Columbia Childrens' Arboretum: Portland's Hidden Treasure

The Columbia Children’s Arboretum is the geographical and social heart of East Columbia. Tall stands of cottonwoods hide it from sight, with a handful of paths and a gravel lane as its only access. Its 28 acres of trees, grassland and waterways provide a quiet home for deer, rabbits, waterfowl and many other animals. But on occasion, this park also hums with schoolchildren learning about nature or neighborhood potlucks on long summer afternoons.

The arboretum’s heart is a 4.5-acre expanse of meadow edged with trees. In 1904, when landscape architect John Olmsted was developing an overall plan for Portland parks, he visited East Columbia. The long meadow vistas in the area reminded him of those his famous father, Frederick Law Olmsted, had included when he designed New York’s Central Park and Brooklyn’s Prospect Park.

John Olmsted proposed that the city buy hundreds or even thousands of acres from local farmers for what he called Columbia Slough Park. This didn’t happen; at the time, this land was not even part of Portland.

Instead, the new Columbia School District #33 bought the current arboretum acreage in the 1920s for a high school that was never built. When Portland Public Schools took over the land in 1964, Columbia School principal Bill Warner and teacher Betty Campbell saw its educational potential. They created the innovative GROW program (Growth through Research, Organization and Work).

Students designed three separate uses for the land: an orchard and organic garden near NE Sixth Avenue; a natural area for the opposite end; and in between, an arboretum of trees representing every state.

All kinds of individuals and groups pitched in to make this a reality. Marines used bulldozers to remove blackberries and create a pond with an island. U.S. Fish and Wildlife stocked this pond with fish. The Rose Society donated rosebushes. The Oregon Association of Nurserymen provided trees and the Rotary Club supplied labels for them. Installing markers for future tree locations became a local Boy Scout project. Local architects helped students with plans for a shelter, but it has never been built because the site has no utilities.

During the 1970s, several states contributed seedlings for the “Grove of 50 States.” A quarter of a century later, one former student still remembers Hawaii’s answer to her request letter; they thought no Hawaiian tree would thrive in our Northwest climate.

When Columbia School was closed as a middle school in 1983, the GROW program shifted to Whitaker School, three miles away. Other schools also visited the arboretum occasionally on field trips. But the cost of transportation soon made frequent trips a problem, and GROW only lasted until the early 1990s. The garden area became a school bus parking site.

The neighborhood association established a Columbia Children’s Arboretum Preservation Committee to guide the area’s future use. For years the committee has sponsored monthly work parties to keep the land and plantings in good condition. It helped develop the East Columbia Management Plan—the first natural resources management plan in Portland. This 1980 plan described key policies for the arboretum’s use: promote environmental education; increase recreational opportunities for residents; promote conservation; protect unique and sensitive resources; provide wetland mitigation areas; maintain wildlife corridors; buffer wetland from new developments.

In 1999, Portland Parks and Recreation bought the arboretum from the school district. In March 2004, the department completed the Columbia Children’s Arboretum Management Plan. The document serves as a long-term vision for this new city park. It incorporates the concerns of East Columbia residents, especially in terms of balancing natural areas with possible improvements. It calls for adding paths, play areas and more parking when future funds become available. At the same time, it emphasizes the need to maintain the pastoral flavor of the park, especially the central meadow.

In the meantime, students still occasionally arrive by bus to learn about the natural environment. Portland’s Urban Forestry and Community Gardens program holds clinics here where people can learn about tree care. Neighbors continue to take solo walks in the park or gather for summer potlucks. And their children continue to discover secret trails among the cottonwoods.