Thursday, November 8, 2012

Portland's Lost Waterfront: Tall Ships, Steam Mills, and Sailors Boardinghouses

The Author Toots His Own Horn, a wee bit


Golden Fleece
Some years back my wife and I were visiting York, staying in a B&B pub called the Golden Fleece, a pub so old that no one could say when it was built,  but it was mentioned in a document penned in 1503. Around the corner was the old York Merchant Adventurers' Hall built in 1357. The curator of this hall was delighted to discover that we were from Portland, Oregon. He had been one of the children evacuated from London during the bombing, and had been sent to live with a family in the Dunthorpe section of Portland. He told us how, as a historian, it seemed so convenient and wonderful to have a city whose entire history was recorded, and could be discovered; unlike York, whose founding was by Vikings and whose ghosts—pagans, Romans, or otherwise—were mostly illiterate and left behind more mystery than artifact.
Merchant Adventurer's Hall
Portland has a relatively short history, but it seems to be one that is just now being discovered. Today there is a new interest in old Portland, and a very good thing that is indeed. Our history may be short, but it is jammed full of larger than life characters who have yet to see their shenanigans brought out into the daylight for us 21st century folks to look at. 

I must say, I was tremendously fortunate to be asked by History Press to write a book on the history of the Portland waterfront at a time when several invaluable resources were being made available for the first time. I am speaking, of course, of the online searchable newspaper databases, such as the ones offered by the Library of Congress, the University of Oregon's "Historic Oregon Newspapers," and the ones made available by the Multnomah County Library from Newsbank Inc. During my first dabbling with these resources, I came upon some surprising nuggets of pure gold (metaphorically speaking). I then proceeded to go at it like a man obsessed. In fact, as my wife will attest, there was no "like a man obsessed" about it. I was obsessed—spending sometimes 12 hours straight searching, researching, and cross-checking leads, and following hunches over volumes of the OCRed scans of yesteryear's newspapers. 

The book that is the result of this obsession covers ground that even Oregon history buffs may have missed. Here are some examples:

1. This book tells the true story of how the discovery of gold was introduced to the people of Oregon City and Portland. For some reason other history books have only told part of this story.

2. This book tells the factual history of Portland's "sailors boardinghouse masters," otherwise known as "shanghaiers." This true story is far more interesting than the bogus "shanghai tunnel" stories being sold to naïve Portlanders and tourists today.  

3. The book tells the names and locations of the early docks, such as the O.R.&N. Ash Street, Mersey, Victoria, Greenwich, and (until eaten by flames) the huge Pacific Coast Grain Elevator, constructed of wood timbers.

4. The book tells about Oregon's Naval Militia, with its "squadron of evolution" battleships, the USS Boston and USS Marblehead.

5. It tells about Portland's "Scowtown," too shameful to mention in history books, and then forgotten. 

6. It exposes Portland's best kept secret for decades, how Portland stole Astoria's rightful place as the port city of Oregon. All during the 19th century, supporters of the business community in Portland rarely, if ever, spoke of the fact that Portland was a difficult port to reach during many months of the year. It was, in fact, impossible during some months, when cargo had to be "lightered" to and from Astoria. This subject was so taboo that it rarely made it into the history books. This book describes how a port 113 miles from the ocean was created and maintained by digging deeper and deeper channels over a period of more than 100 years at an enormous expense. It also tells how the railroads, to maintain Portland's position of supremacy, purposefully avoided Astoria up into the 20th century. 

These would be reason enough to buy a copy, but this book is also filled with dozens of previously unpublished photographs, many coming from the seemingly endless depths of Thomas Robinson's Historic Photo Archives, and others from my own collections.

I have finally held a real copy of Portland's Lost Waterfront in my hand, and I haven't yet been hit by writer's remorse. The fact is, I think it is a nice little book, very pretty to look at, and jammed with things you probably have never heard anywhere else.