Thursday, December 20, 2012

Christmas on the Orpheus, 1889

In 1935, when Portland was that bustling city one sees in old movies—streetcars clanging up and down, crowds of pedestrians, traffic jams—Captain W. H.  Brodie paid a visit to the city. That trip he was captain of the Blue Star Liner, Canonesa, a "reefer ship" loading  30,000 boxes of Yakima Valley apples at the Oceanic dock. His first visit had been 46 years earlier, when he was an apprentice seaman on the "little three-masted Orpheus." In those days, before the Panama Canal, every vessel that made it here from the Atlantic Ocean came around Cape Horn. According to Brodie this route, through the dangerous and often stormy waters below South America, was the test that lifted an apprentice, such as himself, into the class of A. B. (Able Bodied) seaman.  
Capt Brodie from a 1935 Oregonian

It never fails to amaze me how difficult the life of a sailor was in those days. Maybe not so difficult as some fiction writers would make out: the cat-o-nine-tails hadn't been used in decades, maritime law prohibited ship's officers from using brute force (except in extreme cases, such as mutiny)—but the tedium and the meager provisions were beyond most people's imagination. Open up Google Earth and count the miles from Liverpool down the coasts and around the tip of South America. The result will always come close to 18,000 miles. Now imagine being on a relatively small vessel with 10 or 12 seamen, such as yourself, a few officers and a cook, for weeks on end—eating, sleeping, and all other necessary bodily functions occurring without anything close to real privacy.  

William (W. H.) Brodie's may have been to sea before, but as an apprentice we can be sure that he was very young. Oftentimes boys as young as eleven were apprenticed aboard merchant vessels in those days. In my research into this particular trip aboard this vessel I have discovered several interesting details: The captain of the Orpheus was James Young, a man the Oregonian called "pleasant and generous."  For that voyage of 1889 the Orpheus set sail from Britain to Montevideo with Captain Young's wife and two daughters along for the ride. The vessel left Uruguay in ballast (sans cargo) and continued on around the Cape without difficulty.  Half way up the coast of South America they met with a violent hurricane. The storm was severe enough to destroy the foretop mast, and must have been frightful for all aboard. 

It is easy to imagine that little Willie Brodie was a favorite of Mrs. Young and her daughters. It is also easy to surmise that young Brodie was of a similar social class as the captain—possibly even a close family friend—otherwise it is unlikely that he would ever climb to that rank himself, as we see he did years later. From an interview the marine reporter did with Mrs. Young it appears she was not much of an ocean lover herself, preferring the time spent in port. She had been out with the Captain before, twice to Calcutta, twice to Java, and she had even traveled with him to Portland once 13 years previous. But, from the tone of the interview, she preferred her home in Grenoch (Scotland), and dreaded storms at sea. In those days cargo vessels could be in port for several weeks, long enough for her to have made friends among the ladies at the Presbyterian church. She was spending her time in port writing letters and visiting her old friends. Captain Young told the Oregonian that since his first visit in 1876, the city had changed to the point of being unrecognizable. 

The several mentions in 1889 newspapers of the ship, Orpheus, make it sound like an idyllic little sailing family. The Oregonian calls it "a pleasant home," and since they spent Christmas in Portland, Mrs. Young and her daughters cooked up a batch of "world renowned plum duff" (or pudding) for the crew. But this crew was not exempt from the wiles of the sailor's boardinghouse masters. Looking back some 46 years later Captain Brodie, recalled that Christmas in Portland:

"…she lost her crew when she arrived at Portland, because Jim Turk and his runners shanghaied the men and placed them on other ships. The officers, two bosons and four apprentice boys were all that were left to repair the ship while it loaded a cargo of flour for Liverpool." Now that is a bit easier for me to imaging—smiling Captain Young, Mrs. Young, a couple of bosons, and the four homesick, adolescent apprentices sitting around the Christmas table. I am sure Mr. Turk would have loved to have shanghaied the lot of them, but he had a broom-wielding Mrs. Young to answer to—I suppose.

