2012 articles About Offbeat Oregon 2012 articles 2011 articles 2010 articles 2008-2009 articles About me Store (the Finn J.D. John Centre for Crass Commercialism and Filthy Lucre)
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Jonathan Bourne Jr., the rascally and creative political mastermind behind the 'hold-up session.'

The legislature's notorious 40-day drunken party

Lawmaker Jonathan Bourne Jr. knew if the state House convened, it would elect his opponent. So he held things up for six weeks — with a Bacchanalian bender. Here's the story.

Title screen from a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Mel Blanc, the legendary Looney Toons voice man, grew up in Portland.

The voice of Bugs Bunny went to high school in Portland

Legendary Hollywood voice man Mel Blanc's teachers weren't too impressed with his voice talents, but Oregon radio listeners and cartoon fans sure were. Here's the story.


This hunk of pallasite came from the same 1820 meteor strike in Chile that many scientists believe was the source of the 'sample' Dr. John Evans claims he chipped off the Port Orford Meteorite when he found it. Was the meteorite a fraud? Many think so; others think not.

port orford meteorite: a hoax? or is it still out there somewhere?

The man who found it was in financial trouble; did he really find an 11-ton, $300-million rock, or did he make it all up so he could stay employed? Here's the story.


This is not a picture of the Sunshine; it's a lumber schooner of a similar type, the Wawona. The Sunshine, on her way home from her maiden voyage to San Francisco, vanished and then reappeared, upside down, 200 miles off course.

Gold was gone when schooner washed ashore ... empty

The fate of the Sunshine's passengers and crew is unknown ... did somebody wreck the ship on purpose?. Here's the story.


One of Conde McCullough's bridges -- the steel one linking Oregon City with Gladstone. he's better known for the Oregon Coast bridges.

Sammy Davis Jr. used to regularly play portland clubs.

Many consider him the coolest member of the Rat Pack. Sammy caught his big break while he was in Portland. Here's the story.


One of Conde McCullough's bridges -- the steel one linking Oregon City with Gladstone. he's better known for the Oregon Coast bridges.

The man behind Oregon's most famous bridges.

Conde McCullough's genius was in getting the most gorgeous bridge to also be the cheapest, over the long term. Here's the story.


The steamer Telephone, fastest boat on the river in the 1880s and possibly the world -- until it burned to the waterline one day.


riverboat captain had to choose: save passengers, or save his boat?

The steamboat Telephone caught fire at the widest spot in the Columbia; the decision must not have been too tough, because Captain U.B. Scott didn't hesitate for a moment. Here's what happened.

A shallow-draft riverboat of the type pioneered by Uriah B. Scott, on the river at Albany around 1900 or so.

Turns out the 'ignoramus from back east' knew what he was doing.

The big steamboat outfits laughed at the crude, ugly riverboat Uriah B. Scott was building ... until he used it to eat their lunch. Here's how.


The gravestone of Ame, who despite having died 10 years after the Civil War, was still considered a slave.

sHE DIED AROUND 1874. SO WHY DOES THE GRAVESTONE SAY SHE WAS A SLAVE?

Ame came over the Oregon Trail from Missouri. But when the North won the Civil War, her status as a slave didn't change. Here's what happened.


Ray V.B. Jackson in a booking photo from the Oregon State Pen, in 1896. Four years after this photo was taken, he was teaching grade school in Silver Lake.

Is this the face of oregon's first serial killer?

Like an "angel of death," ex-con Ray V.B. Jackson just happened to be at the scene of at least five Central Oregon homicides. What are the odds? Here's the story (in two parts).


The four-masted schooner North Bend, stranded on a sandy spit, 'sailed' through two and a half miles of sand and relaunched itself on the other side.

The stranded sailing ship that salvaged and re-launched itself.

The North Bend was the last tall ship ever built on the West Coast. When it ran aground on Peacock Spit, it just kept on sailing through the sand, crossing two miles of sandy beach to reach Baker Bay. It took over a year. Here's the story.


