Friday, December 30, 2011

The Esplanade of Yesterday

Anyone who bicycles, walks, skates, or jogs on the Eastbank Esplanade wedged between the roaring Interstate 5 freeway and the Willamette river will pass by the Fire Boat Dock beneath the Hawthorne Bridge. In 1905, when this newspaper image was produced (I can't really call it a photograph, can I?), Washington Street ran straight down to the river, ending abruptly at the fire tug dock.

In the nineteenth century things were always catching on fire, including boats. Portland burned to the ground in 1873 (well, most of downtown). There couldn't be two steamboats going in the same direction without it turning into a drag race, so that caused a lot of boiler explosions. Gas lights burning everywhere, cigar stubs, candles, oil lamps--and almost everything was built from timber.

The historic newspaper databases are as close as I suppose I will ever get to a time machine (something Santa didn't bring me for Christmas). But with a few details, a splotchy old picture, and an active imagination I feel like I have walked the streets of this fair city throughout each decade of its short history.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011


There is a useful Pidgin expression I learned from a Hawaiian fellow: "Tengs ah neba no!" It is to be said with the mouth slightly ajar and an expression of amazement at having learned a new and interesting fact. I have been finding myself muttering this to myself a lot lately as I delve into my city's sordid history. Charles Dickens had given a world wide notoriety to the seedy, whore mongering (in the correct sense), haven of drug and drink in London with the ironic name "Whitechapel". It wasn't long before the name was bestowed on the districts of other cities that bore a similar infamy. Portland has done a rather good job of stowing its skeletons in places that are out of the way and hard to find, so when I kept bumping into the mention of "Portland's Whitechapel district" in nineteenth century newspapers it took me awhile to realize that this was a "district of the soul" and not one that I would not find on any map of the day.

I did, however, chance upon a talk given in 1901 by the Rev. J. E. Snyder at a meeting of the Men's League of the First Baptist Church.  The account tells how Reverend Snyder "exhibited a chart he had prepared of conditions of the district known as Whitechapel, 14 blocks, bounded by Pine, Second. Flanders and Fourth streets In which he stated there were 131 dives or disorderly houses, 42 saloons, 14 lodging-houses and several pawnbrokers' shops." As shocking as this may sound Rev. Snyder might have missed a few brothels, if some other reports I have seen are accurate. Some of these places were actually warehouses divided into "cribs" for the working ladies.

This district was near the waterfront, which was at that time rotting wharfs and docks thrown up in boom times and subjected to flood, flame, and constant winter drizzle. It was a "colorful" period, but one I am happy to observe from the safe distance of over a century removed in time. The lowlife and infamy of this place will be given some serious treatment in the book I am busily writing. If I don't cover it all here, I will try to do it there.

Here I have thrown together for your education and enjoyment what may be the only map in existence of Portland's Whitechapel.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Coal and Stones on Christmas

This being Christmas Eve I deem it to be an appropriate time for this subject. As all of you know, the supercargoes on the sailing vessels of yesteryear had the difficult task of insuring that their vessels would not keel over and sink due to an uneven, or overly light cargo. So, should there be no other cargo weighty enough to stabilize the vessel at the port, they would take on paving materials, or, if it was available, coal.

I was once told by an Old Portlander named Alice that the paving stones in the garden of our church were brought to Portland as ship's ballast. She had dreamy blue eyes hiding in her wrinkled smile, eyes that inspired thoughts of the romance of Jack Tar unloading stones quarried on the banks of the Mersey River and loaded at Liverpool. Alas! I have punctured my own dream on this cheery Christmas Eve.

It is well known that Portland's biggest trading partner back in "the day" was San Francisco. I have discovered that the streets of that city were paved with ballast from up the Sacramento river. Hundreds of ships each year went up the river laden with supplies, and returning with what is known as "Folsom Potatoes", or ballast stones beaten into shape with sledge hammers by the prisoners at Folsom Prison. The vessels leaving Portland for San Francisco were heavy laden with sacks of grain. It is inconceivable that they would return with anything of equal weight--except for the possibility of the "Folsom Potatoes" and coal.