Just so there is no mistaking what is meant by "shanghaied" and how it is used in this instance, let me say this: The sailor boys were willingly "shanghaied." It meant they broke their contract with the ship and (illegally) made a new contract with a new ship. The boardinghouse master charged them for whatever enjoyment they had at his expense, usually every last shilling of their advance wages from the new ship. The former ship's captain, in this case Capt. Young, got to keep every shilling that was owed the sailors for their wages, but had to pay advance wages for a new crew. This was the Portland way of doing things from the time of Captain Young's first visit on up to about 1914. If Captain Young was ready to sail, and there were no sailors to be found in Portland, Mr. Turk would encourage cowboys, hobos, wandering minstrels, out of work loggers, or anyone else he could find to join that mighty band of men known as the Jolly Sons of Neptune. And just so the maritime business of Portland did not suffer, the U.S. Marshals would oftentimes ride along to Astoria to make sure none of the greenhorn sailors had a change of heart.

I have to say though, if were to be shanghaied I would want it to be aboard the Orpheus with the mellowing influence of Mrs. Young and her two daughters. Now that would make for an interesting Victorian era novel of manners.


Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Like the Devil from Holy Water

As long as we are on the subject of shanghaiing, there is so much material on that subject that wouldn't fit in my book I will be serving up little dollops from time to time. I am, however,  preparing a fairly exhaustive look at the situation in Astoria and Portland from the mid 1870s up to Oregon's institution of prohibition against alcohol in 1915. It is an odd obsession, this shanghaiing history thing, and one I would have never actually chosen for myself. But there is so little factual information, and such a growing tide of horse feathers and balderdash being spewed forth on the subject, I feel obligated to say a few words from time to time.

At the bottom of this page is the text of a paid advertisement that Mr. Turk placed in the Oregonian to refute an article published in the previous day's Daily Standard. It is interesting to me in several ways, but the first and foremost is that it suggests rather strongly that in late 1880 Turk's "Sailor's Home," listed in the City Directory as being on C Street between Front and First, was the only sailor's boardinghouse in the city. 

Turk would have been hard to compete with. Not only was he a big, ugly bruiser, but he was quite wealthy, having received a large inheritance a few years earlier. Competition would arrive, but at this date he was still a monopoly.

It is evident the Henry Stamford was a seaman from the schooner, Cutwater, who upon arrival in Portland brought charges of cruel and violent treatment against the first mate of that vessel, a man named Nichols. 

There was a time when sailors cringed beneath the lash of ship's officers, but by the mid 1800s this sort of treatment was punishable by U.S. and British maritime laws. In many ports this gave rise to shyster lawyers who frequented the waterfront dives and dens looking for likely candidates. Vessels could be "liabled," a term that is common in old Portland newspapers. It is a term from maritime law that means the vessel is prohibited from sailing until certain legal obligations are met. A sailor bringing charges against a ship's officer, or a sailor's boardinghouse master bringing charges against the ship for money owed for obtaining crew members were two common reasons for a vessel being liabled. These sorts of cases were constantly before the court in days of yore.

Is appears that either Henry Stamford disappeared, or claimed he was nearly shanghaied by Turk to keep him from testifying against Nichols. I was unable to dig up anything else on this story, but I am with Turk on this one. It is unlikely that Turk would try to shanghai anyone when there were no vessels set to sail.  The story of liabling ships in Portland is a vastly interesting one that would make a fine project for some enterprising young historian to use as a master's thesis. Here is what Mr. Turk had to say:

Location of Turk's "Sailor's Home"

Portland, Or. Sept. 2. 1880

The 'Daily Standard' of yesterday, in an article entitled "Shanghaiing a Sailor," makes so uncalled for and false a charge against myself that I feel it but just and right to set myself right before the public. It is true that I was arrested on the charge of trying to shanghai Henry Stamford, the prosecuting witness against R. Nichols, first mate of the Cutwater but that is the whole matter as I can easily prove my entire innocence. The Standard reporter must be very ignorant of the term shanghai, as in the first place there is no vessel in port which is about to sail, so it would be an impossibility to shanghai any one. Again, Stamford has only on one occasion been in my house, and then but for a short time when the house was full of men. It appears to me that I must be a most notorious character, as the Standard never omit a chance to fling mud and decry me on every occasion--It may be because I keep the only sailor's boarding house in town; but in all justice I appeal from the Standard's condemning me before I am found guilty. What that paper lacks in enterprise it seeks to make up in defamation of personal character. I have never spoken to Mr. Nichols in my life except on one occasion, when the only conversation was a simple "Good morning." Another thing which proves the charge false is, that should I ever so far forget all principles of honor as to "shanghai" men. my business would soon be ruined, as it is well known that seamen flight as shy of a professional crimp as the devil does of holy water. Trusting you will grant me space for this vindication, I remain yours respectfully.
James Turk

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Last Haunt of the Shanghaier

A Meeting With Old Jim Turk

As described by the best selling, turn of the century, 
author of sea stories, Frank T. Bullen

With commentary by Yours Truly

Frank T Bullen was born in a poor section of London in 1859. When he was 9 years old he quit school to become an errand boy. After doing this for awhile he did what so many poor boys did in those days, he went to sea. Bullen sailed the world for many years raising in status to that of chief mate. Following this he went to work as a clerk at the Meteorological Office, In this position, like so many civil servants before and since, he was able to spend time writing. His sea story The Cruise of the " Cachelot," published in 1906. became a best seller on both sides of the Atlantic. 

