Friday, February 28, 2014

How Deep is My River? Part 4

During my days of working on the docks it slowly dawned on me that a city 113 miles from the sea is an odd place for a major seaport. When I began researching the subject, and discovered how these rather shallow and often treacherous waters were "improved" over the years to allow for the progression of deeper and deeper drafts of increasingly larger vessels, I was amazed that the story was one that few people knew. The unique situation of Portland can only be understood by comparing our seaport to others. As a final illustration to the "How Deep is My River?" series of blog posts I offer this info graphic published in October 1912 in Engineering News magazine. It shows the principle inland seaports and their respective distances from the sea.

Engineering News, Oct. 1912

Philadelphia    94  --- The first 38 miles is the 25 mile-wide Delaware Bay.
New Orleans  100
London           70  -- Wide inlet at the mouth.
Glasgow         100  --The first 80 miles being wide inlets (Firth of Clyde, Wemyss Bay).
Rotterdam      22 -- Wide inlet at the mouth.
Antwerp         59 -- Wide inlet at the mouth.
Bremen          70 -- Wide inlet at the mouth.
Hamburg        75 -- Wide inlet at the mouth.
Portland          112

This article was published 2 years before the opening of the Panama Canal, which cut in half the 18,000 mile trip to Europe. It was a time when Portland was waking up to the fact that it could stand alongside the major seaports of the world. The new Panama Canal channel, opening this year, will set a new template for shipbuilding. Up until now it has been Panamax, ships designed to just squeeze through the canal. The New Panamax will be deeper and wider, meaning the ships cannot receive full cargoes at the lower Columbia ports. What this means for the Army Corp of Engineers, the local maritime business, and the environment is yet to be seen.

As a city and a port Portland has always been in a state of flux. We won't always be the hipster capital of the world. Will we remain the only major seaport 112 miles from the ocean?

Update on an Update

My "static, HTML5" website, (as it would be called by a geek), is Portland's Lost Waterfront at: Today it received a bit of an overhaul looking toward the appearance in April of my new book: The Oregon Shanghaiers: Columbia River Crimping From Astoria to Portland, to be published by History Press. I also included a content menu for some of the more popular posts in this blog.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

M.M. Dee and the Giant Fake

A Well-known Portland Character, Well-known No More

One of the small multitude of interesting characters to pass through Portland in the last part of the 19th century was Matthew Mark Dee. He was born in 1858 in a Tammany ward in New York City to Irish immigrant parents. When Matt was just a wee lad his parents sent him to live with relatives in Ireland, ostensibly to “receive an education.” In relating this story in later years he would often say that all he learned in Ireland was “to speak with a brogue.” I have an inkling of an idea that maybe little Matt was a pain in the ass. It wasn’t long after the boy returned home from Ireland that his papa made arrangements with captain Campbell, of the British schooner, Sea Hawk,1 to take the little fellow off his hands, maybe for good this time. Matt was only 12 years old. 

It was quite common, in those days, for sailing vessels to take on several young boys—often family friends of the captain, or shipping company officials. These youngsters were usually called apprentices, and the dangers of the sea were expected to turn them into men. The usual age for beginning as an apprentice seaman was 14, which causes me to presume Matt was big for his age. The able-bodied seamen and ship’s officers tended to be protective of the apprentices, some of whom were children of important men, but the job of seaman, even at its very best, was fraught with danger. Shipwrecks, somewhere in the world, were daily occurrences, as were fatal accidents—such as falling from an icy yardarm into the frothing waves, in the ice-choked passage below South America.

From the day young Matt stepped on board the Sea Hawk he would follow the seas for the next 12 years, rising from the lowest estate of a lowly apprentice to becoming a ship’s first officer. Near the end of his career he was the chief mate aboard one of the first 3000 ton, steel-hulled vessels to sail the Atlantic.

Matt Dee (or Mark, he could never settle on one name) was a very charming “Irishman” with an enchanting brogue. His obituary (as printed in Portland and Seattle newspapers) claimed that while Dee was in San Francisco he met and married the world renowned star of the stage (and later on, the silents), Blanche Walsh. This is highly suspect, since it was not mentioned by any of her biographers. She was married at age 23 to the English Actor, Alfred Hickman. This marriage lasted from 1896 to 1903. She then married a man named William Travers in 1906, to whom she was married at the time of her untimely death, in 1915, from appendicitis. This left little time for a deep relationship with Dee, whom it is likely she knew. I wouldn’t think a man like Dee would pull her name out of the air, and she was the daughter of a New York Tammany boss, giving them common ground. It is more likely the reporters got it wrong.