If you read the Marine Report in nineteenth century Oregonians (as I do, being someone who obviously needs a life) you will see that the vessels coming into Portland first went to a place called Sand Dock to unload ballast. I am yet to identify where this dock was located, so I am open to suggestions. Merry Christmas!

Here is an photo of the prison quarry. Oy!
Image courtesy of: 

For more info on "Folsom Potatoes" see:

History of the Sacramento Valley, Volume 1
Joseph A. McGowan
Lewis Historical Pub. Co., 1961

Friday, December 23, 2011

Nostalgia Will Save the World, Part 2

Avast there, messmate--I would read this lingo.
Ha!--may I be water-logged on a lee shore
If our good chaplain's Bible is more true
Than these same statements.

Sailor's in a bawdy house
I do not believe in the reality of many things, including the "good old days," For my light reading on this day before Christmas Eve I have chosen:
Facts Without Fiction and Tales from the Life: Illustrative of the Evil Effects of Spirit Drinking, 1835, Benjamen Bagster, London.
I was drawn to this book by the chapter called: A Scene from Real Life, Or Crimps and Sailors. The introductory poem and etching of the sailors and prostitutes is from the same volume.

Few things have spurred such earthquakes of nostalgia--poems, paintings, and kitsch, as the sailor's life. Yet the sailor was the very bottom of the totem pole, with fewer rights and privileges than any other class of human. The big, many-masted windjammers needed crews, and from time immemorial they were supplied by crimps. These crimps used unsophisticated means to obtain the prospective sailor's cooperation, but almost always it involved liquor. As the line from the sea shanty goes:

 Here's to the tar that drinks away,
And values not the score;
But boldly pays his money down,
Then goes to sea for more.

The crimps of Portland became world renowned for their ruthlessness and disregard for any law or decency. Much has been written about Bunko Kelly, Larry Sullivan, and Jim Turk, but they would never have gotten away with it had there not been a complacent civil society abiding the outrages simply because things had always been done that way, and they were only sailors anyway.

That brings me to today. Today we can look back and say, "Tut, tut!" and think that these are better times. What will the Portlanders of the future think when they read about the thousands of homeless men, women and children who sleep in the temporary shelters, vehicles, and beneath tarps on days like this cold day in December?

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Adventures in the Grain Trade, Part 1

M/V Panamax Sun loads 120,000,000 pounds of Soft White Wheat at O Dock 2011

Way back in the 1970’s I was struggling to support a family by working at a music store. This would be pathetic enough on its own, but the store manager was addicted to heroin and needed to steal my commissions to feed his habit. One day it occurred to me to go to the state employment office downtown to see if I could make a career move. Something that caught my eye was a temporary job, “30 day appointment” doing what sounded like driving a truck and picking up samples of grain. I thought that would be easy, that I would get laid off after the 30 days, and then I could collect unemployment until I figured out what I could do with my life.

I then stepped into a rabbit hole leading to the wonderland of the waterfront world at a peculiar time in history. The United States had been given a black eye around the world for the nefarious and greedy practices of its grain exporters, especially in the Gulf Coast. Congress had decided the business needed to be regulated nationwide and had authorized a new agency to do so—the Federal Grain Inspection Service—and they were scooping up people to work for them wherever they could find them. Portland had never had a reputation for extreme corruption in the grain industry. Not to say things were lily white here, but by comparison to New Orleans the industry here was pretty straight arrow. Still, suddenly the four grain docks in Portland were flooded with an army of young people, many of whom didn’t even know that bread was made out of wheat, supervising the shipping of grain. This army was required to wear orange coveralls and orange hardhats, because a safety officer from somewhere thought it would be easier to find the bodies after a grain elevator explosion.  I was sworn in as a member of that army on the 11th floor of 911 NW Broadway by the field office manager, Gary Wasson.

