This East Portland Butte Was Home to an Underground Homeless Camp

Kelly Butte is home to East Portland’s buried past.

Kelly Butte is Portland's chamber of secrets. The 23-acre cinder cone in outer Southeast—a 900-foot pile of lava rubble atop an extinct volcano—looms ominously above I-205 and the Central Church of the Nazarene, accessible only by driving up an isolated stretch of 103rd Avenue.

Whatever Portland does not want found seems to end up here. Over the past century, the Kelly Butte Natural Area has been home to a prison, a post-apocalyptic military bunker, an emergency call center, an underground homeless camp, an isolation ward hospital for dangerous diseases, and now—as of April 2015—much of the city's water supply.

Amid tree-lined paths and often startling natural beauty, much of the butte remains fenced off with rusty chainlink, visitors warded away by faded signs marked "No Trespassing" that are tacked mysteriously high in trees. And while you encounter very few hikers, you do find fast-food wrappers and spare socks, foreboding signs you're not the only one who's found their way uphill into air silent except for the soothing rush of the freeway and the occasional lone crow.

"Some seriously odd chakra energy up there," writes a reviewer on Google. "I think there is more on that hill than even God himself knows how to get past the pearly gates."

The history is equally haunted. Starting in 1906, much of Portland was built on the backs of Kelly Butte labor. A county judge got a prison built there so the inmates could crack the butte's rocks to build roads all across the city to accommodate a new invention called the automobile.

They continued their grim, backbreaking work for over 40 years until the prison was closed in the 1950s. A military civil defense bunker was instead carved into the butte, a cavernous 18,000-square-foot underground command center—with a 230-foot radio communication tower—meant to serve as Portland's government headquarters in case of nuclear attack.

It was used only once, in the 1957 Cold War movie A Day Called X.

(Courtesy Kelly Butte underground.blogspot) (Courtesy Kelly Butte underground.blogspot)

In 1974, it became instead the dreary home of Portland's first 911 call center. But workers in the underventilated, windowless bunker began to suffer from nonspecific but persistent health problems—termed "sick building syndrome"—and it was finally shut down in 1994.

Web historian and chiropractor Jeff Felker first encountered the bunker in 1984, when he delivered a pizza to the call center. "I was fascinated by the building," he says. "After they closed it, it was occupied by the homeless for a while. The bums were living down there. They found the electrical cord [from the radio tower.] They ran an extension cord down into the bunker."

Reports of graffiti and vandalism escalated until the city finally sealed the bunker entirely in 2006, shoving tons of dirt over its top and bulldozing it down. Only the building vents are visible. But they, too, are filled in with dirt.

"As a side note," says Felker, "after they were using the bunker as the call center, they had a local artist come in and plant that big mural on there."

Famed Dutch artist Henk Pander—father of Portland underground comics and film artists the Pander brothers—painted a gigantic landscape within the bunker depicting Technicolor ruins, an almost tropical rendition of civilization long gone to hell.

"They buried the painting with everything else," Felker says. "It's still down there."

Related: Pander Brothers, Fabrication/"Corrosion"

(Christine Dong)

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