One voyage to Sellwood almost took Titanic

By John M. Grund Originally printed in the Catholic Sentinel, circa 1990s


It’s one of those stories that’s a link to other places, other times, an echo of history that seems strange to be sounding just down the street or around the corner. A lot of long roads led people to settle in the newly burgeoning communities of Southeast Portland in the 1910s and 1920s.

People came from all parts of Europe and from other parts of America to seek opportunities in the young city of Portland in its prosperous mills and transportation facilities. Henrietta Donner’s road led to Sellwood in 1912. She arrived here only on the good fortune of narrowly missing a trip on the ill-fated maiden voyage of the Titanic. Henrietta Donner lived in Sellwood until she moved to a nursing home in Raymond, Wash., earlier this year because of her failing health, her son, Bill, tells the story. They left Germany and they were scheduled to sail on the Titanic, “he says. Henrietta was traveling with her family, a family headed by the prosperous John Nolten who was a German lumberman with his own mill.


All of the family’s possessions were already stowed aboard the ship in England when John Molten arrived to inspect the accommodations. The Titanic was the newest and largest ship on the North Atlantic route and its appointments were supposed to set a new standard for luxuriousness. Notlen, however, was unimpressed. He thought the cabins were far too small and the ship much too crowded.“(My mother) has told many stores of her father not liking the accommodations and switching to another ship,” Bill Donner says. Nolten insisted on canceling his reservations on the Titanic and switching to another ship. All of the family’s furniture and possessions were removed from the Titanic’s holds and transferred to the next Atlantic liner scheduled to go out.


It was ironic, Donner says, that the name of that ship was also to become famous for its tragic demise. It was the Lusitania. When the family finally arrived in Portland, John Nolten was hired by the Miller family as the supervisor of the famous East Side Lumber Mill on the east bank of the Willamette River in Sellwood. (The Rafters restaurant is one of the last reminders of the large mill which dominated the Sellwood riverfront, and the local economy, along with its sister plant, the Oregon Door and Box Co.) In 1920, a few years after the Nolten family arrived, Henrietta married William W. Donner. They bought a house on Southeast Sherrett Street and, as son Bill says, “They lived in Sellwood all their lives.”


Through William died in 1956, Henrietta, now 87, lived in the same house on Sherrett Street until she moved to Washington this year. They raised two sons in the house, Bill and his brother Donald, now living in Alabama. The Donners were members of St. Agatha Catholic Church in Sellwood and Henrietta was an active member of the Altar Society, Bill Donner says. The Donner family held onto the family’s furniture, he says, and the house was filled with chairs and tables that had once been deep in the hold of the Titanic.


Some of that will be auctioned off now, he says, though he will keep a favorite wicker steamer trunk, about 3 ½ by 4 by 5 feet long, as a reminder of the peril which narrowly missed his family on its way to a much less dangerous life in a sleepy neighborhood in Portland’s Southeast quarter.