When the city was paved: remembering the Portlanders who died splitting rocks at the Kelly Butte prison rock quarry
There are many layers to history and many forms that injustice can take, but one of the overriding themes throughout the settlement of the “New World” has been the question of who owns and profits from the land and who doesn’t. It’s been a rigged system of real estate speculation-driven capitalism from the beginning of the process of capitalism-driven settlement, with westward expansion and genocide as both means and ends.
Named after wealthy “pioneer” Clinton Kelly who got the land for being a white man in Portland at the right time, Kelly Butte was sold to the city of Portland in 1906. As the automobile was now on the scene and cities around the world were busily figuring out how to pave themselves, the capitalists in charge in Portland came up with the solution of prison labor. For almost half a century, people were arrested off the streets of the city for the most minor infractions, or for nothing at all, and sent to split rocks at the butte.
At 1 pm on Memorial Day 2021 — Monday, May 31st — we’ll have a little gathering on Kelly Butte. There will be a small sound system and live music for kids and adults provided by David Rovics and whoever else shows up with an instrument and the will to play a family-friendly song or two. David will also give a very brief presentation on the history of the place, and anyone else is welcome to add to the discussion. Bring a picnic lunch if you’re so inclined, and/or supplies that can be used by nearby tent-dwellers, such as camping gear of any kind, firewood, gardening supplies, etc., or just bring yourself.
You may have lived in Portland a long time without ever setting foot on Kelly Butte. It’s not a popular park. It’s a nice place, but it’s basically an overgrown, very eroded 30 acres of very damaged land, covered largely with invasive weeds. To get there: from SE Division, just to the east of i-205, go south down 103rd Street, following it around the curves until it ends at a locked gate with a small, disheveled-looking parking area that appears not to have been paved in decades. From the locked gate, walk uphill until you come to an old parking lot, and look to the right.
I’m not sure if the entrance would be considered wheelchair-accessible or not. It is, I think, but there’s a rough patch between the parking area and the steep (though paved) hill that leads to the parking lot area at the top. If anyone is coming who might need help, or if you want to contact us for any other reason, you can email David.
Kelly Butte Background
You can also read a written version of the podcast above in Counterpunch — “They’re Dirty!” Standing Up At Kelly Butte.
Here’s a song about the history of Kelly Butte: