Thursday, August 21, 2014

The King of Swan Island

In mid-April 1861 a group of local lads formed a boating club, which they named the “Regatta  Club.” It so happened that about this time the Willamette River went into a semi flood stage, and a boathouse in Oregon City came loose and floated down to Swan Island. Seeing a fine opportunity the members of the newly formed nautical association made arrangements with the owner of the boathouse to purchase it at a greatly reduced price should they be able to salvage it, and bring it up to Portland.

At that time there was a farmer living on the island who claimed that he had grown up there since he was a “waif.” Furthermore he claimed that he had long ago claimed the island as his own, and declared his sole right as sovereign of the isle to claim as flotsam any items that washed ashore on his beach. It was upon this right that the “agriculturalist” (as the Oregonian put it) laid claim to the boathouse.

Undeterred by these proofs the lads (Did I mention they were stout chaps, used to handling an oar?) shoved the farmer aside and went about their business of towing the errant ark to its new moorage, secured to the pilings of Couch’s Wharf.

When the irate sovereign came to town he was put off by the local authorities. It was reported that he went off with a “very large flea in his ear.”

At that time the Swan Island Bar was a major impediment to those doing business in ships. That very month the San Francisco packet “Panama” was able to negotiate the other sand bars between Astoria and Sauvie Island, but was stopped at Swan Island. From there the cargo was handed, to and from Portland, by small barges. The list of vessels running aground on the bar is long and varied—it was a major nuisance, and headache for Portland businessmen. Had the “king of Swan Island” tried to claim salvage rights to them all, it would have gotten old quickly.

Soon the farmer king either died, or decided to cash out. The following ad began appearing in the newspapers in August 1868, Just think, an island of one’s own, close to the comforts of a warm-hearted metropolis! “Swan Island!” What a remarkably beautiful name, how lovely it must be! 

Friday, August 1, 2014

The Ballad of the Flying Prince

This being my 100th post I will wax poetic. What I offer below is my own weak attempt to turn one of Portland's undying pieces of folklore B.S. into folk song. I have turned this lyric over to some songsters to see if they can come up with something. My left hand is almost useless right now. This prevented me from doing this on my own, accompanied by my tenor guitar and banjolele.

The story is no older than the 1930s and Stewart Holbrook's marvelous experiment to hoodwink the public with yarns that he attributed to old timers. This tale he told several different ways, always changing the number of corpses involved. 

For the record: According to the City Directory there was no saloon in Portland called the "Snug Harbor" nor was there ever a "Johnson & Son" undertaker. According to maritime records there was no ship named the "Flying Prince" registered during the late 19th century; but I happened to notice a famous race horse with that name running in the 1930s. 

In several places Holbrook asserts that the news of this "Flying Prince" even went worldwide and was in the all papers in the U.S. and Europe. I can assuredly say that this event was never reported in the news until after it was invented by Mr. Holbrook.  

I have come to the conclusion that if Bunko Kelly had not been sent to prison for a murder that captured the headlines all across America he would be just another unknown punk working the "shipping sailors" racket--like Paddy Lynch.

So, as my contribution to Portland's "fakelore" I offer this lyric. I can imagine it being sung by the earnest voices of Peter, Paul, and Mary, the popular trio from the Hootenanny days--like "Puff the Magic Dragon." Will this song outlive its creator, as did the tales invented by Mr. Holbrook?

The Ballad of the Flying Prince

Come gather round you Portland boys
And I will sing to you,
How that low down Bunko Kelly
Got the Flying Prince her crew.

The ship was moored at Ainsworth Dock
For six long weeks and more,
Loading sacks of golden wheat
For England's pleasant shore.

The time came for departure
One evening's rising tide,
The cargo was all battened down
The tug was alongside.

But the captain and the carpenter
Were the only souls aboard,
So they called in Bunko Kelly
Who they offered a reward.


Oh Bunko Kelly,
Oh Lord what shall we do?
The Flying Prince is set to sail
But I fear she has no crew.

So Kelly searched the waterfront
Top down and end to end,
For loggers, loafers, hoboes,
Or able-bodied men.

He searched the dives, he searched the dens,
Alcoves and alleys too,
But he could not find a single man
Who would sign aboard as crew.

He searched through Erickson's resort
Down on Burnside street,
T'was then he thought his luck was gone
And he might face defeat .

He went to the Snug Harbor
The last of the saloons,
Where his heart was chilled by an eerie sound
Like the warbling of the loons.

Oh Bunko Kelly,
Oh Lord what shall we do?
The Flying Prince is set to sail
But I fear she has no crew.

It seemed to come from somewhere near
Behind the basement door,
That belonged to Johnson and Son
Undertakers shop next door.

Then Bunko the shanghaier
Quaked and shook with fright,
As he traveled down the basement steps
He beheld a ghastly sight.

In the dark he nearly stepped upon
A corpse in death's dark throes,
Just then its bulging eyes turned white
And blood ran out its nose.

As his eyes adjusted to the dark,
Of that dank and loathsome den,
It filled with the writhing forms
Of dead and dying men.

Oh Bunko Kelly,
Oh Lord what shall we do?
The Flying Prince is set to sail
But I fear she has no crew.

The ghastly scene did tell a tale
Of foolishness and ruin,
Of men too dumb to realize
The Snug Harbor Saloon

Was the next door down, and this,
The undertaker's side,
Instead of gin they had imbibed
Straight up formaldehyde.

Two dozen men of middle age,
All winos to the core,
Lay writhing in the throes of death
Or dead upon the floor.

Bunko Kelly's eyes lit up
And off he went with haste,
To find some boys to help him keep
This chance from going to waste.

Oh Bunko Kelly,
Oh Lord what shall we do?
The Flying Prince is set to sail
But I fear she has no crew.

The livery stable boys hitched up
Some wagons for the task,
For what Bunko was paying them
No questions would be asked.

They wrapped the stiffs in canvas sheets
And carried them off thence,
To the waiting ship at Ainsworth Dock
The aforementioned Flying Prince.

When the captain saw our Bunko crimp,
Relieved and overjoyed,
Was he to see two dozen men,
Intent to be employed.

Though they were drunk and senseless,
Wrapped up like a cocoon,
As he supposed, from drinking at
The Snug Harbor Saloon.

Oh Bunko Kelly,
Oh Lord what shall we do?
The Flying Prince is set to sail
With a dead and dying crew.

The  boys stowed the men below
In the fo'castle and midship,
Then the captain loosed the ropes that tied
The vessel to the slip.

The steam tug Oklahama
Pushed the Flying Prince along,
Down the rivers to the sea
Suspecting nothing wrong.

Once in the wild Pacific surge
The tug whistled farewell,
And left the Flying Prince to lurch
Upon the bounding swell.

Some say she sails the oceans still
Her ragged sails askew
The captain, and the carpenter,
And a ghostly skeleton crew.

Oh Bunko Kelly,
Oh Lord what have you done?
The Flying Prince has lost its course
Since Portland, Oregon.

Note: The illustrations are from an animation that is ready to be edited into a music video once the music is recorded sometime in the future. Er, all lyrics and images copyright 2014 barney blalock, etc.