Deep within the 5,200 acre urban treasure known as Forest Park, the ruins known today as The Witch’s Castle in Portland, Oregon, have witnessed a series of intriguing chapters in their long history. These ruins, nestled in the lush forests of Forest Park, have undergone a transformation from a grim past to a popular local hangout spot.
A Dark Past:
In the mid-1800s, long before the stone structure was built, a man named Danford Balch owned a significant portion of land in the area while Portland was still in its developmental stages. Balch hired Mortimer Stump to help clear the land, and Stump ended up living with Balch’s family in a cabin on the property. Over time, Mortimer Stump and Balch’s daughter, Anna, fell in love. Stump proposed to Anna, but Balch refused, leading to threats of an elopement.
Balch’s anger escalated, warning Stump that he would kill him if he went through with it. Ignoring the warning, the young couple eloped in November of 1858. When Balch learned of their elopement, he spiraled into depression, plagued by sleepless nights and heavy drinking. Balch’s solution to this dilemma was shocking. He confronted the couple on the Stark Street Ferry and, in a fit of rage, shot Mortimer Stump in the face with a double-barreled shotgun. Balch was apprehended, but he managed to escape from the wooden jail where he was held. Ultimately, Balch’s escape led to his execution in October 1859, marking the first legal execution in Oregon.
Transition to the Witch’s Castle:
Following Balch’s demise, the property changed hands numerous times over the next century, eventually becoming the possession of the city of Portland. In the 1930s, the stone structure that stands today was constructed near the original Balch homestead. It served as a park ranger station and restrooms for hikers, maintained by Portland Parks and Recreation. However, in 1962, a powerful storm severely damaged the structure, leading to its abandonment. Moss gradually covered the stone walls, the roof caved in, and graffiti began to adorn its walls. It largely faded from public memory until the 1980s.
A Teenage Tradition:
In the 1980s, local high school students stumbled upon the dilapidated structure and saw it as the perfect place to hold parties. With no historical ties to witches, they playfully dubbed it “the Witch’s Castle.” Friday night gatherings soon became a tradition that continues to this day, attracting adventurous souls looking for a unique hangout spot amidst the eerie, overgrown ruins.
Visiting the Witch’s Castle:
To reach the Witch’s Castle, visitors can embark on a slightly challenging half-mile hike from the Upper Macleay Parking lot near the Portland Audubon Society. Alternatively, a longer three-quarter mile trail begins at the Lower Macleay Parking lot at NW 30th and Upshur. The Aspen trail provides access to the site, and walking up Thurman Street is a convenient way to reach the trailhead.
The Witch’s Castle is not only a place steeped in history but also a testament to how stories and locations can transform over time. From its somber origins to its modern-day reputation as a gathering place for local youth, this site continues to intrigue and captivate those who venture into Portland’s Forest Park.