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Kenton: History of a Cowtown

The town of Kenton, Oregon was built near several rail lines along the Columbia River. Kenton’s rail yards and location along the Columbia River made shipping convenient, and it became an attractive place for businesses to settle and grow. Kenton’s rail yards helped make the town a thriving industrial area.

The land that is now Kenton was purchased in the 1890s by the Associated Banking & Trust Company with the purpose of investing in and developing real estate. However, several months later the Multnomah County Sheriff sold the property for $15,000 to J.C. Ainsworth to cover debts owed by the company to Ainsworth Bank. The land stayed fairly undeveloped for years, and owes its development from that point on to the advancement of the meat industry.

When several local butchers joined together to form the Union Meat Company, they settled in the Kenton area. In 1906, the Union Meat Company was then purchased by Swift and Company, which would become the central force behind Kenton’s transformation into a famous ‘Cowtown.’ 

Swift Packing Company set up shop on the Columbia Slough in 1909, establishing a new meat packing plant. Swift then purchased adjacent land to the plant in order to establish a company town. Uniquely, Kenton became one of the few examples of a company town in existence in Oregon. Swift’s hundreds of employees butchered more beef in Kenton than in any other town in the Northwest. Cattlemen brought their herds to market, went out on the town and even stayed in first-class accommodations at the Hotel Kenton, which opened in 1909. Houses were built on the east and west side of Denver Avenue, Kenton’s main street, for both company executives and workers and their families. The intention was to name the company town “Kenwood,” but this was already in use elsewhere in Oregon, so the name “Kenton” was chosen instead.

By 1911, there were several major manufacturing companies located in Kenton, which became second only to St. Johns as a center of manufacturing. Swift was a central figure in this growth, with a plant that included the Portland Union Stockyards, Portland Cattle Load Company, Columbia Wool Basin Warehouse, Kenton Traction Company, and others.

Swift’s Kenton Traction Company operated a streetcar line to carry workers to and from the meat packing plant. The cars ran all day, cost five cents, and connected with the City cars on the Mississippi Line which terminated at Kenton. Once a year, the Kenton streetcars would even carry thousands of visitors to and from the Pacific International Livestock Exposition, which was held in Kenton.

Notably, a 31-foot tall statue of Paul Bunyan was commissioned by the Kenton Businessmen’s Club to greet millions of visitors to the 1959 Centennial Pacific Livestock Exposition. The statue was designed and crafted in Kenton, and cost $25,000. The Paul Bunyan statue still stands today as a striking reminder of Kenton’s industrial past.  It was even recently added as Oregon’s only contribution to the National Register of Historical Places.

The Pacific Livestock Expo continued to hold shows in Kenton until the 1980s, when Portland’s Union Stockyards ceased operations and an Industrial Park was built in its place. The buildings were sold to Multnomah County where the Multnomah County Fair remained for about 20 years.

Numerous years ago, Kenton Historic District was absorbed as part of Portland, but Kenton has a unique history and personality that sets it apart from the rest of the Portland area.

Our latest location on Interstate and Lombard borders the Kenton neighborhood.  We celebrate the historical community and look forward to serving our neighbors.

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