Shortly after this success he published a book relating his spiritual experiences as a sailor and member of the evangelical, Seamen's Friend Society. Parts of this book recalled his journey up the Columbia to Portland, which was in his words, "the last haunt of the shanghaier." He went on to say, "It is no figure of speech to say, if you have money enough, and sufficient pull the police will let you do what you like in Portland. 

Needless to say, these words enraged the Oregonian book reviewer who titled his review: "Bullen, Writer of Fiction." The reviewer claimed that such statements would have been false even in the "palmiest days of Jim Turk and Bunko Kelly." He went on to complain that the port suffered from a "freight discrimination of 30 cents per ton" levied against it due to "misunderstanding and misrepresentation such as that put forth by Bullen."

Well I say, hold on there! What year is this? 1906. Turk is dead, Sullivan is gone. Bunko has disappeared. But down there on the waterfront it looks like we still have Jack Grant, of Sullivan, Grant Bros, & McCarron,  keeping up the old sailor's boardinghouse in the north end, Over in Albina the White Brothers are still at it, with the help of Mysterious Billy Smith. They would later merge and be the sailor's boardinghouse monopoly of Grant & White, still going strong in 1911 (the year my father was born). 

By 1915 "shipping sailors" had stopped being the lucrative business it once was, but thank heaven, Oregon governor Oswald West pushed through prohibition (earlier than the U.S. Congress) and the shanghaier boys had a ready made occupation to step into--bootlegging. I can prove this to anyone's satisfaction, should they care to push the issue.

Now, back to Bullen. He makes it sound like none of the crew on his ship took the bait that Jim Turk laid for them. If this was the case it was a rare ship, and a very rare crew. Here is a snippet of Bullen's experience in our fair port:


In due time we left our moorings, and in tow of one of the stately, towering river-steamers that Americans delight in, we departed. The' Willamette Chief' our imposing motor-it seemed almost irreverent to speak of her as a tug, so splendid did she appear by our side-glided up stream against the considerable current with great ease, at no time exerting all her power. That great stern-wheel of hers seemed irresistible.

The view as we turned bend after bend was truly enchanting, especially to me, whose opportunities of looking upon inland scenery had been so small. Those solemn, endless avenues
of pines coming right down to the water's edge and reflecting the tall pillars of their stems in the placid surface of the river, especially appealed to me,

I could not help comparing them with the vastly different vegetation on the banks of the Clarence, in New South Wales, up which I so often steamed when lamp trimmer in the Helen McGregor.

I do not remember how long we were towing up: I only know that the time seemed very short, and before we could realize that the long upward tow was nearly at an end, Portland, with its rows of double-tiered wharves, its fine buildings and clusters of shipping, burst into view.

But who is this coming off in a four-oared boat, bumping  alongside, and climbing over the rail with a strange air of proprietorship? Without taking any notice of the after-guard, he strolls forward and introduces himself to us as we all stand grouped together staring at the city.

He is, it appears, one James Turk, who keeps a respectable boarding-house for seamen, to which he has come to invite us.

He informs us casually that wages for AB.'s are at present forty dollars a month, and that the paltry formality of getting a legal discharge need not trouble us. It appears they don't go much on discharges here.

"An' ye'll git tew mont's' advance, y'know, 'fore ever ye go aboard," he adds. This last is rather much for me to listen to silently, so I say, with the utmost politeness;

"Who'll get two months' advance, did you say?"

"Anybody as ships here," he replied excitedly; "you ef ye like ter be man enough t' git yer dunnage an' stip into my boat thet's 'long side."

"Thanks," I murmured,' I thought the boarding master usually got the advance, and the sailor that was fool enough to have anything to do with him got a broken head and a few bruises if he ventured to ask for what belonged to him.

