Wednesday, April 17, 2013

How Deep Is My River? Part 1


Wreck of the USS Peacock at the Columbia River bar, Wikimedia Commons
If you take away the electronics and the air travel, this blue planet is huge. It took Europeans a long time to make it across the wide oceans. The Portuguese wanderer Fernão Mendes Pinto made it to Japan forty years before Columbus discovered the "New World." But it took almost another 300 years before the first Europeans made it up to the Pacific Northwest. Spanish explorers with exotic names began poking around the area in the 1770s, even establishing a base at Nootka Sound (off of what is now Vancouver Island) in 1780. Russians had been nosing around the upper regions since the 1740s, looking for furs. During all this time no one had noticed that a gigantic river was pouring down across a large swath of the North American continent and into the Pacific Ocean. There were a few minor references hinting at such a thing, but nothing definite.

In the spring of 1792 when Captain George Vancouver sailed past the Columbia River in route to Nootka Sound, he put this in his log:

 The several large rivers and capacious inlets that have been described as discharging their contents into the Pacific between the 40th and 48th degree north latitude, were reduced to brooks insufficient for our vessels to navigate, or to bays inapplicable for refitting.
Vancouver’s log, April 28, 1792

During this same period, the Bostonian entrepreneur, Captain Robert Gray, was roaming around collecting furs to trade to the Chinese for tea to bring home to tea loving Boston. He stood off the surf thrashing what he was sure was the bar of a great river for nine days, then gave up, to  try again later. When he met George Vancouver at Nootka Sound, he told him of the great river he had tried to enter. Vancouver assumed it was the same "brooks insufficient for our vessels to navigate" that he had noted in that latitude.

The next month, on May 11, a time when the river would have been at its highest, Gray was able to sound out a channel across the bar using a small sailboat. He entered the river, which he named, the Columbia, after his vessel, the full-rigged, Columbia Rediviva. Gray was able to sail upstream for 12 or so miles before the channel became too shallow. The Columbia Rediviva was an 83' 6" square rigger of 213 tons with a draft of 11 feet. When a replica of this ship sailed up the Willamette some years ago I was impressed with one thing, it seemed very small—especially compared to a medium-sized bulk grain carrier. 
Oregon forests drawn by Wilkes Expedition artist

(Please note for further reference the draft of the vessel was 11 feet and Captain Gray was unable to navigate up the Columbia in May, a time when the spring snow melt and rains swell the waters.)

As I read the account of early explorers on the Columbia River, two things impress me the most: the Columbia River bar was a fearful spectacle, and the river was treacherous—shallow sand bars, shifting currents, and hidden snags from the roots of fallen forest giants submerged in the rushing waters.
The bar was not impassable, but finding a channel was highly dangerous. Imagine: the great, wild, Columbia river rushing into the crashing surf of the Pacific Ocean. Silt dragged down from the distant mountains was piled in a six mile long sand bar where the two waters met in a dreadful roar. In 1841 Captain Wilkes wrote this of the bar:

Mere description can give little idea of the terrors of the bar of the Columbia: all who have seen it have spoken of the wildness of the scene, and the incessant roar of the waters, representing it as one of the most fearful sights that can possibly meet the eye of the sailor. The difficulty of its channel, the distance of the leading sailing marks, their uncertainty to one unacquainted with tem, the want of knowledge of the strength and direction of the currents, with the necessity of approaching close to unseen dangers, the transition from clear to turbid water, all cause doubt and mistrust.
Charles Wilkes, Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition During the Years 1838, 1839, 1840, 1841, 1842  (in five volumes and an atlas), Vol. IV (London: Wiley and Putnam, 1845).
Astoria drawn by Wilkes Expedition artist

Lt. Wilkes had a special dislike for this bar that destroyed one of his ships, the U.S.S. Peacock, killing some of his men. But it was navigable. The Hudson's Bay Company had been sailing around the area from Fort Vancouver to their outposts in Canada in the S.S. Beaver since 1836. The Beaver came from London around the horn sailing as a schooner. It was then outfitted with equipment it carried aboard to turn it into a steam wheeler. She had an 8' 4" draught, which made navigating the shallow bar channel and the sand bars of the Columbia easier than that of a larger vessel. It may seem too obvious to mention, but the reason the ship went around the horn as a sailing vessel before being turned into a steam boat is simply this: steam engines ate fuel like nobody's business, several cords to go a few miles. Sailing cost nothing, and used no other fuel than the sea biscuits and salt meat fed to the sailors.

The SS Beaver


(Next: The Wilkes Expedition nautical charts of the Columbia and Willamette rivers, 1841)




Friday, April 12, 2013

Belmont Library, Tomorrow

Here is a brief reminder that I will be giving a talk tomorrow at the Belmont branch of the Multnomah County Library.

Salty Dogs and Shanghai Tunnels
Saturday, April 13, 2013 
3:15 pm
Belmont Library, Meeting Room 

The library is at 1038 SE César E. Chávez Boulevard, so it really isn't on Belmont--never has been. Maybe they should change the name to César E. Chávez library.