Blanche Walsh

Dee came to Astoria sometime during the 1880s. It is highly likely that he thought, as did many of his era, that Astoria was destined for greatness. Situated at the mouth of the Columbia river, with a large, natural fresh water harbor, it seemed logical that Astoria would someday rise to equal, or surpass, any other port on the Pacific coast.

At first Dee went to work for the famous shanghaier, Jim Turk, as a sailor’s boardinghouse runner. This fact is clearly shown in an April 1885 arrest record. He was arrested by deputy U.S. Marshal, E.D. Curtis, along with Tom Ward (a pugilist of some local fame), and a hoodlum named Frank Silva, for soliciting for Turk’s boardinghouse. This was during one of those rare seasons when such laws were being enforced. Later on, in his time in  Astoria, Dee went into business with Richard McCarron, becoming a partner in the “Liverpool House,” a sailor’s boardinghouse on 1st Street, between La Fayette and Washington. This was called “Swilltown,” a place lined with saloons and whore houses, and within smelling distance of the canneries. During this period of “shipping sailors” Dee also put his hand to promoting boxing matches. Since these were illegal within the city at that time, they were often conducted in farm yards. 

1889 Astoria Directory

In November 1885 Dee promoted a famous prize fight, between the first Jack Dempsey (Nonpariel) and Dave Campbell. It was conducted at a farm across the river from Saint Helens. The steamboats carried about 1,000 spectators from Portland and Astoria to the rain soaked mud of the farm. Men and boys rowed across the wide, rough waters from Saint Helens, and farm boys came on horseback. The second feature was a bout between Tom Ward and a  new kid named, Larry Sullivan. (You may read about this fight in great detail in my upcoming book, The Oregon Shanghaiers: Columbia River Crimping From Astoria to Portland.)

Dee, having been a sailor himself, probably had little taste for the business of “shanghaiing” (as the business was referred to by all and sundry). Soon he moved to Portland where he became influential in starting the Portland Athletic Club. He opened a saloon on 124 1st Street (old address system) called The Turf Exchange. Not only could you play the cigar slot machines, and drink yourself into a coma, you could place bets on far away horse races via telegraph (hence the name). Matt Dee became a famous fellow around Portland, promoting boxing matches and taking suckers' money from them on the races. In the 1890s, when boxing matches within the city were made legal (under certain restraints), Dee worked out a relationship with the association leasing the old Mechanics Pavilion to use as a venue for the “sport of sports.” From the era of Rutherford B. Hayes, up to the era of Herbert Hoover, if there was anything a man like better than a good cigar, it was a boxing match.


 A Giant Fake

On January 31, 1891, the Oregonian reported an event that occurred the previous evening at the Mechanic’s Pavilion under the headline, “A Giant Fake. The Cuff-M’Hugh Fight A Fiasco.” It seems that on the previous evening Matt Dee was involved in a bit of a riot at the hall in which he barely escaped without being beaten by the fists of “about 300 thoroughbreds who had forked over their bright $1 pieces to see a fight that never came off.”

Ed Cuff (great name for a pugilist), a bruiser from Spokane, and Pat McHugh, of Wisconsin, the heavy-weight champion of the Northwest, were scheduled to beat on each other for the enjoyment of ticket purchasers, most of whom had money on one or the other. The fight was preceded by some amateur bouts that were far from satisfying for the fans filling the room. At 9:30 the ring emptied, and stayed empty for some fifteen minutes—a time that the fans filled with stamping feet, hoots, and cries demanding that Matt Dee appear. The “big O” reporter described the scene thus:

Matt climbed upon the stage with a dented hat, and with despair pictured in every line of his face, and extending his left arm, commanded the crowd to “shoo!” The crowd would not “shoo” worth a cent. They wanted a fight, or their money back.

The story, as told by Matt Dee to the seething crowd, was that Con Struthers, and ex-baseball umpire who was handling the door, had “garnished” the gate receipts. Cuff and McHugh wanted money to fight, and there was no money to pay them. Dee suggested that the crowd ante up another shiny dollar so the fight would go on.

