Saturday, June 30, 2012

John R. Blalock

The post today is dedicated to my father, whose funeral will take place later this day. John Reuben Blalock was born in Condon, Oregon, on November 3, 1911. He died June 18, of this year—he was 100 years and seven months old.

He was still an infant when the family moved back to Tillamook, the home of my grandmother. According to my uncle Miles, they made the trip by wagon. When they passed through Portland, the family spent the night at the Multnomah hotel, an unheard of extravagance on the part of my grandfather.   

My Father

My grandfather had been a Baptist missionary to the Pacific coast. The family moved to various places in Oregon, California, and Idaho, but the hamlet of Beaver, in Tillamook county, was always considered home.

After high school my father came to Portland to attend what was then called Western Baptist Theological Seminary on S.E. 28th and Salmon (the building is still there). After graduation he was called to preach, and to join his uncle in Tia An, China, as a missionary. His uncle had been in China for many decades prior to this time. When my father set out for China, it was during the great longshoremen's strike of 1934. Being unable to secure passage in the United States, he travelled to Vancouver, B.C., where he took passage on the Canadian Pacific steamer, Empress of Japan, for Shanghai. Little did he know that he was stepping into the mouth of a lion, that the Orient was about to explode into war, although that would surely not have deterred him.

The Canadian Pacific liner Empress of Japan

During most of the time my father was in China, the Sino-Japanese war was underway. Things became increasingly difficult, and by 1941 it became necessary to leave Tia An. My father left for the Philippines with three Chinese-American orphans in his care. They arrived in Manila just a few days before Pearl Harbor and, therefore, a few days before the Japanese occupation of Manila.

My father and the children in his charge spent the remainder of the war as prisoners of the Japanese. As the Allied forces made headway in the war, the conditions in the camp became very grievous, and the prisoners were approaching death by starvation. Just prior to the execution of a Japanese order to kill the entire camp, there was a dramatic, and successful rescue made by the coordinated efforts of the Philippine guerrillas, U.S. Army troops with amphibious tractors, and the paratroopers of the 11th Airborne. 

The story of these events, written by his own hand, can be found at

After returning to the United States, my father spent several years following in the footsteps of his father, doing mission work on the Pacific coast. During this time he married my mother, Mary Marshall, an Ohio girl. They had two children during this time, my brother Thomas and me.

My father then was called to go to the land of his former captors. In the fall of 1953, the Blalock family set off in the M.S. Hikawa Maru (the subject of an upcoming post) for Yokohama, Japan. The remainder of this tale will have to wait until some future date. I must now get ready for one of the saddest events of my life.

Uncle Thomas, missionary to China, with my mother and her two kids, and some more of the old home folks in 1953

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Steward Holbrook's Little Details

Repetition of a Holbrook fiction is a sure indication of lazy scholarship and gullibility.

 In an earlier post I mentioned the little detail that Stewart Holbrook added to his Nancy Boggs story to make the floating bordello believable—it was "painted Nile green and red." Apparently the trick worked in this case, since the exact detail was repeated by writers of popular history ever since. I don't think this detail was invented by Edward C. (Spider) Johnson, the Erickson's Saloon bartender/bouncer from whom Mr. Holbrook got so many of his tales. It has a distinctive Holbrook ring to it.

Let it never be said that I have no respect Mr. Holbrook. He was a fine storyteller, far better than I will ever be. He was also a talented painter in oils. Few people in the Portland art community thought so—his crude primitives seemed to be poking fun, rather than reaching for some ineffable transcendence. A New York gallery gave him a showing, but this was ignored by the Portland elites. 
Holbrook painted under the pseudonym, Mr Otis. This is a work called, "Fido Can Set Up!"

He was a real character who loved pulling the wool over the heads of intellectuals, editors, and anyone else who stood with a gaping jaw listening to his yarns. It was the same joy that a grandfather feels putting one over on his little grandkid. He also loved Portland, and his tales were intended to embellish the past from being plodding, endless grey days ruled by merchants and commerce into something more wonderful. The real tragedy is that by listening to Spider, and making up his own stories, instead of researching the old archives, he missed an even more interesting past. The lines of old newsprint open up a world far more interesting than any of the yarns spun over cheap beer on 3rd and Burnside.
detail from "Call Me Ishmael, He Cried"

Portland's real past could only be told in hundreds of volumes, and is full of acts of imbecilic cruelty, institutional stupidity, prejudice, racism, pompous vanity, acts of self sacrifice, gentle love, and all the other things that make us who we are. I have spent hundreds of hours in several different newspaper archive databases. I am beginning to feel like a visitor from the past. I am also approaching a sort of overload to where I am beginning to question whether it is even possible to bring certain things from the past into the light of the present. The reason books that aim to be "serious" history are usually so terribly boring is that there is so much background that must be established before anything, and I mean anything, can be properly understood. With objects such as bridges, or monuments, the job of writing history isn't that hard; but human beings—it’s a different story, one that is intricately complex and intertwined with a million other stories.