The Turks in California, Part 2




San Francisco was the sort of place that tolerated iniquity up to the point in which that iniquity threatened to take control, then—to use a phrase from the Rogue's Lexicon—it was curtains. Back in the gold rush days the city had been over run by Irish criminals from Australia. This group of scoundrels were drawn by the promise of gold, but found digging in the bowels of the earth too hard. It was easier, and more profitable to rob the miners after they had done the work. These criminals were called "Sydney Ducks" and the area close to the waterfront was "Sydney Town." The Irish Aussies got busy with American Democracy and began threatening voters and stuffing ballot boxes until many of the positions of authority in the city were controlled by them. What followed was the business men and former members of civil society formed the "Committee of Vigilance." The members of this committee invested themselves with the power of life or death over the perpetrators of iniquity, assassinating and lynching "Sydney Ducks" by the dozens, until order was restored.

Not long after this episode the San Francisco waterfront fell under the sway of powerful Sailor's Boardinghouse Masters, men who cheated sea captains, shanghaied sailors, and threatened to discredit the maritime business of the port in the eyes of foreign merchants. Jim Turk was among these crimps and operated from two different locations during the 1860s. In 1872 the San Francisco authorities, under the direction of the U.S. Shipping Commissioner Stevenson, began to crack down heavily on the sailor's boarding houses. Runners for the houses were arrested as they attempted to board ship. The merchants with commercial interests in shipping met with shipping masters and captains to agree on ways to suppress the "blood money" system of advanced wages. I suspect that San Francisco became too hot for the Turks, so they moved north to work the docks of Astoria and Portland.



From  the Portland, Oregon U.S. Census 1880

Turk was in Portland long enough to make himself odious, then his marriage hit rough waters. I would estimate the first period to be something less than two years. This I am deducing from two facts: their son, Frank, was reported to have been born in Portland, and the San Francisco Daily Alta California stated in January 1874 that the lad was "about 18 months" old. This was in a report, seen as amusing to most readers, of the fiery explosion of emotion that was thought to be the end of the Turk's marriage. The papers were wrong. Not only was the marriage not over, Portland had not seen the last of them. These vagaries will become somewhat clearer by reading in its entirety the article below, which appeared in the Morning Oregonian, January 22, 1874, and is a recap of the California story.

    The Turk Family


    The Portland public, and especially the members of the police force of this city certainly have abundant reason for remembering  Mr. Turk and his angel-faced spouse, Catherine. This detestable pair formerly resided in Portland, and were the proprietors of a low, disreputable sailor's boarding house, near the corner of Front and Ash Streets. Turk was a swaggering bully, and never allowed an opportunity to pass by unimproved to display his pugilistic talents, especially when his opponent was physically inferior to himself. His wife was a female of Amazonian proportions, with a temper alongside which Jezebel was an angel, and to which might be added that other commendable trait, intemperance. During her drunken sprees she was a terror to her husband and a source of annoyance to the police. Finally the family relations became so intolerable that Turk shipped on board an English vessel and left the country. Soon after Mrs. Turk took her departure for parts unknown, and rid the community of her unwelcome presence. But it seems that she is afflicting the good people of San Francisco. From an exchange of the 12th we learn that Mrs. Catherine Turk rushed frantically into the presence of Captain Dayton, of the San Francisco police force, and demanded a warrant for the arrest of her husband, who, she stated, had shipped on board the ship Cultivator, which was to sail the next day for Liverpool, taking with him her only child, a boy aged about 18 months. The captain suggested the idea that her husband was perhaps the lawful custodian of the child, and that a warrant for his arrest could not be issued. He told her, however, that she might be enabled to reach the case were she to sue out a writ of habeas corpus in the proper court. She went out swearing that she would have the child anyhow, and on the next day Turk was arrested by the Harbor Police to answer to a charge of larceny, based upon the fact that he had taken from his wife two trunks of clothing. He stated, by way of explanation, that his wife was a dissipated woman, and that he had shipped as steward on board the Cultivator, in order that he might convey his child to Liverpool and place him in the custody of his sister, who resided there. The case was inquired into on the following day, and Turk was discharged, but too late to fill his engagements with the vessel.

It is clear by reports of further drunken sprees and violence that the Turk family was back in the business of shipping sailors in Portland by November of that year. I don't think I would want to be in the shoes of the reporter who penned the article above should it have fallen into Jim Turk's hands. At the very least my eyes would be in need of beefsteaks and the rest of my body a good rub down with one of those miracle cures found in every corner drug store in those days.

The Turks were back for good, travelling between Portland and Astoria, shipping sailors from both cities. They would divorce and then live together in their drunken fits of rage. Jim Turk would remarry after Kate died of acute alcoholism in 1890. But when Turk died, five years later, he was buried with Kate on one side and his mother on the other. His grave can be seen today in the Lone Fir Cemetery, a simple stone marked "FATHER."