The crowd was reported as answering with cries of: “Fake!” “Come off!” “Bring up the animals!” etc.

McHugh, standing by the ring in street clothes jumped up and began cajoling Cuff to come and fight him, money or no money, or he would declare him to be a coward. Cuff was then carried into the ring by a “host of his admirers.”

“Speech! Speech!” some jokers shouted.

Cuff was then reported to have said, with characteristic eloquence:

“Dis yere Con Strouthers is a bunko man. He ‘greed to train me, and said  he’d pay me board and now I find out de darn bloke h’aint got only 15 cents. I am ready to fight right now, but I want some money.”

Following this speech Cuff disappeared into the night. McHugh then appeared in the ring, wearing his fighting tights, and the referee declared all bets off, and McHugh as winner of the (missing) purse. The crowd went wild at this point, and could only be satisfied by tearing Dee limb from limb, but Dee, like the loquacious Cuff, had also disappeared into the night. Following a period of threats and murmurings, the crowd finally dispersed, muttering  threats and describing to each other the various and painful methods in which they would exact revenge in the near future.

In the days following the event at the Mechanic’s Pavilion the charade was discovered to be a conspiracy. Ed Cuff “for reasons best known to himself” was reluctant to fight Pat McHugh, but being a pliable sort, was talked into doing so by the aptly named, Con Struthers. The ex-umpire then preceded to talk Cuff into signing a contract making Struthers his sole manager, entitled to half of his take. After Cuff meditated on these terms for a period of several days he came to the conclusion that it was a bad situation. He then told Struthers that he would not abide by the terms of the contract. The deal, according to Cuff, was off.

Con Struthers was not born yesterday, and could not be brushed off like a bothersome house fly. He visited one of Portland’s many low life attorneys who drew up papers authorizing Struthers to “garnish” money coming to Cuff, an activity that Struthers saw fit to do shortly after the last shiny dollar clinked into the money box at the pavilion gate.

At the end of this report the Oregonian reporter prophesied an end to the Portland Athletic Club as well as Matt Dee’s career as a promoter of pugilistic exhibitions. 

Dee managed to hang in with Portland for awhile longer,  purchasing the New Pendleton Saloon on 1st and Oak Streets. He was reported to be friendly with the prize fighter Dave Campbell, who frequented his watering holes while in Portland. His obituary also identified him as being John L. Sullivan’s manager for 3 years. For those 21st century folks who don’t follow either boxing history or American popular culture history, John L. Sullivan was the most famous man on earth for a season. Even those who stepped into his shoes (like Dave Campbell) were never as famous. As much as this would enhance the importance of M.M. Dee (and thus, the importance of this little post) I have to debunk the report that he was John L. Sullivan’s manager. Dee’s name just can’t be found in this connection anywhere, apart from Dee's obituaries. It is only reasonable to assume that Dee was Larry Sullivan’s manager for 3 years while in Astoria and the confusion lies in the similarity of the names.

In 1898 Dee moved to West Seattle where he started a boxing gym. In 1910 he opened the Haller Beach Bath House and CafĂ© on Alkai Point. Then the name “bath house” did not mean what it what it does today, but rather, a place for people to change to go swimming in a protected area of the waters, in this case the Puget Sound. (There was a similar bath house at Oaks Park, on the Willamette in Portland.) Matt Dee’s bath house was a family affair, with no alcohol allowed. By this time he was famous as a local sportsman, being called the “sage of West Seattle” in the newspapers. Like any Pacific Northwesterner worth his salt he was also well known for selling real estate, bootlegging, and breaking jaws with his fists.

Matt Dee died in 1931, a decade that saw many of the characters that made up the social landscape of the wild and wooly West finally succumb to the scythe of the Reaper.

1. As the name of a ship, the "Sea Hawk" seems fishy to me. Usually I have no trouble tracking down ships from the period in maritime records, but this one is not to be found. It was the name of a famous 18th century privateer, and has a decidedly romantic ring to the sound of it. Once again I suspect poor reporting. 

Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Events Prior to the Winter of 1889 - 1890

The snowy streets of Astoria

By 1889 the power of the ultra-crimp, Jim Turk, was failing. He had imbibed too freely, and for too long and his alcoholism was getting him by the throat. His young son Charles (from a former relationship than his present one) had moved to Tacoma to try to make a name for himself on the waterfront sending men to sea as sailors. His young son, Frank, still a teenager, was hanging around with a creepy Astoria hoodlum and want-to-be crimp named, Paddy Lynch. The other Astoria crimps, under the direction of Larry Sullivan, were moving in on the territory in a big way. They were starting to pull crews that had shipped in Portland off the vessels, replacing them with their own. Violence was at its worst, and ship’s captains were nearly helpless. In the post before this I told the story from the viewpoint of the daughter of the captain of a British vessel unlucky enough to come into port at this time. She recorded the events in a book called, “A Child Under Sail.”

The shanghaiing evil had given the ports of Astoria and Portland a bad name in maritime circles around the world. There was a premium attached to cargo from Columbia River ports due to this evil, and due to the shallowness of the river—making “lightering” cargo to Astoria necessary for many vessels. The violence peaked in the years between 1889 and 1903 when an official monopoly in the business of “shipping sailors” was handed to the firm, Sullivan, Grant Bros. and McCarron by the Oregon State Sailor’s Boardinghouse Commission. That makes these few years the most interesting, violent, and complex in the history of Portland waterfront vice—especially the years from 1889 until the death of Jim Turk in the first month of 1895.

The Portland Board of Trade made the effort to have the United States Commissioner appoint a Deputy U.S. Marshal to oversee the transport of crews to the sea from Portland. The purpose was two fold, to keep the boys on board, and to stop Astoria crimps from kidnapping them. The effort was a disappointing failure, from the standpoint of the Portland merchants.

I am going to try something new and post newspaper clipping images of the events in the year leading up to this period to provide some detailed information without too much of my own editorial commentary.

The year started out with a vile crew of Astoria shanghaiers boarding the Norwegian bark, Jerusalem, while the captain was away in Portland. They kidnapped four men, threatened to kill (or worse) the captain's wife, and did violence against all the crew. This sort of incident is why our two cities had such a bad name in worldwide maritime circles.

January 8, 1889--Astoria, a dangerous place to drop anchor.

 And then, on February 22, 1889 one of the few Editorials against the practice:

 Then in June the Board of Trade decided it was time to foist marshals on Astoria, since "no support could be looked for from Astoria in carrying out the law." Of course this enraged the editor of the Daily Astorian who thought the stink was coming from the other direction--upstream.
Morning Oregonian June 11, 1889

Daily Astorian, June 12, 1889

In October 1889, in his new, politically weakened position, Jim Turk found himself arrested for something he had done countless times--boarding a ship to "decoy" sailors off to his boardinghouse. In this case the ship, Lord Canning, was under contract to the British trading firm, Balfour & Guthrie. The London office had decided to make a test case against Turk. He was to be made an example before all the other crimps, and act that they hoped will cause the others to tremble at the sight of US Marshal's badge.

When Turk was supposed to be arraigned, his lawyer showed up to say his doctor had told him to stay put because he is on the verge of the delirium tremens. The drama increased to a boil in the papers, but the long and short of the matter was that Turk received the traditional fine handed out for crimping related offenses--$100.

Just before the horror witnessed by the young daughter of the captain of the Orpheus, as told in the previous post, the Oregonian prophesied that, with the advent of a special U.S. Marshal, men will be shipped "without trouble."

Had they known US Marshal Fitzsimmons was about to be physically beaten,  his gun taken from him by the crimps, and a charge of murderous assault leveled against him in Astoria, they may have waited a bit before starting to crow.

The tide was turning for certain. Kate Turk (Jim Turk's wife) lay dying in St. Mary's hospital in Astoria. Within five years Bunko Kelly would be in prison with the key thrown away, Jim Turk would be dead, and Larry Sullivan's, Sullivan, Grant Bros. & McCarron would rule the rivers. Like Mark Twain said about his own premature obit, the report of the death of shanghaiing was an exaggeration.

On a personal note: Yesterday my manuscript for the book, The Oregon Shanghaiers: Columbia River Crimping From Astoria to Portland, was emailed to my publisher. It should be on the shelves this spring, so you will be able to read the rest of the story