Those early days were lively ones. Many of the old time heroes of excess were still working the docks, taxi loads of prostitutes showed up daily. Ribaldry and practical joking broke up the monotony, and everywhere I was assigned new and bizarre characters appeared in a Dickensian sequences of unfolding drama. The “30 day appointment“  (we were called 30 day wonders by the full time employees) turned into 33 years. Ronald Reagan came and the workforce diminished. Big agricultural  corporation lobbyists worked away on congressmen, and the workforce diminished.   Terrorism became popular and the docks were wrapped in razor wire fences and guarded with guards. The taxi loads of prostitutes disappeared. The heroes of drug and drink died. But the grain keeps getting shipped.

They never could get us to wear those orange coveralls. Long, long ago the safety officer fell through a hole on the shipping gallery at Globe dock (where there is a big warning sign with letters ten inches high) and retired for medical reasons. As soon as he retired his wife gave him “the old heave ho” and took half his pension, so he moved into a rat trap apartment in Tacoma. The story goes, he hired a kid to go to the liquor store with him in his station wagon and a hand truck. He filled the back up with cases of vodka, which he had the kid carry up the stairs to his apartment. A month or so later, Cortney, a Seattle FGIS man, went to visit.

“Can I get you a drink?” queried the bleary-eyed retiree.

“Yeah,  sure.” Cortney replied with hesitant courtesy.

The retired safety man then went to the refrigerator, which was stuffed full of Hood River Vodka bottles, and proceeded to pour Cortney a water glass of vodka to the brim.

A few weeks went by and the neighbours noticed an unpleasant smell coming from the apartment.

This is a cautionary tale for all of us. It would be for me, except that I have lost my appetite for alcohol. Also, I have not retired but work sixteen hour days supervised by Ralph, my kitty. And, I don’t live alone.  I thank God for that. I definitely thank God, and my lucky stars to be married to someone who is, among many other fine qualities, an editor. She is also very busy—too busy, in fact, to be bothered with editing my loquacious blog. So, if you have noticed that it is filled with typos and hyphenation peccadilloes, she bares no blame. 

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Nostalgia Will Save the World, Part One

crossing the river 1912

My uncle Miles once told me about coming through Portland the spring of 1912. According to Miles my grandfather, who was a Baptist preacher, had been "run out" of Condon by the two old "hardshell spinsters" that ruled the local church. They were on their weary way back to my grandmother Mae's birthplace, the green, moist valleys of Tillamook. They crossed the Willamette river at dusk on the Morrison Street bridge, and then, a very odd thing happened. My grandfather, who was as tight fisted as a Scottish miser, headed the team of horses over to the newly built and grandiose Multnomah Hotel.  That he would stay in a place of sin, tango dancing, drinking, and other highfalutin vices was nothing short of  a miracle; but it was a miracle of love for his frail and sickly wife who, at the time, was nursing my newly born father.

Then the waterfront would have been a long series of dilapidated wharfs where a great variety of vessels would have been docked. The majority of these would have been small (by today's standards) steamships, but there would have also been groupings of masts up and down the river from the schooners, barks, jammers, and wind powered vessles of all sorts still in use at that time. I can actually vividly image the scene, as if some sort of genetic memory was passed on to me by my father. I can imagine the pedestrians, the slow puttering motor cars (the speed limit on the bridges was the speed of a brisk walk), the gas and electric lights reflecting in the waters. The sounds would have been of horses hoofs, shouting bargemen, motor cars, and a wafting of music from the houseboats beneath. The air would have been filled with the smell of the river sewage mixed with chokingly thick coal smoke, and wood smoke, and the smell of cabbage cooking somewhere nearby. 

 Now, in this 21st century, there are no smells and nothing is heard but the swishing of cars as they speed across an empty river, and over an empty waterfront into a modern city where life is carried out in brilliantly lighted rooms on shiny screens connected to small, flat typewriters.

The Hazards of Research

The very worst thing about writing and researching is that my cuckoo clock keeps singing the hour every five  minutes, and then the day is over, and I find myself deep up some side creek and far from the stream I should be following. Today it was the simple act of looking into who this man Albert Deane Richardson was, the fellow who wrote such an interesting account of his journey west--including the Columbia and Willamette rivers--in the mid eighteen sixties.