The Sagebrush Symphony Orchestra on its 'giant violin' float, after riding it through the town of Burns in the Fourth of July Parade, 1915.

america's first youth orchestra came out of tiny sagebrush town.

The Portland Youth Philharmonic says it was founded in Portland in 1924. Actually, it's older than that -- and much more rural. Here's the story.


Vaudeville's famous Klondike Kate became a Central Oregon legend

central oregon's most fabulous homesteader ever.

Homesteader Kitty "Klondike Kate" Rockwell, retired from the bright lights of Vaudeville, often wore full costume just to weed the garden. Here's the story.


Goal of Oregon whale hunters: Grow fur coats, and put a man on the moon.

helping put a man on the moon, one dead whale at a time?

Whale oil is special stuff, and NASA needed it for the space program. So an Astoria group launched a whaling venture in the early 1960s. Here's the story.


Offbeat Oregon History: Album cover art

First seaworthy log raft helped Oregon build city of San Diego

Lumber magnate Simon Benson needed to get logs from the Columbia to his mill in Southern California, so he designed cigar-shaped log rafts a full acre in size. They were a familiar sight until the early 1940s.

A Benson log raft is towed into the harbor at San Diego around 1910,
en route to the Benson sawmill there. The raft is pulled by the tugboat
Hercules. (Photo: Maritime Museum of San Diego) [Larger image:
1800 x 1180 px]

Any number of well-meaning people assured Simon Benson that seagoing log rafts were an impossible pipe dream. People had been trying to build them since 1791, when a Maine timberman named James Tupper tried to tow a raft to England and barely got out of the harbor.

The first summer squall would tear it apart, break a chain and it would be all over, they said.

They should have known better. Benson, one of history’s most gifted amateur engineers, had a strong track record of turning impossible schemes into lucrative realities.

Today, Benson is best remembered as the guy who covered the north end of Portland with free drinking fountains, the “Benson Bubblers,” so the employees doing tough, dangerous work in his Portland mill wouldn’t have to choose between beer and nothing to slake their thirst on their lunch breaks. He's also well known for his efforts to get the Crown Point Vista House and the scenic Columbia River Highway built (here's that story).

But  not too many years ago, Simon Benson’s name conjured another image in the minds of people all along the West Coast: Floating, one-acre cigar-shaped islands made of thousands and thousands of logs, being slowly pulled through 1,100 miles of ocean behind a tugboat — from Clatskanie, Ore., to San Diego, Calif. Each with enough lumber to build almost 500 houses.

The seagoing rafts were just one example of something Benson had engineered after many others had tried and failed.

A Norwegian immigrant

A newly built Benson log raft is wrangled out of its cradle in the calm
waters of Wallace Slough, near Clatskanie, in this old postcard picture.
[Larger image: 1200 x 765 px]

Benson was originally from Norway, and emigrated to the U.S. when he was 16. He’d worked in logging in Michigan, and left for Oregon after the general store he’d established caught fire, leaving him penniless.

When that happened, he and his family moved to Portland in 1880, and got into the logging business.

Loggers at that time were using cattle — oxen — to pull the logs out of the woods. With the vigorous and profane encouragement of a “bullwhacker,”  a big team of them would be chained to a log, which it would slowly pull along a road made of smaller logs half buried in the earth — the skidroad — as a lad known as a “grease monkey” ran along behind the oxen and in front of the load, greasing the skids with some sort of oil. It was a time-consuming and dangerous way to do it.

This postcard image shows several Benson rafts in the harbor at San
Diego, awaiting further processing. [Larger image: 1800 x 1116 px]

A man in northern California named John Dolbeer had invented a steam-powered cable yarder, and breakthroughs in locomotive design had made it possible for trains to go up very steep slopes. Benson engineered a system to use these two innovations to revolutionize logging operations, getting rid of the oxen teams entirely and replacing the wasteful skidroads with a narrow-gauge logging railroad that could penetrate deeper into the woods than any team of oxen. He implemented it in 1891, and it made him very wealthy.

