Simon Benson- Influential Portlander
Many have heard of the Benson Hotel and even the Benson Bubblers, but do you know the history behind the infamous hotel and water fountains? Read on to find out more about Simon Benson, one of Portland's influential people whose name still lives on today through iconic Portland structures.
Simon Benson was a lumber baron in Portland at the turn of the century. In 1880 Benson moved to Portland following the timber movement here. He moved to the United States from Norway when he was 16 years old and became an American citizen shortly thereafter. Benson started logging near Clatskanie, OR and Oak Point, WA purchasing plots of timber wherever he could. He was an innovator and was wildly successful in the lumber industry. He brought about many changes to the lumber industry in the NW introducing the donkey steam engine- a steam powered winch used for logging- and later built the Benson Seagoing Rafts. The rafts would carry up to 6 million boards of timber and cut the costs of transporting logs to California.
Now wildly successful Benson was able to expand his interests and started building a fine hotel in 1912 that he felt was necessary for the city to expand in commerce and tourism. Today tourism is one of Portland's top 3 industries. The Hotel was named the New Oregon hotel until later it was renamed the Benson. It is still one of Portland's nicest, grandest hotels. Benson later opened the Columbia Gorge Hotel in 1921 and helped with building the Columbia River Highway. In the early 1920's Benson moved to California to retire and died there in 1942. He is buried in the Riverview Cemetery in Portland and is well know for his philanthropy. He is quoted as saying, "No one has the right to die and not leave something to the public and for the public good."
There are many reminders of this good citizen and what he did for our city, The Benson Bubblers are my personal favorite. In 1912 Simon Benson gave the city $10,000 for the installation of 20 bronze drinking fountains. He was a tee-totaler and was concerned that his lumber workers would go to lunch and only drink beer as there was no fresh water available. He also did not like the workers coming back from lunch after drinking beer- so this was a win win for Benson. He was able to help out the city with beautiful ornate fountains and his business with more productive fully hydrated workers. There are 40 Benson Bubblers that are still active in Portland today and they are lovely, there are tricks for telling the original 20 from the newer fountains, but they are all wonderful.
In 1916, Benson gave the Portland School District $100,000 to help fund the building of a school. Finished in 1918, the school was first used for the training of soldiers for World War I. It was re-opened to high school students in January 1919 and renamed Benson Polytechnic and is still a high school today.
Benson purchased a 400-acre plot of land in the Columbia River Gorge, which included Wahkeena Falls and Multnomah Falls, and deeded it to the City of Portland for a public park. Multnomah Falls is one of the most visited spots in the NW by tourists today. In 1921, after moving to Beverly Hills, CA Benson deeded the city of Portland nine acres overlooking the Willamette River between North Greeley and Going Streets. The land was later dedicated as Madrona Park.
Today The Benson Towers Condos- more on that here- stand where his original home was on SW CLay and SW 11th Ave. The Benson house was preserved and moved to the Portland State Campus in 2000. It is now the alumni and visitors center for Portland State. The home was renovated and is back to the glory that it once was - it took almost a year to complete the project. It is a Queen Anne style home that was condemned by the city in 1991. The interior of the home features grand woodwork and rich details.
Simon Benson was truly a wonderful man that helped shape our beautiful city. I sometimes wonder if he would approve of what Portland is today. I can imagine him strolling down SW 11th Avenue to happen upon a 27 story high rise condo building where his beautiful Queen Anne style home once stood and thinking - my, this is different. My guess is that he would be pleased with all the changes in the city and even more so with the things that have stayed the same. The Benson Bubblers, The Benson House, The Benson Hotel, Columbia Gorge Hotel and Benson High School have all stood the test of time and done so with beauty.
Written by Amanda Folkestad and Brian Porter