Fun and Interesting Facts About Portland, Oregon

Portland's residents are known for their quirkiness, but the city's history has its fair share of peculiarities too
Portland's residents are known for their quirkiness, but the city's history has its fair share of peculiarities too | © Jesse Kraft / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo of Kevin Johnson
6 August 2020

What you don’t know about Portland might surprise you. The city’s secret history is just as rich as the one on the surface – and as a home for everything weird, Portland’s fun facts truly break the mould. The Rose City can count volcanoes and secret tunnels amongst the reasons for its unique charm – but that’s not all. Here are some fun and interesting facts for those curious to get the best out of Oregon’s largest city.

Portland’s name was chosen in a toss-up

One of the most important historical facts relating to Portland is also one of the least-commonly known: in 1842, the city was just a coin flip away from becoming Boston, Oregon. The game of chance, according to an early account, was between the city’s founders, Misters Lovejoy and Pettygrove (names Portlanders will likely recognize from streets and buildings across the city), who proposed Boston and Portland respectively. Unable to settle on a name, they decided to flip a coin, and the rest is history. Too wild to believe? Today, visitors can see the actual Portland Penny on display at the Oregon Historical Society in downtown Portland.

See the penny which decided the city’s fate at the Oregon Historical Society Museum | © agefotostock / Alamy Stock Photo

The Shanghai Tunnels are a local legend

Portland’s history as a port city holds a past more sinister than you may think. A network of so-called “Shanghai Tunnels” exist under modern-day Portland’s downtown and Chinatown areas, dating back to Portland’s early days as a cargo stop on the Willamette and Columbia Rivers. As legend has it, the name comes from the practice of kidnapping residents – usually after a few drinks in an Old Town bar – for service on a ship. While the tunnels do exist, the debate whether the practice of Shanghaiing actually took place beneath Portland city streets rages on. If curiosity gets the better of you, snag tickets for a guided tour or just play it safe and head to the appropriately named Shanghai Tunnel Bar nearby.

The city is home to the world’s smallest city park

It doesn’t take much for Portlanders to get on board with something quirky, and Mill Ends Park is a perfect example. The Downtown Portland “park” is a 24in (61cm) ring of flora that was transformed from an unused lamppost cavity into the world’s smallest city park, a record bestowed upon it in 1971 and which it still holds today. A local journalist began drawing attention to the patch of dirt in 1946, writing about in his whimsical column in the Oregon Journal that it was the “only group of leprechauns to establish a colony west of Ireland”. The column’s popularity led to city recognition not long after, and the spot received park status officially in 1976.

Mill Ends Park is officially the world’s smallest park | © YOORAN PARK / Alamy Stock Photo

Portland has the most strip clubs per capita in the US

Step aside, Sin City: Portland, per capita, is the strip-club capital of America. While other cities may have more clubs, the density of strip clubs among Portland’s 650,000 residents means you’re never more than a few minutes’ walk from a day-and-night party. Portlanders capitalize on this sizable collection by bringing them into the city’s culture in a big way: strip clubs in Portland are historic landmarks, top-tier destinations for nightlife and even attract foodies from far and wide.

There’s a volcano within the city limits

The Portland area’s love of playing on volcanoes is well known – Mount Hood stands as case in point – so it should come as no surprise that Southeast Portland’s Mount Tabor is one of the city’s most well-loved parks. The volcano itself is extinct, but much of the hill is made up of ancient volcanic lava, which proved useful in paving the park’s curving roads and sloping staircases. This fun fact doesn’t just belong to Portland, however; Mount Tabor is one of six extinct volcanoes in the US to sit within city limits.

Portland’s public water fountains are a popular part of its history

Portland’s drinking fountains are known as Benson Bubblers | © agefotostock / Alamy Stock Photo

Water fountains aren’t typically a city landmark, but the Benson Bubblers of Portland – part public art and part public service – are some of Portland’s rarest and most historic attractions. In 1912, local businessman Simon Benson donated $10,000 to the city to begin installing four-bowled bronze drinking fountains in downtown Portland, reportedly in an effort to redirect loggers heading to bars for a drink during lunch. Currently, 52 four-font fountains are in place, all doubling as useful landmarks in the heart of the city. In an effort to keep them unique, the Benson family has prevented new bubblers from being built anywhere but downtown Portland.

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