Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Cowboys Who Came to See the Elephant



What is now the rather desolate reaches (except for the Alexis) lower West Burnside was once the wonder of the world. If you chanced to meet an English sailor on the streets of, say, Singapore or Alexandria, and you mentioned you were from Portland, Oregon, he would most likely break into a broad smile and begin to tell you of the grand time he had on B street. It was a magnet for other classes than seafarers as well. The streets were jammed with all sorts and conditions of men, loggers, mill workers, longshoremen, vagrants of various kinds, hobos, and cowboys from the ranges of Oregon and Washington. All sorts of men frequented the area, but only one sort of woman.
The spirit of the West survives to this day. A spirit of belligerence, pig-headed intransigence, self adulation, orneriness, and plain, unadulterated wickedness the like of which Sam Peckinpah was as accurate chronicler.

I read a news report in a Oregonian from February 1900 telling the tale of five cowboys who came to Portland to see the elephant in the zoo up at City Park. That evening they decided to go drinking down on B street, and to practice the sport of "closing up saloons." This was an endeavor that involved ordering drinks all around, then closing the saloon for the evening with the proprietor locked out in the street. The report follows as printed in the newspaper:


They saw him (the elephant), one evening, in dozens of different poses, and toward midnight their amusement took the form of closing up saloons in the North End. Their manner of procedure was to enter a saloon, have a fist and skull fight, make the bartender set up drinks all around, and then close up his place for the night.
They saw him (the elephant), one evening, in dozens of different poses

At that time Robert Shortell, who, for many years, kept a saloon of a better class in Portland, was selling whisky in the Whitechapel district. The block of five marauders entered Bob's place and made the usual demands. The leader said:
"We have just shut up six bars, and it's your turn next. Set up your refreshments and then get out—see?"
Bungstarter: a mallet for removing a cask bung

Shortell picked up a heavy iron "bungstarter" that weighed something less than a ton, and leaped over the bar, exclaiming,

"This is an Irish house, and we close up when we get ready."

Then the "bungstarter" began to come into play. Two of the outlaws fell inside the bar, another was dropped on the sidewalk, and the remaining pair escaped unharmed by timely and clever use of their legs…

 The effect was wholesome, and the habit that prevailed of closing up saloons galore was never resumed to any extent in Portland.


Back in the 1970s I was in a bar band that had the poor fortune, months on end, to play at Jake's High Tide in Newport, Oregon (Chinese food, dancing). On weekends the college kids from Corvallis would head over the hills for some fun, mixing with the grizzled and unwelcoming fisherman whose turf it was. Fights—flying chairs, breaking glass, torn clothing, bloody noses, even an occasional stiletto—were common. This was a volatile cultural mix, but nothing compared to the explosive potential present on the saloons and streets of Portland's north end.

I am of a mind that the cowboys were a tougher lot than the tars. For one thing they  carried firearms, for another, the were usually chosen from a healthier gene pool. The same article mentioned above went on to tell of another group of five cowboys. This bunch came from Montana and they were headed to the Alaska gold fields, stopping in Portland long enough to get outfitted. In their own minds they were certain to become millionaires. To celebrate their anticipated good fortune they rode together into a north end dance hall saloon and ordered drinks for themselves and their horses. The newspaper went on to state:


"Their guns were very much in evidence, and it is perhaps needless to state that the drinks were served. A party of barroom bums fell heir to the equine refreshments."


Cowboys were usually just cowboys to the news hacks of the day, but sailors were any number of things—most often, "Sons of Neptune" and jolly ones at that. When fights arose among Neptune's jolly sons the newsmen outdid themselves in reporting, "Naval Warfare" or some such amusing headline. Later on (about 1915) the name "Sons of Neptune" was appropriated  by members of the Astoria regatta for their yachting society, so the newsmen stopped using the term for sailors, to avoid confusion I suppose.