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A color lithograph of George and Kate Ann Williams’s Victorian  mansion, located at 18th and Couch streets downtown.

This spooky-looking Portland mansion was home of a 'starvation cult'

A prominent Portland socialite led a sect called "Truth," with the motto "Pray and Be Cured," that required 40-day fasts. It vanished after its leader starved herself to death during a 110-day fast. Here's the story.


An illustration of the scene in the Davis Hotel when detectives saw a hand suddenly  reach out from under the bed, grabbing for a pistol hidden there, from the Portland Morning Oregonian.

Railroad Murder mystery solved with the victim's help

The thieves, cornered in a boxcar, shot their way out, mortally wounding a railroad "bull." But the dying man was still a pretty good shot. Here's the story.


The archway monument leading up to the Wallowa County Courthouse,  built in 1936. The bronze plaque on the inside left of the arch includes  the name of murderer and horse thief Bruce “Blue” Evans.

A monument in honor of a horse thief and mass murderer?

Bruce "Blue" Evans led the gang that slaughtered over 30 innocent Chinese miners in 1887. So why is his name celebrated on a monument to Wallowa County Pioneers? Probably because they didn't know. Here's the story.


Legendary Coast Guard rescue-boat man Tom McAdams.

Newport's legendary cigar-chomping Coast Guard lifesaver:

In one famous incident, he saved four drowning people and earned a lifesaving medal — but the Coast Guard had wanted to reprimand him for risking their nicest boat to do it. Here's the story.


Three Rocks Beach, Camp Westwind, the mouth of the Salmon River and Cascade  Head as they appear today.

Is there pirate loot buried at this YWCA youth camp?

The discovery of a giant skeleton in the 1930s suggested that the old Indian legend of a pirate ship sinking in the Salmon River might be true ... or maybe not. 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.


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.


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 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

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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.


Early Oregon 'holy roller' cult ended in murder, suicide, insanity

THE holy-roller "NAKED LADIES' CULT" IN CORVALLIS and waldport.

It started out as a church seeking perfect holiness and Godliness. It ended in murder, insanity and chaos — and, yes, rumors of naked ladies. Check out the full story (in two parts).


The Glenesslin, under almost full sail, grinds against the rocks at the base of Neahkahnie Mountain.

mariner's spooky nightmare came true the next day

In his dream, the first mate of the German barque Mimi saw seaweed covering all but three shipmates. The next day, all but three drowned in one of Oregon's worst-ever salvage disasters. Here's the story.


Florence's famous exploding whale: A highway engineer didn't know how much dynamite to use, so he guessed ... and guessed wrong.

Whale explodes: Details at 11.

The highway department guy didn't know how much dynamite to use, and said so on camera. But he still thinks the operation was a success. Check out the story of Florence's famous exploding whale ...


The Glenesslin, under almost full sail, grinds against the rocks at the base of Neahkahnie Mountain.

was this shipwreck insurance fraud or just drunken incompetence?

On a beautiful clear October day, astonished beach-goers watched a big windjammer simply turn and sail straight into the side of a mountain. Why would her crew do such a thing? Here's the story.


.44-caliber Colt Dragoon revolver, designed in 1848.

gold-rush bandits hunted down and killed ... but where was their loot?

No one has ever found it — or if they have, they've been awfully discreet. The Triskett Gang had stolen it hours earlier from the assaying depot in the town of Sailors' Diggins. Here's the story.


US Coast Guard 47-foot motor lifeboat takes on a heavy sea off Cape Disappointment.

tired of seeing mariners die, lighthouse keeper took action.

In 1865, Joel Munson watched 17 sailors drown on the Columbia Bar. But when their lifeboat washed up near his lighthouse, it gave him an idea — an idea that lives on today in the U.S. Coast Guard. Here's the story.


U.S. Coast Guard cutter Algonquin.

bootleggers save sailors' lives, but get thrown in jail anyway.

In the early years of Prohibition, a Canadian rumrunner entered U.S. territorial waters to save the lives of nine castaways — and got caught and sent to jail anyway. Here's the story.


Offbeat Oregon History: Album cover art

In 1880s, salmon were the real “most dangerous catch”

Fishermen working in heavy 24-foot boats at the mouth of the Columbia kept getting sucked out onto the bar and drowning in its massive breakers. Their odds of not surviving a season were as high as 1 in 15.

