Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Champion's Rest

The Champion's Rest
Cold blows the wind down 82nd avenue,
Where gypsy car lot pennants wave,
Across Holgate from the plasma center queue,
Old Billy sleeps in an unmarked grave.
Pugilist Mysterious Billy Smith

Mysterious Billy Smith was a Portland celebrity for decades. He came here at the height of his glory, shortly after having won the world welterweight championship in 1892. He did a lot of boxing in the area, but he was always in debt to someone--crooked managers and promoters making off with the lion's share of his takings.

In Portland he saw a big man, a man to be admired, in the person of Larry Sullivan, a boxer turned crimp. Larry ran the sailor's boarding house down on Couch. He was the Republican Party ward captain, and made a killing running the Portland Club, a gambling den downtown. Larry could get away with shanghaiing and murder, and at the same time his wife could sip tea with the mayor's wife in Larry's mansion on Nob Hill.  

Billy thought that there was money to be made and threw his lot in with the White brothers who ran a sailor's boarding house above the busy Albina grain docks. From then on he was always in the papers, or in the jailhouse, for some or another ruckus, fistfight, shanghaiing, bootlegging, tax evasion, messy divorce, or being shot by his ex-wife's husband. But after awhile Mysterious Billy settled down, got a middle aged pot belly, ran race horses, and opened a beer tavern in Albina (where the Portland Public Schools administration building now sits). The tavern he named "The Champion's Rest." Poor Billy wasn't too original. This was the same name that the world' most famous boxer, John L. Sullivan, gave to his beer tavern in Boston when he retired from poking people in the nose.
Nearby Billy's unmarked grave

Billy lived longer than most boxer/shanghaier/gambler types, cashing in his chips October 18, 1937 at the ripe old age of 65 or 66. (There are conflicting records back in Digby County, Nova Scotia, one of the places he was supposed to have been born, where he was named "Amos" Smith.) He was buried in the pioneer cemetery at 82nd and S.E. Holgate. His tavern retained the name "Champion's Rest" on the tax records, but the new owners put up a neon sign that shined his name into the soggy Portland darkness—"Mysterious Billy Smith's Tavern"—even long after the man to whom the moniker belonged was forgotten.

This afternoon I visited the cemetery off of Holgate to see what monument remained to Portland's own champion. My wife and I were equipped with a cemetery map and the record from the Metro database with the location of William A. Smith's resting place. Sadly, I must report that the only monument is some tufts of grass and a random assortment of leaves. If there is a monument it has long been covered over by composting oak leaves turned to rich, dark loam.

I am sure that many of you will agree with me that it is a shame that a welter weight champion of the world, and colorful character of Portland's past underworld, should lie in an unmarked grave—forgotten and unwanted. There should at least be a monument of granite with a nice inscription. Here is my proposal:

Addendum:  After a sound sleep it occurs to me that this is not really a joking matter. This was an important and very colorful Portlander who deserves a monument. In all seriousness I propose a simple granite slab that says something like:

"Mysterious" Billy Smith
Welter weight champion 1892
Died 1937 
May the champion rest in peace
I will pledge $50 to get the ball rolling. 

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