|(Portland OR) - In the early 1880’s, a laborer in Portland felt that the city’s less-fortunate and less-savory citizenry needed “soup, soap, and salvation.” This laborer, last name of Robinson, wrote to The Salvation Army in San Francisco and explained the situation. In response, The Salvation Army sent Captain Mary Stillwell and two female officers-in-training. On October 3rd, 1886, The Salvation Army fired their opening salvo on Portland with an open-air meeting held at what is now 4th Avenue and Burnside.
At that time, the area of 4th and Burnside was partly business, partly residential. The Salvation Army began holding indoor meetings in an old frame structure at 92 B Street (Burnside), soon packing it to capacity of more than 400 souls. Today, a plaque is set into the sidewalk on Burnside between 4th and 5th avenues to commemorate the beginning of what will later become the Cascade Division of The Salvation Army.
In 1886, Portland was a rough and rowdy town. Populated by sailors, lumberjacks spending their money from the logging camps, and the service providers that catered to them, Portland became known as one of the roughest cities in the world. Underground tunnels beneath the streets of the city shuttled drugged and bound victims who were forced into press gangs, prostitution, and slavery, “shanghaied” into a miserable existence. Thousands of people simply disappeared from the streets of Portland, most never to be seen again. Women stayed well away from the downtown area because many were taken and sold into slavery and prostitution. Orphaned children were numerous, people of Asian descent were forced to live either outside the city or even beneath it in the tunnels due to prejudicial laws, and both the police department and the politicians were notoriously corrupt. Into this battle zone, 23-year-old Captain Stillwell and her lady cadets marched.
Victory was hard won. Captain Stillwell soon had a large and dedicated core of the newly saved that marched with her through the streets of Portland, beating drums and playing upon horns to attract attention. They sang songs like “I’ve Been a Bad Boy; I’ll Be So No More,” and “We’ll Battle For God or We’ll Die.” The scandalous novelty of hearing a woman preach brought hundreds of men, women and children into the streets to hear the Good News. Many followed the Salvationists as they went to their meeting place on B Street, packing it out to standing room only, the floor covered with sawdust.
Getting to the meeting house often proved a battle in and of itself. Violence often broke out as spectators of the nightly marches threw rocks, bricks, eggs, and bottles. Captain Stillwell herself was seriously injured during one of these marches. Those who ran the local saloons, brothels, and “Sailor Boardinghouses” constantly harassed and assaulted the Salvationists. One of the boarding house bosses told an Oregonian reporter in 1886, “We either have to give up our sailor houses or join The Salvation Army. If we don’t, we are ruined.” The Salvationists carried on, preaching and reaching out to the poor, the prostitutes, and the orphans. Many Salvationists were thrown in jail for “disturbing the peace.”
The Salvation Army eventually won the respect of Portland’s citizenry. Their first Corps on B Street grew and spread to Corvallis and Salem and throughout the region. Today all of Oregon and Southern Idaho form the Cascade Division of The Salvation Army. With 22 Corps (churches) and 94 service centers that provide services in areas throughout the Cascade Division, plus Division-wide disaster response, The Salvation Army provides a strong and capable witness. Camping programs for underprivileged children and youth, emergency food, shelter, and assistance, Christmas toys and food for tens of thousands of our neediest neighbors, shelter for the homeless and battered, a real chance at a new life for those struggling with substance abuse, youth sports teams, gang prevention and intervention, infirmary care for the homeless, veterans services and ministry to military families, senior services and visitations, shelter and services for pregnant and at-risk girls…..and new opportunities for service keep arising.