Swift as thought the wild-beast stood revealed man-stealer, murderer, criminal of loathiest shape. Can any term of opprobrium be too severe to apply to these demons of the American ports, whose awful trade has been a blot upon the fair fame of the great Republic for so many years?

This particular devil burst forth into a flood of flaming blasphemies against us all, and myself in particular, lurid language to which none of us answered a word. Until presently big Jem stepped forward quietly and said:

"My vrient, jou vants de crace of Gott fery batt."

Shall I ever again see such a transformation? The truculent villain looked stupidly first at Jem, then at us all, one after the other, and then wearily turned away, ejaculating this formula:  "Well, God damn my soul t' hell. So he passed from our ken and we saw him no more."

But afterwards we heard that this particular specimen of the Pacific Coast boarding master had a reputation for evildoing second to none in all that foul fraternity. And we were assured that we might be exceedingly grateful that none of us had been waylaid by his orders and brutally done to death. But I do not know. It has been my experience that in most cases where sailors have been thus evilly treated it has been because they themselves have been consenting parties in a measure, that they have willingly gone to those places where they were most easily trapped.

Poor brother seamen! As if you had not sufficient enemies without you yourselves giving those enemies all the facilities they require to work you harm.

For two days we did not feel inclined to go ashore. There was much to be done, and when the day's work was over it was pleasanter to sit upon the fo'csle head and smoke than to go rambling we knew not whither. 

It is interesting to note that way back in the 1870s when the Seamen's Friend Society was just starting out in Portland old Jim Turk let them hold at least one meeting in his Sailor's Home.  

Monday, December 10, 2012

When Mount Hood Was Just a Hole in the Ground

The anecdote I am about to tell involves Joe Meek, one of the original "Americans" in Oregon country. His story is one of the most interesting of any person in our local shabby and neglected pantheon of Historical Persons of Legendary Value. It is well told in the book "River of the West" which was at one time very hard to come by, but is now a downloadable, free Google eBook. I once gave my father a copy (real, not virtual) and he read it over and over until it was dog-eared, relishing each paragraph. We had many a fine conversation about Joe and his antics, especially as a buckskin clad representative of Oregon in the high society of Washington D.C. I highly recommend it as being both entertaining and and as a surprising look into the actual lives of real people at a time when Oregon was as far from civilization as a Mars colony will be in the not-so-distant future.

 This story was told in an 1868 Oregonian under the heading: How it Came—the circumstances which gave rise to the expression, "When Mount Hood was a hole in the ground."

There was an occasion some twenty years earlier when Meek, then the U.S. Territorial Marshal of Oregon came into contact with some gentlemen of the English aristocracy. (It is my assumption the men were not necessarily aristocrats, but at least cultured and educated in the English manner.)  The men were traveling in the West making scientific observations  and were staying at Fort Vancouver when Meek arrived. The Oregonian writer referred to the Englishmen as "Lords," and now I quote:

Like their kind, they thought themselves about the smartest of the whole creation. The conversation turned upon the early days of Oregon, and these thorough-breds thought to quiz the "Old Man of the Mountain." One of them turning to Mr. Meek said, "Well, Marshal. I understand you have been here a great while." "Yes," said Joe, "a number of years." 'Well, Mr. Meek, what great changes have occurred? Has the course of the Columbia River deviated from its present channel, or has the face of the Cascade Mountains materially altered?" Mr. Meek pointed through the open window to the snow-crested summit of Mt. Hood, looming up 15,000 (sic) feet, and asked the Englishman if he could see that mountain, and said to him, "O yes, wonderfully changed, my noble Duke; when I first came to Oregon that mountain was a hole in the ground" The laugh was so hearty, at the expense of Johnny Bull, that he became enraged and left the company in high dudgeon, but his attempt to get the best of Joe Meek gave rise to an expression that will last as long as Mt. Hood stands.

This little tale is not as satisfying to me as it must have been to the original hearers. For one thing, I fail to see how the "Duke" was trying to get the better of Old Joe. It sounds more like pleasant flummery with a wee dash of sarcasm. In those days though, the English were still the "redcoats" in the minds of most patriots, so it didn't take much to light a fuse. The sad thing about it is that this wonderful expression, prophesied to "last as long as Mt. Hood stands" has long gone out of use—in fact I had never heard it before stumbling upon this ancient article. That doesn't mean we can't bring out, dust it off, and start to use it again.

"Why, I started this blog back when Mount Hood was just a hole in the ground." It has a nice ring to it. Try it!