Holbrook was very good at caricatures—in oils, as well as in print. Caricatures are rarely flattering and usually reduce human beings into simplified objects—usually objects of ridicule. This is a skill, it takes talent and hard work, so I am not demeaning Holbrook by pointing this out. It isn't history by any stretch of the imagination. But it has been treated as though it were history by Portlanders ever since the 1930s when Holbrook's writing started appearing in the Oregonian, the Atlantic Monthly, the American Mercury, and other places. 

For instance, in Holbrook's book, the Portland Story, he calls captain John Couch, "a weather-beaten, deep sea skipper who wore thumping great earrings." Anyone who has seen a photograph of John Couch will find this utterly preposterous—a Victorian era gentleman with a starched white collar. It ain't true. It's one of his little details added into the tale because he thought that the real captain wasn't colorful enough. The only references I could find to these earrings were in history books published after 1970 where Holbrook's line was quoted. I think Holbrook would be amused that this little detail has made it into the history books.
Captain John Couch minus earrings

Someday, when I have lots of time, instead of going fishing for trout on the Metolius river, I will go through all Holbrook's stories and make a detailed list of his fictitious little details that have made it into the pages history books.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

O, to be by thy waters once again, sweet river

This was what I saw when I stepped outside

 Some days I find myself almost falling into the illusion of "retirement remorse." I miss being right next to the river, even though it would take me only 5 minutes to get there from my house. Most of all I miss my fellow workers. If I were more social, instead of being a agoraphobic recluse, I would go seek them out: except that most of the time they are working weekends and nights, and have no time to socialize. I put up the website during a long period of 12 hour shifts. Some of my fellow workers, like Stu here in the picture, did other things with their time.

Stu finally retired for real last month

I looked over the old website the other day and did a lot of cringing. I need to get rid of a few things that turned out to be not as true as I once was led to believe. (Oy!)  I am ¾ finished with a new, HTML5, with lots more, and much larger images version. I will also include a more comprehensive list of Portland history websites.

The video below may help to explain why I might have a pang of nostalgia from time to time.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

A Bad Way to End the Year 1901

Courtesy the Historic Photo Archives

A surprising thing happened on the morning of New Year's Eve in 1901 . The French bark Asie, newly arrived from Tasmania, had come to Portland under contract with Balfour & Guthrie Co. to load grain for Europe as part of the season's grain fleet. At 8:30 that morning the vessel was at  Davidges Wharf, on the west bank of the river, where its ballast of sand was nearly finished being off loaded. Some of the local stevedores were sweeping the last remaining sand into buckets, while others were hoisting the buckets aloft and onto the wharf. A group of sailors were mopping up behind the stevedores to ready the hold for grain, and another group was in the forecastle mending sails.

Monsieur Ollivaud, the captain, had just left the master's cabin, a cabin which he shared with his wife, and was stepping off the gangplank, on his way to a meeting in the downtown office of Balfour & Guthrie Co. At that moment there was a shift in the vessel, as though from the wake of a passing steamboat, and a second later a loud cracking sound.  From various parts of the ship the captain heard shouts of warning. Instinctively obeying the shouts, he leapt for safety, just as the giant steel masts crashed into the planks and timbers of the wharf, splintering them like kindling. The end result can be seen in these graphic photos, made from negatives belonging to the Historic Photo Archive (from which high quality prints can be purchased).

There were 11 stevedores on board at the time, 3 ship's officers, a crew of 22 men, and we must not forget Madame Ollivaud in the cabin. Her safety was the first concern of Captain Ollivaud who quickly found a row boat to take him to where she was hanging on to the side of the leaning deck, shaken, but not harmed. The ship's guardian angel had been hard at work that day—out of all the stevedores and crew there was only one injury. A young stevedore had been hit by a sliding bucket of ballast, but it was not serious.
Why then did the Asie fall over? Many hundreds of ships had gone through this same process without mishap. The Asie was practically a new ship, in very fine condition. During the unloading process the ship was supported, as were all ships of that sort, by the use of "log ballasts," or supporting rafts of logs along each side.  Surveyors on the day of the mishap declared the log ballast, if properly handled, was capable of holding any vessel in an upright position. They also expressed an opinion that the vessel was top heavy, due to the steel masts, a position the captain saw as preposterous.

The disaster unfolded before the astonished eyes of passengers on the Albina ferry, which was in the middle of the river heading for its west side slip, just north of the wharf where the accident occurred. With each new crossing the crowds of onlookers increased, until the gates were closed. Some sailors tried to salvage the wardrobe belonging to the captain and wife, but sadly, all that could be saved was a small amount of pipe tobacco.

The cause of the disaster was never firmly established. Passengers watching from the ferry affirmed that no one had touched the ropes tying the ship to the logs alongside. Several marine surveyors, all sea captains made their examinations, but could find no clue as to the reason for the ship to shift and fall. It was at first believed that the vessel would need to be towed to San Francisco to be repaired, but the ship owners were eventually convinced that Portland would be just as good, and less expensive. The final tab was $30,000, a huge sum, but only half of what the ship's owners had spent on repairs to the Asie's sister ship, the bark Europe. Never before had this new and unproven seaport attempted such extensive repairs on such a large vessel. The incident could have been a tragic disaster, but in the end it turned out that Portland was put into the spotlight in shipping circles as an inexpensive alternative to San Francisco when major repairs to a vessel were required.

July 24, 1902 the Asie left the Portland harbor with a full cargo, proudly restored to its former glory, its towering masts of steel dwarfed by the fir forests lining the shores of the river. The ship would continue to carry cargo around the globe until December 28, 1919, when it ran into a shoal near the mouth of the estuary at Saint-Nazaire, on the coast of France. The ship was lost, though all the crew was brought to safety.  The figurehead on the bowsprit was removed and taken to the Museum of Nantes.

Courtesy of the Historic Photo Archive

Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Fruit Runner, Weser

The M. V. Weser, of the Norddeutscher Lloyd shipping company, was fast, having an average cruising speed of 19 ½ knots.  In spite of its working ship, bulldog looks, it was outfitted in a luxurious style in its interior; for unlike most freighters today, there were 21 of the "largest and best-furnished passenger cabins seen in this harbor." At least this was the report given by visitors to the ship in the entourage on Armistice day in 1934. It seems that these cabins were not difficult to fill with passengers; the ship was already booked weeks before arriving on its "fruit run," taking the apples of Hood River and the pears of Yakima to the green grocers of Europe.

Grandfatherly old Captain Franz Voigt appears to have been a friendly fellow, but maybe a little reserved. It was Armistice day, after all, not the best day to be a German in America. The agent referred to this as the North German Lloyd "Christmas Ship" that would arrive in Europe with passengers two weeks before Christmas. I feel a twinge of envy tugging at my heart—to be one of those pampered few—the Weser passengers.

That was 1934. The Weser was here and back quite often, on the "fruit run," in the years following. The photos in this blog post were taken in 1936, and the gentleman with Captain Voigt is the German consul, Robert G. Cloustermann, who appears in town after the war as a maritime lawyer. This ship had been on the "fruit run" for a few years. Originally, after it was completed in 1929, it was named Sud Americano for A/S Linea Sud Americana Lines. Later it was sold to a firm in Bremen and named, Yakima Star, a name fitting to a "fruit runner." The vessel was lengthened in 1934, and renamed Weser for Norddeutscher Lloyd, where it kept on supplying apples, pears, and the like to European markets.

In 1938, when the M.V. Weser made its "fruit run," the papers referred to it as the "Nazi ship, Weser." That is the last Portland saw of the Weser.

After nightfall, on September 25, 1940 the Canadian ship H.M.C.S. Prince Robert spotted the Weser as it was heading out of the harbor of Manzinillo, in southwestern Mexico. The Canadian ship was part of the blockade in force on Mexican ports. The Canadians were close to the shore and in a perfect position to surprise the German vessel before the crew had a chance to scuttle. The Weser was thought to have been turned into a supply ship for the German battleship, Orion. During this raid the German crew was taken captive, but smiling Captain Voigt was not aboard.  The next month Captain Voigt was spotted among the passengers of the Japanese vessel, Rakuyo Maru, leaving Mazanillo for Japan.

The Weser was taken by a small crew of Canadians to Esquimalt in British Columbia where it was renamed the Vancouver Island.  On the night of October 15, 1941 in the middle of the North Atlantic, the unescorted vessel was torpedoed by a U-boat, fore and aft. The ship went down fast; there were no survivors.

This leaves me wondering what ever happened to smiling Captain Voigt, a mystery I am willing to leave unsolved for now, seeing as I have so many other mysteries in my life these days.

These photographs are courtesy of Thomas Robinson's Historic Photo Archive.  They were taken by Oregonian reporter, Larry Barber, and have been negatives tucked away in an envelop since 1936.


I now have-without exaggeration-enough research material on the history of the Portland waterfront keep me writing articles, blog posts, even books for the rest of my life. The problem is, there is no stopping place. Every time I look into one thing something else of interest catches my eye.

I am also fortunate enough to be allowed to sort through the maritime photos at the Historic Photo Archives belonging to Thomas Robinson. Some of these have not been seen since the photographer filed them years ago. It is tremendously rewarding to be able to research the background of these images. The phrase, "kid in a candy shop" keeps coming to mind, except that kid can eat too much candy and get sick-I can't imagine getting sick of this activity.

From time to time I will be bringing out some interesting bits that come my way, so check back.