By Nick Blackbourn
Smack dab between SE Division and Powell and just west of I-205 sits the Kelly Butte Natural Area, a 22-acre piece of land acquired by the city in 1954. The area forms part of the extinct Boring Lava Field, a volcanic field of around 32 cones all within a 21km radius of Kelly Butte.
While the space is currently slated for a new 25-million gallon water storage tank to replace Mt. Tabor’s three open-air reservoirs, the butte’s history has been a long and eccentric one – much more intriguing than your average recreation space.
It was named for Oregon pioneer Clinton Kelly (Clinton Street and Park are also named for him). Kelly Butte has been home to a quarry, a jail, an isolation hospital for patients with contagious diseases, police firing range, civil defense center, and an emergency dispatch center.
Originally it was The Kelly Butte. In July 1906, the Kelly Butte Jail was constructed. Initially, forty-eight prisoners, supervised by as many as eight guards, provided cheap labor to produce crushed rock for Portland’s new roads. These activities continued until the early 1950s.
The City of Portland opened a sixty-bed, municipal Isolation Hospital at Kelly Butte in September 1920 to house patients with contagious diseases. It closed in 1960. In 1968, a ten-million-gallon water tank was built on the old hospital’s acreage.
The civil defense center was its most famous inhabitant. Built during 1955-56, the 18,820 square foot facility was meant to hold 250 people, enabling them space to form an emergency local government in case of nuclear attack. A first of its kind in the United States and a model for other cities, the bunker was featured in a 1957 CBS dramatized documentary on nuclear war, “A Day Called X.”
After a retrofitting, the Bureau of Emergency Communications used the civil defense center as an emergency services dispatch center from 1974 to 1994. With the high cost of essential upgrades in the early 1990s, as well as need for additional space, Portland City Council decided to abandon the facility and finance a new building. The Kelly Butte Center was vacated in 1994 and permanently sealed off by 2006.
In March 2010, the City Council, despite strong opposition by local groups such as Friends of the Reservoirs, approved the construction of a replacement $100 million, twenty-five-million-gallon capacity underground reservoir.
In August 2011, the Portland Water Board reported that it was still waiting for an EPA review of the Kelly Butte project.