd.
The Columbus Day Storm killed or badly damaged many of the trees and leveled areas of natural second growth. Much of the area required total clearing.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is installed on the Arboretum’s south slope. This in turn led a group of citizen volunteers to band together to begin advocating on behalf of the Arboretum.
By 1986, this group realized that the Arboretum needed leadership, sustainable funding, and advocacy on an ongoing basis and formed Hoyt Arboretum Friends (HAF) as a non-profit organization.
Today Hoyt Arboretum nurtures a global collection of 6,000 trees and 2,300 species, 63 of which are vulnerable or endangered. The Conifer, Maple and Magnolia collections are nationally recognized. Hoyt Arboretum Friends continues to be an integral part of arboretum operations with a mission to maintain and improve Hoyt Arboretum and its collection for all people through advocacy, resources, awareness and education.