Astoria's fishing fleet comes in off the bar, sails wide open. If the boats waited too long to turn around and come back, they could find themselves sucked out onto the bar.
This postcard image shows the Astoria fishing fleet, in matching 24-foot
double-ended fishing boats, on the river just inland from the Columbia
River Bar. Fishing was better closer to the bar, but the boats couldn’t
survive on the breakers there, and many fishermen — in some years,
hundreds of them — drowned there.

There were plenty of dangerous ways to make a living in 1800s Oregon. Loggers would get crushed, sailors would get drowned and mill workers would get parts amputated every day.

But when it came to risk of death, nothing came close to salmon fishing at the mouth of the Columbia River.

The year 1880 was probably the worst year of them all.

“Some assume that as many as 350 fishermen lost their lives this season on the Columbia,” the San Francisco Chronicle reported in September of that year. “The lowest estimate is furnished by William Johnson, who puts the number of victims at 200.”

To put that in perspective, there were a total of about 1,500 fishing boats working the river at that time, each with a crew of two men aboard. A fisherman starting out in May of 1880 had at best a one-in-15 chance of not surviving the season. Not even the clumsiest sawmill worker took a chance like that.

The dangers

So, what made the river so deadly? In the 1880 season, it was a combination of things.

The fleet of fishing boats in harbor, safely moored at one of Astoria’s
salmon canneries. (Postcard image)

Here’s how the fisherman ordinarily worked: They’d put out onto the river in one of those 1,500 boats just before low slack tide. The boats were 24-foot double-enders, each gaff-rigged with a small triangular sail and oars for the men; although there were small steam launches on the river in 1880, none of the fishing boats had an actual power plant on board.

The fishing crews would put their nets out and drift with the river’s current, which would take them out to the very mouth of the river, close to the bar. They would time it so that they’d get as close to the bar as possible without having yet entered it, when the tide would start coming in, bringing their nets back toward the boat. Then they would haul in their nets, deploy their oars and sails and, helped along by the incoming tidewaters, head for Astoria and safety.

Two and a half million cans of salmon, stacked in a warehouse at an
Astoria cannery, await shipment to hungry customers across the nation.
(Postcard image)

So far, this sounds pretty simple. But here’s the part that made it such a deadly proposition: The closer you got to the bar, the better the fishing became. So fishermen had every incentive to get as close to the bar as they dared.

The bar, as you likely know, is the notorious “graveyard of ships” at the mouth of the river. At the bar, the river got very shallow, the bottom got sandy and clean, and the current got considerably faster.

So, what happened if a fishing crew misjudged the tide and ended up on the bar itself? Well, that’s where things got really ugly. Remember, these guys were relying on the incoming tide to help push them inland. But the incoming tide is also the force that raises mammoth, freighter-killing breakers on the bar when it crashes into the Columbia’s powerful current moving in the opposite direction. So if a boat timed it wrong, and the tide didn’t start to turn in time to help it return to port, its crew members would find themselves in a desperate struggle, trying to muscle a heavy 24-foot fishing boat upstream against a current of 8 to 10 miles an hour.

Another Fisherman Lost.


His Companion Tries in Vain
to Save Him.


On Thursday morning last, Louis C. Webber and Tom Johnson, who fished with him for A. Booth & Co.’s cannery, drifted down with the tide with their net out until they had reached a point in the north channel a considerable distance beyond the cape, far out on the bar, and near the western curve of the middle sands. They allowed the net to drift on out, expecting the turn of the tide to drift it back toward them, and then, as usual, they would commence to take up and remove the salmon to the boat. At about 10:45 a.m. Thursday, the 27th, Webber being at the tiller and Johnson handling the net, the latter suddenly exclaimed: “Louis, we must get out of this, the fish are striking.” (The salmon, touching and striking the ground and their struggling causing a peculiar tugging on the net, showed Johnson that they were getting into shoal waters. They were then in about three fathoms.)

