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Here's why Portland has been hating on Seattle for a looooong time

Seattle Sounders fans burn a Portland Timbers scarf during the 'March to the Match' before an MLS soccer match, Saturday, March 16, 2013, in Seattle.
AP Photo/Ted S. Warren
Seattle Sounders fans burn a Portland Timbers scarf during the 'March to the Match' before an MLS soccer match, Saturday, March 16, 2013, in Seattle.

The unofficial chants of Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders fans can sometimes get a little, shall we say, impolite? 

There's this one: “Yeaaah, go Timbers! Fuck Seattle!" And of course: “Woah oh-oh, oh-oh. Fuck off Rose City!”

That's just one way that relations between Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders fans get a bit venomous. And the friction might be a symptom of a much larger rivalry between the two cities. 

KUOW listener Matthew Wheeler wanted to know: “Is it a soccer thing or does it go further back in history?” 

The smack talk between Portland and Seattle over soccer dates back to at least the mid-1970s. But the sports rivalry dates back further, fueled by a more profound struggle between the two cities.

In 1893, The Oregonian reported on what it called "the greatest football battle ever seen on the Pacific Coast" between Portland and Seattle. (Even though neither side scored a point.) Beyond football, there was every imaginable kind of competition, from shooting contests to automobile hill climbs.

Around the same time, a double-edged rivalry got going between the two cities.

“They were always putting each other down, bragging about how great their city was," historian Mansel Blackford said.

The metro smack talk started because Portland had been the dominant city in the Pacific Northwest for most of the 19th century, Blackford said. But by the 1890s, the balance tipped in favor of Seattle.

Three factors led to Seattle's economic success over Portland. First, it was much easier to ship goods from Seattle. On their way to Portland, ships had to pass over the treacherous Columbia River Bar.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Pioneer Square from waterfront, 1896, when Seattle started overtaking Portland as a big city. ", "fid": "144267", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201804/3632192359_292142a2a3_o_0.gif", "attribution": "Credit Seattle Municipal Archives"}]]Second, Seattle developed closer economic ties with Alaska during the gold rush. And finally, improved railroad lines through Seattle gave the city an advantage.

When Seattle's economic fortunes rose, Portland was pissed. 

“Portlanders always viewed themselves as the longer established city, the more mature city, a place of much more culture," Blackford said. "And they saw the people in Seattle as kind of brash upstarts — which in a way, Seattleites were then."

From the start, this was a battle over which city would grow faster and bigger. But it was also a rivalry over culture and how to develop in the right way.

Blackford said Seattleites mostly agreed that Portland had the edge on the culture front at first, “but they also viewed Seattle as more dynamic, more of a place where things got done.” 

By the 1890s, Seattle had largely won on the economic front, and a spirit of optimism helped drive the city's economic success long into the 20th century, Blackford said.

University of Washington historian Margaret O'Mara said Seattle continued to grow bigger and more prosperous than Portland into the 21st-century, thanks to business leaders like Bill Boeing, Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos, "who created these market-shattering companies, market-redefining companies."

But what about the other side of the competition between Seattle and Portland — the part about how to grow?  Did Seattle make mistakes along the way?  

Former Portland mayoral candidate Jefferson Smith compared the two cities this way in a 2015 program on KUOW:  “I'll concede that Seattle's bigger and richer and has more famous people [than Portland]. I concede that Seattle's better for an affluent family — if you're Jeff Bezos. But in the stuff that really impacts the lives of middle-class families, Portland tends to be a little bit better." 

As it turns out, a lot of Seattle-area residents agree, including some of the soccer fans at St. Andrews Bar and Grill on Aurora Avenue in North Seattle.

"I feel like Seattle is a little overtaken with corporate entities, and in that way, Portland is definitely better," said Jill, a Sounders fan. "It's still its own city." 

Todd, also a Sounders fan, disagreed: "Seattle is a city that has made it onto the world stage, and Portland is still a wannabe."   

OK, but which soccer team is better? On that question it was unanimous: The Sounders won. (Although so far, the Sounders are dead last in their conference this year.)

The Portland Timbers next play in Seattle on June 30.


Year started with KUOW: 2004