It turns out that he was a Union spy, a Secret Service agent, who was captured and spent a year and a half in a Confederate prison. As a journalist he ended up living in New York City where he fell for a woman who was married to a rich Irish man who abused her greatly. Finally she separated from her husband, and during this time period the husband--blind with jealousy- attempted to kill Richardson. When a divorce was finally granted the husband showed up at Richardson's office and shot him, giving him a wound that would shortly kill him. Before Richardon died he managed to marry the lady he loved. The Irish boys at Tammany Hall made sure that the husband got off lightly, being acquitted on grounds of insanity. etc. etc.

The murder of Albert Deane Richardson

This man's life would make a good subject for a book. Maybe if I live as long as my father who turned 100 on November 3rd of this year I will get around to it. I am afraid this book would have to wait in the queue, lately I have bumped into a whole passel of interesting characters.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

A Perspective on Pillars

Many of the adventuresome young men who came to  Oregon while the Hudson Bay Co. was still the ruling force lived here long enough to see the log cabins turn into gigantic stone edifices, such as the Portland Hotel, or Meir & Frank. The entertainment went from being some fiddles at a barn dance to operas and orchestras, and the frontier wives were transformed into queens of high society. They rode to entertainments in carriages with beveled glass windows, and then in Packard town cars. I imagine that they learned how to talk in that fake British accent that you hear "cultured" Americans using in the old movies—at least their daughters did, after being sent to "finishing school" in the East. 

Pillars of Society in Portland, Oregon

This takes me back to York, in the U.K., a place I mentioned earlier as being very, very old. In fact, York is where the emperor Constantine was crowned as Roman Emperor, and it was an old city then. My friend Randy Giles (d. 2009, Pondicherry, India) grew up in West Lynn, and ended up studying music at the University of York. His main tutor was an elderly British gentleman who had the habit of saying, "Pillars of society in Portland, Oregon!" He wasn't aware that Randy was from Portland, it was merely and expression he had acquired that conveyed the meaning that someone was putting on airs. For instance, if a student were to spout some knowledge of some obscure musical fact, instead of raising his bushy white eyebrows and saying, "I say! Well done! He would scowl and mumble, "Pillars of society in Portland, Oregon!" Randy thought this was hilariously funny.

Dr. Randall Giles

How very American to take a forested area larger than England, peopled with a culture that had existed for many long centuries, come in with guns and disease, cut down the trees, can the fish, fill the meadows with wheat fields, build some palaces and declare yourself a pillar of society, and have it all done by suppertime. This is something that won't happen again, we have run out of wilderness (of course the people who lived here didn't think of it as wilderness, they thought of it as home).

These are the sorts of thoughts that comes to mind when I am searching a newspaper database for a sea captain and keep finding instead his wife on the society page.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Pilot No. 1

Poking around in the attic of old mariners I have discovered a puzzle, Captain George Flavel. He is reported to be the first person to be issued a Columbia River Bar Pilots license, branch license No. 1. He received this license in the year 1851, according to lots of sources, including the CRBP website. Back in the days of yore the mouth of the Columbia was known around the globe as a good place to lose a ship with all hands and cargo, so getting them across safely was the first order of business for the entire region.

What makes the Flavel story odd is that the folks in Astoria had decided to have a Board of Pilot Commissioners in 1846, and in January of 1847 the territorial legislature passed a section of rules and regulations for this commission to follow (Spectator, Oregon City, Jan 7, 1847). So that means they had to wait for someone to show up who was brave and skilled enough to be pilot number one. 

Capt George Flavel

Captain Flavel made a huge pile of money over the years and built a monstrosity of a Victorian mansion in Astoria (now a museum). But as of today there isn't even a Wikipedia article about him and he only gets a few words in Lewis & Dryden's Marine History of the Pacific Northwest. If I had an intern working for me, like Cosmo Kramer had working for him, I could fix that omission to the wiki.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Famous Harbor

Portland harbor postcard
I try to keep my eye one the ephemera connected with our city's past. One image that keeps coming up is this postcard of a busy Portland harbor that was sold during the Lewis and Clark Fair of 1905. They must have sold by the thousands because they turn up on Ebay regularly, and can usually be found in local antique stores in their postcard box.