Webber said, “Oh, let her stop here.” Almost immediately after, they heard a low moaning noise, and Webber sung out to his companion, who had let go of his net and seized the oars, “Head her for the breaker!” which by this time had assumed shape and was rapidly nearing their boat, gaining in size and strength and rapidity as it approached. In attempting to turn the boat to the now coming breaker that she might meet it head on, one of the oars broke in Johnson’s hands, and the remorseless wave struck the broadside of the boat, lifting it onto its crest, turning it over and over as if it had been a cork, leaving both men to struggle for life’s breath in the seething waters.

Webber was washed out first. Johnson tried to maintain his hold of the boat, but, owing to its rotary motion, he was compelled to let go. The breaker having spent its force, the surface of the water to which both men had arisen became comparatively smooth. … He then saw the boom they used for their sail floating toward Webber and told him to seize it, and soon one of the Columbia Canning Co.’s boats (which was making toward them) would pick him up. This boat soon reached Johnson, but he told the men in it not to mind him but to go for Louis who was farther in the breakers than he was. Just then a second heavy breaker was fast coming, rolling relentlessly along toward the struggling man, and it would have been at the risk of almost certain death themselves had the newcomers approached the spot sooner. They could only wait to see if the poor fellow would be allowed one more chance for his life after being engulfed the second time. They could do nothing more just then.

They saw the cruel wave rear its crested head, and drawing the now helpless man in with the undertow, it lifted him up and then broke over him. After this they saw him no more, and it is probable that this is the last of Louis C. Webber until “the sea shall give up the dead that are in it.” …

Mr. Webber had been married but a few short months and the sincere sympathy of the community is extended to the widow in her sad bereavement.

— The Daily Astorian, May 30, 1880

Sometimes the crew’s exhaustive exertion would slow the boat’s drift enough that the tide could save them, and sometimes it wouldn’t. If it didn’t, the little boat would be swept into 40-foot breakers, amid which rescue was impossible and survival unlikely. (A gripping eyewitness account of exactly this scenario is given in the sidebar to the right, the one headlined "Another Fisherman Lost.")

A few fishing boats pulled into the bar did escape by pulling for the open sea, but not all of them survived the subsequent grueling and thirsty attempt to reach a beach.

What made 1880 such a special year was a particularly heavy snowmelt runoff in the spring. This made the tide tables almost useless — essentially, what happened was the ebb tide was extended for an extra half-hour each day, because so much more river water was coming down. Even cautious fishermen would drift seaward, the tide would turn and they’d still have to pull for their lives to get free of the suction of the bar, because there was just so much more water coming down the river. Incautious fishermen, of course, had not a chance.

The deadliest storm

And then there was the storm, on May 2 of that year. That storm is largely forgotten today, but it cast a horrible shadow over Astoria for decades afterward. It kicked up suddenly, when the boats were still drifting seaward with nets in the water, and turned the mouth of the river into a mini-bar. Those who survived did so by cutting their nets loose and pulling for shore.

The next day, the storm continued, but then abated just in time for the fishing tide, and the “treacherous lull convinced many of the fishermen who had escaped the dangers of the preceding nght to venture again upon the deep and cast their nets,” as the Oregonian’s Astoria correspondent put it. “Before they were aware, the storm recommenced and another night of horror for the poor fishermen had begun.”

On both nights, a little steamship named the S.S. Rip Van Winkle just happened to be ready to rush to the rescue, but it could only save boats that hadn’t yet drifted onto the bar. About 60 fishermen drowned in those two nights alone, and dozens of boats were lost.

Making fishing less lethal

Survival for a salmon fisherman got a lot more likely a few years after this, when the canneries started using small steamships to tow their fishing-boat fleets out and to retrieve them afterward. But even so, it was dangerous; once a boat was drawn into the breakers on the bar, it usually couldn’t be reached by rescuers.

A real measure of safety wouldn’t come for the bar fishermen until around the time of World War I, when the gasoline-powered “bowpicker” boats with enough power to buck the current were developed.

Today, we think of commercial fishing as a somewhat dangerous way to make a living, especially for the folks fishing for crab up in Alaska. But compared with how it was in Astoria 130 years ago, today’s “most dangerous catch” is a sunny-day picnic.

(Sources: Penner, Liisa. Salmon Fever: River’s End. Portland: Amato, 2006; Portland Morning Oregonian, 5-06 and 5-07-1880; Daily Astorian, 5-30-1880; San Francisco Chronicle, 9-04-1880)