What Benson had invented was a version of ground-lead logging — and, although many logging operators came up with the idea independently around the same time, Benson was the first in Oregon to do so.

The Benson rafts

Another early postcard image, this one vertical, shows a
Benson raft freshly assembled. [Larger image: 800 x 1200 px]

In 1906, Benson traveled to the very southern tip of the American West Coast and built a sawmill in San Diego. He knew Southern California was on the cusp of a huge building boom, and he intended to be there with the lumber that folks would need when it started.

But there was a problem. San Diego could not supply his sawmill with trees. To supply Southern California with building materials, Benson was going to need to import timber from his logging operations in northern Oregon.

Benson considered loading logs on coastwise steam schooners, which was the traditional method of transporting wood. There were several problems with this approach. First, it was expensive. Even with a full deck load, a lumber schooner could only carry a relatively small load — small, at any rate, relative to the raw-material needs of a then-modern sawmill.

Secondly, raw logs were dangerous on a ship at sea. As a load, they shifted easily and developed tremendous momentum when they did. Sure, they’d be chained down, but in rough enough weather chains could break.

And finally, some of the logs Benson was getting out of the woods at this time were just too big to fit efficiently in the space available on a lumber schooner. No, another solution was needed.

Benson thought he had one: An oceangoing log raft.

Nearly everyone thought this was lunacy, and dangerous to boot. But Benson, with his natural engineer’s approach, came up with a system that he knew would work.

How they built them

A close-up view of the chains used to secure one of the very earliest
Benson log rafts, in the first few years of the 20th century. (Photo:
John Fletcher Ford/Univ. of Washington) [Larger image: 1200 x 824 px]

In the quiet waters of Wallace Slough, on the Columbia, Benson’s team built a mammoth cradle, which looked a little like the ribs of a ship.

The cradle was filled halfway with logs of various lengths before the chains started getting put on: one mammoth chain down the middle of the raft from one end to the other, with chains radiating out from it to the outside of the raft, where they were linked to a series of external chains that circled the cigar-shaped mass of logs. The finished product contained up to 6 million board feet of lumber, held together by 175 tons of chains.

Putting the raft together took weeks; a crane operator had to carefully place each log so that there would be plenty of overlap, to prevent the raft from breaking in two.

When the cradle was full of logs, the outside circle chains would be dogged down as tight as they could go and the finished raft would be released into the river. When released from the cradle, the load would spread out a bit, leaving the top flat enough to stack cargo on it, so many Benson rafts made the journey with deck loads lashed on board. The finished product was 835 feet long and about 55 feet wide — just over an acre, being pulled slowly down the coast toward Southern California.

Oregon builds San Diego

It was a great success. Simon Benson got to build San Diego. He settled into a rhythm: During the winter, while the storms raged on the ocean, his crew worked in the quiet waters of the slough, building the summer’s fleet. When the weather calmed down, the cigar-shaped behemoths would start heading out to sea. Out of 120 rafts built, only two were lost to heavy weather.

“If we struck rough weather … the steamer cast loose [and] let the raft wallow in the trough of the sea till the storm blew itself out,” Benson later recalled, according to an article in the San Diego Union-Tribune. “Then we reattached the cable to the raft and went on.”

Benson’s mammoth log islands were a familiar sight on the West Coast from 1906 until 1941. In that year, the 120th raft actually caught fire. After that, citing insurance issues, the owner — not Benson, who had sold his San Diego operations in 1911 — ended the era of Benson rafts.

(Sources: Holbrook, Stewart. Holy Old Mackinaw. New York: Macmillan, 1939; Crawford, Richard. “Rafts of timber floated to booming San Diego,” San Diego Union-Tribune, Jan. 26, 2008; www.sandiegoyesterday.com)