Milestones: From Baseline to Stark to Harvey Milk

Just in time for Pride Week, the Portland City Council decided to rename the 13 Southwest blocks of Stark Street for San Francisco’s famed supervisor and inspirational leader, Harvey Milk. His work to ensure equal rights for gays and lesbians is legend, his reputation cemented by his tragic assassination in 1978 – and the Oscar-winning tribute film, Milk, directed by Portland’s own Gus Van Sant.

Don’t shed a tear for Benjamin Stark, whose name still remains on the east side of the river, and whose personal history does not live up to Portland’s progressive aspirations. Stark arrived in Portland as the cargo supervisor of a ship bringing goods for Francis Pettygrove, one of our city founders who famously won a coin toss with Asa Lovejoy and named the town after Portland in Maine, his home state. Stark purchased half of Lovejoy’s stake in the new townsite, 640 acres, for $360. Over the years, Stark made his fortune selling plots of the land that became downtown Portland. He served in the Oregon House of Representatives and, from 1861-1862, in the U.S. Senate, where, sadly, he was a strong advocate for slavery and opposed the creation of publicly funded primary schools. So, as is often the case these days, we are left remembering a man of his time with deeply different principles than those we hold dear today.

The original east-west thoroughfare we know as Stark Street was a wagon road opened to the public in 1854. It was dubbed Baseline because it represented the Base Line survey of 1851 used for all land claims since that date. By the time my character, Simeon Small, was sexton at Lone Fir Cemetery in the 1870’s, carved stone obelisks were placed along the road to help travelers stay on track between the Multnomah County Courthouse and the Sandy River. Amazingly, nine of the original fifteen markers have survived. One is embedded in a wall along Lone Fir. (For a comprehensive look at the Stark Street markers, see


A small downtown slice of Stark Street dates back to 1852. The building of the Morrison Bridge in 1887 made the Stark Street Ferry obsolete, but for many years it was the only way to cross the river to East Portland. We have to thank Benjamin Stark for that contribution.

In 1920, some folks wanted to change the name of Stark Street to Wall Street! That idea was soundly defeated. Thankfully, the name change to Harvey Milk Street, was made without controversy. I, for one, am happy to add his name to those of other activists like Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Cesar Chavez. Next time around, I only hope we stay closer to home – and recognize a woman of prominence.

Bettie Denny