Friday, June 20, 2014

Can Any Good Thing Come From San Francisco?

The title to the first chapter of my book, The Oregon Shanghaiers, is: “Can Any Good Thing Come From San Francisco.” Some readers may have found this either somewhat insulting, or confusing, so I hope this post will help provide a background for my use of this phrase.

Some 120 years before the famously overrated “Summer of Love” the city of San Francisco became the center of the universe—a magnet for every fortune seeker, bunko man, moocher, shop lifter, panel worker, prostitute, gallows bird, or any other cove or trollop too proud or degraded to be employed in a respectable manner. As I mentioned in an earlier article a large number of these undesirables came from Australia by the boatload, settling in tents and ramshackle lodgings near the waterfront. This part of the city was called “Sydney Town,” and the inhabitants were labeled, “Sydney Ducks." Very few of these new citizens took up a pan, or a pick and shovel to seek their fortune in the Californian wilderness. It was far easier to take the gold away from those sod hoppers and sourdoughs who brought it down from the hills.

San Francisco 1851, Library of Congress: DAG no. 1331

The new citizens from the Antipodes took quite well to the idea of democracy.  When their ambitions were thwarted  by judges and sheriffs they found ways to stuff ballot boxes and threaten voters to achieve the results they wished. For a short while they blossomed like a perfumed garden (or a stinking corpse—depending on one’s view) before being put down by the Committee of Vigilance formed for that purpose. This committee, with righteous zeal, performed  (for the good of society) lynchings and executions by firearms until the proper sorts of individuals once more held the reigns of government. Even then the city was a teeming Babylon of iniquity. One of the evils introduced to the Pacific Coast from this metropolis was the art of “shipping sailors,” the more extreme versions being called “shanghaiing.” This art was mainly practiced by the proprietors of boardinghouses for sailors who charitably offered room and board to the penniless Jack Tar. They also worked as a sort of employment agency for sailors, taking from them nothing less than several month’s pay from their advanced wages for the trouble.
1866 Library of Congress  LC-USZ62-20317

In 1869 the news went out that one of the commission merchants in the little town of Portland, on the Willamette River, had shipped a load of grain and canned salmon directly to England, instead of using San Francisco as the point of export, as per usual. Speculation of the future of the new seaport must have caused some concern to the San Francisco merchants and bankers who normally handled the exports from the lower Columbia region. This may also be the reason why the sailor’s boardinghouse master, Jim Turk, and his elephantine wife, Kate decided to move to the quiet village on the Willamette shortly after his acquittal on a charge of murder. He had spent from November 1869 until November 1870 in prison awaiting trial, a long enough period to lose much of his business to the other gangsters infesting the waterfront.

After one aborted attempt at setting up shop in Portland the Turks returned in late 1874. Jim Turk set up what he called “The English Shipping Office” near what is now the Skidmore Fountain. In those days ocean-going grain vessels were unable to fully load in Portland. This called for “topping off” the cargoes in Astoria, where the grain was brought by steamboat. This also meant that the final complement of crew members was arranged for in Astoria in the offices of Peter Cherry, the British vice consul. Within the year Turk had set up operations in both ports, making him the father of shanghaiing in both cities.

Previous posts on this subject:
The Turks of California, Part 1
The Turks of California, Part 2