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Hauntings and Horsefeathers
Over the past two decades there has been an ever-growing mountain of horsefeathers arising from stories about Portland, Oregon’s sordid past. This is especially true as it relates to certain basements and dried-up drainage tunnels in what was once called the “North End,” the city’s Ward 2 on the old political map. Journalists of the day often called the place “Whitechapel,” today it is called “Old Town.” Now media content providers (USA Today, AOL, KGW, etc.) are saying it is home to one of “America’s Ten Most Haunted Places.” I declare that the only thing haunting that part of town is hipsters with over active imaginations.
The cast of “Old Town historical characters” referred to in the fantasies invented by tour guides and self-proclaimed experts are chosen from various sailor’s boardinghouse keepers and “runners” who were sometimes arrested for exercising their zeal to supply men to work the maritime trade—“shanghaiers” they are called.
When the sailor’s boardinghouse became a thing of the past, around WWI, Portland was not interested in hearing about the Oregon shanghaiers who worked the waterfronts of Astoria and Portland. There had been a premium placed on Portland cargos due to two factors: first, dangerous waterways subject to floods, shifting sandbars, and the submerged tree roots of fallen forest giants; second, the unscrupulous and greedy sailor’s boardinghouse keepers, who often worked with the cooperation of lawmen to extract high prices from ship’s masters for supplying them with seamen. When both of these problems were things of the past, forward-looking Portlanders had no desire to recall them to mind.
In the 1930s after a world war and a few decades had passed, a young logger-turned writer named Stewart Holbrook resurrected the old days by pumping every old-timer he could find (still capable of warming a bar stool) for tales of the Whitechapel days. The chief factor in this effort was a man named Edward C. (Spider) Johnson, a fellow whose tales often do not tally with reality. Spider Johnson claimed to have known Jim Turk, Larry Sullivan, and Bunko Kelley. Personally, I doubt that Spider Johnson ever had any dealings with the waterfront. During the years he was supposed to be sparring with Jack Dempsey, hanging out with crimps, and working as a sailor, records show him as working the printing presses at W.C. Noon Bag Company. A more monotonous job would be hard to imagine. Later, he landed a job at Erickson’s Saloon tending bar. The saloon had a long and sordid history that must have infected Mr. Johnson.
In 1933 Stewart Holbrook oversaw the publication of a Sunday Oregonian series on the “shanghaiing days.” The main contributor to this series was Spider Johnson himself. I never fell for the tall tales, such as the escapades of Bunko Kelley who did such wonders as selling 29 dying hobos to the captain of the “Flying Prince.” These were related in the series as factual events. I began to doubt that Spider Johnson had ever had any contact with the sailor’s boardinghouses when he described the Sailor’s Home of Larry Sullivan (actually called “Hotel For Sailors and Farmers,” run by Sullivan, Grant Bros. & McCarron) as being an old warehouse with “everything but bats flying around.” This sailor’s home had been a respectable hotel and restaurant called the “Wilson House” up until the year it was purchased by the Sullivan group.
It was the tales arising from these Sunday Oregonian articles, and the subsequent Stewart Holbrook articles in national magazines, like the Atlantic Monthly and American Mercury, that became the authoritative narrative of those pernicious times. Not only were the stories compiled into best selling books, they were repeated in histories of Portland penned by historians who should have known better.
When I went to work on the Portland waterfront back in 1979 I became interested in every detail of that remarkable place. When I started looking into the history, naturally I discovered the writings of Holbrook, and the references to Holbrook stories in Portland history books. I became a repeater of these tales, telling them to anyone who showed the slightest interest in historical details. I even repeated them in my blog back in the 1990s. Then I started researching in earnest for my first book, Portland’s Lost Waterfront, and I discovered a different world than the one I expected. Instead of poor unsuspecting newcomers being drugged in a saloon and dragged through a secret tunnel to an awaiting ship, I found a system for supplying seamen that worked, for the most part, in harmony with the civil authorities. Still, it was a world of violence, oppression, and sordidness—but completely different than I expected.
With a renewed interest in Portland history arising in recent years I was privileged to be able to publish my book on the Portland waterfront. In this book I was able to touch briefly on the sailor’s boardinghouse system, and the characters involved. This was (to my knowledge) the first time a book was published on the history of the Portland waterfront. Today I am proud to announce that my new book: The Oregon Shanghaiers: Columbia River Crimping From Astoria to Portland will be available April 15, 2014, and is currently available as a pre-order item at all the usual online booksellers. I spent many hundreds of hours researching primary sources, newspapers, old insurance maps, census records, tax records, city directories, etc., to verify, as much as possible, every detail. I did my best to root out even the tiniest horsefeather. I hope that this book will help to set the record straight on a good number of things—including, of course, things that may be of interest to historically minded troglodytic speleologists or educated sewer rats.