Here I have to brag about have purchased a collection of well over one hundred antique Portland postcards on Ebay for around seventeen dollars. I though it was a scam until I had them in my hands. Most of them were over a century old.

At the fair of 1905 not only did a lot of postcards get sold to the tourists, but one of the exhibits sold, or gave away monkey puzzle tree (Araucaria araucana) seedlings. Now there are 106 year old monkey trees throughout the city. Most articles on the subject say that it was the Chilean exhibit. I searched the Historic Oregon Newspaper Database but could find zilch. Once an old lady with a green thumb told me they were a part of the New Zealand exhibit, but they are a native of Chile. They look out of place around here, just like the occasional unhappy, scraggly, shivering palm tree.

Monday, December 12, 2011

A Rainy Workday Day Dawns

I always knew that I would miss this place, even at the end of an eleven hour shift--of which there were many.

In the morning I came mentally prepared to spend some time sitting at the top of the hill. The road into O Dock is the only private road in the city crossing the Union Pacific tracks. As a private road it can be blocked by the train for quite awhile, sometimes hours. One never knew if a train would be sitting there waiting for its time to move into the Albina yard. So, every morning I came with a travel mug of coffee and something to read. One day I had my camera with me. The first photo is when I got there and joined the line of longshoremen, company men, and FGIS inspectors, the second photo was taken when the train finally moved on, letting us all get to work.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Wading Across the Willamette

The bar at the mouth of the Clackamas

The earliest stories of our city are well known, even the legendary coin toss between Maine and Massachusetts. It is still a bit thrilling for a nerd like me to run across a bit of very early history. I came upon this letter by Captain John H. Couch to the Oregon City Spectator defending the notion that Portland was as far as anyone could reasonably believe that ocean going vessels could navigate. He even mentions seeing natives wading across the river at the Clackamas bar. The letter receives an amen from gentleman farmer, and riparian land owner Thomas Stevens.

The Spectator, Oregon City, Jan 10, 1850

 The main obstacle to navigation is the bar that is formed from sand pushed out from the mouth of the Clackamas river. I have canoed that area many times. Once, during high waters in the spring I was surprised and terrified to come upon a place at the bend below Hog Island that had turned to standing waves higher than anything I had ever maneuvered in my cumbersome Klickitat canoe. Time is relative, and so is white water. For me it was a terrifying rapids, for the average kayaker, a piece of cake.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Sunny day reflections on Stumpville (Did I get that right?)

I started off the morning trying to see if Portlanders ever actually referred to the city as Stumptown back in the early days, as the legend goes.But maybe I should wait for the rains to return. On a beautiful, bright sunny day like today it is hard to remember the endless drizzle and the heavy clouds hiding the hills. 

Our soggy winters are infamous. Lewis and Clark complained about the wetness, and then pulled up camp and high tailed it back to dryer regions as fast as they could. In Portland the rainy season (some say it lasts for eleven months out of the year) is bad enough to make the necessity of good paved streets and sidewalks a given. But I have friends who live well within the city limits, and the city street in front of their house is an unpaved, mud-caked sinkhole without sidewalks and only traveled by 4 wheel drive. (I am not exaggerating, and can provide images if called upon to do so.) 

It has been over one hundred years since Rudyard Kipling condemned a road out of Portland as being "worse than an Irish village".  He also commented that "Portland is so busy that it can't attend to its own sewage or paving" and then goes on to tell the story of seeing a foundation dug out in the downtown where sewage had been seeping for twenty years. (From Sea to Sea, American Notes; Rudyard Kipling 1907)

A few years earlier, (Oregonian Aug 5, 1895) Mark Twain visited Portland and mentioned the need for paved streets. He suggested that the city purchase a fleet of bicycles and then rent them out to pay for the streets. 

Portland streets must have been something to navigate back in the beginning of the city. I came across an account in an 1851 edition of the Oregon City Spectator of a trip from Oregon City to Astoria. The author wanted to visit with the editor of the new Oregonian newspaper, Thomas Jefferson Dreyer and this is what he had to say:

"We were not able to penetrate the town to any distance on account of the vast quantities of mud and water that lie in our course. We screwed up our courage to a point sufficient to wade through and wend our way to the printing office in hopes to grasp Bro. Dreyer by the hand. In this we were disappointed. We were informed that he had  gone out to rusticate—he had gone to Vancouver."

Last May the Willamette Week ran a story called "Dirt Roads, Dead Ends" looking at the 59 miles of dirt roads within the city limits. It shows that some things don't change over time. It's almost as though bad streets are a part of the cities heritage. I know my friends wouldn't want the street in front of their house paved. It cuts down on traffic and give a nice rural kind of feel to the neighborhood. 

What, you may ask, does this have to do with the waterfront. Well, I was once told by Alice Frasier, a woman far older than me, and much better informed, that the streets of the old city were paved with paving stones that served as ballast in the sailing ships that came to collect cargoes of wheat and lumber. Is this true? I certainly hope to discover the root of this, and many more of the "unsorted waterfront facts" I have cluttering my memory as I try to assemble a readable book on the subject.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Good old O Dock

O Dock, foot of North Holladay

When I started working on the waterfront the first place I was assigned was to a place that was indicated on the dispatch roster as "LDC". This stood for Louis Dreyfus Corporation, but few people called it that. It was known to the longshoremen and most everyone else as "Globe". The dock has gone through a number of names over the years and is now wearing the name O Dock. I am of the opinion that this is an older name than Globe, harking back to the Portland practice of naming docks after the streets of which they were the "foot". "O" referring to Oregon Street. At one time Victoria Street ran all the way down to the river having its foot in this same area. In those days there was a Victoria Dock. It was burned to the ground in 1902 by an arsonist who had spouted threats while spending a bit of time in the Oregon State Penitentiary that he was going to "burn Portland to the ground." He got as far as lighting Victoria Dock and some businesses in Albina ablaze before being apprehended.

Aunt Sally
My mother and father lived in an apartment overlooking Globe Dock back in the late nineteen forties. (My father had been a missionary in China and had brought some orphans home. I might add that my father and the three Chinese children he had with him were detained in the Philippines for nearly four years in a Japanese internment camp in route home, but that is another story entirely.) One of the children lived with my parents in the apartment (I was yet to be born), a girl I have always known as "Aunt Sally". This is a photo of Sally taken on the bank of the river below the apartment and just above  O Dock.

I always felt at home at O Dock, or LDC, or Globe, whatever its name is. And it is a good thing that I liked it there because we often worked double shifts. Sometimes at 4 in the morning, getting off of a double shift the railroad would be blocking the only exit home. Getting stuck for sometimes up to an hour or more came with the territory, and still does. Peek over the railing of the Steel bridge sometime and think about how you would get out of there if the Union Pacific was parked across your doorstep.

The End of Navigation

After having spent thirty three years working at export grain facilities on the Willamette river I have entered a new phase--retirement. I am also starting to write a book about the history of the Portland waterfront. I have been collecting things for years; a photo here, a newspaper article there, with the idea of putting some of it together, if not into a book, then a largely improved Portland Waterfront History Website.

Providentially, right when I was busy doing  a thousand other things, I was contacted by the commissioning editor from a prestigious (in my way of thinking) publisher specializing in American history. She had seen the website was wanted to know if I had any interest in writing a book on the subject. After recovering from the shock of such a sudden prospect leaping into my path, I consented, and put together a proposal, the long and the short of the matter being, a book is in the making.

This brings me to the blog at hand. I see it as a place to toss bits of flotsam to see what floats, and what sinks. It is also a means of alerting the public to my efforts in the hopes that some kind-hearted souls will add to my collection with offerings of their own. I can't see that I need much more of a preface than this, so blog post number one is getting the "Publish" button pressed.