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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This cover illustration from "Masked Rider Western," published in 1950, bears an uncanny resemblance to the events that kicked off Vigilante rule in Crook County.

When prineville was ruled by masked vigilante riders

In Crook County, the early 1880s were like a Louis L'Amour novel. And it all started with the lynching of an innocent man.


The classic melodrama villain, with sleek silk hat and waxed handlebar mustache, in the act of evicting the poor widow and children from their freshly foreclosed family homestead. Except for the mustache, Oregon's longest-serving 19th-century senator fit the trope with remarkable precision.

Senator John H. Mitchell: Oregon's own real-life Snidely Whiplash

He abandoned his family, changed his name, moved to Oregon, bilked widows and orphans in two big real-estate swindles ... and was promptly elected to Congress.


The skull of the skeleton found in the Odd Fellows hall in Scio, which is now at Oregon State University. The skeleton was that of a hard-working man who died sometime between 1860 and 1890.

Mysterious skeletons of Oregon: If these bones could talk ...

A long-dead dry-land homesteader ... a medical specimen in an Odd Fellows lodge ... what are their stories? We'll never know.


Oregon inventor Victor Strode’s revolutionary boat, the 'aerohydrocraft,' made the front cover of the March 1931 issue of Popular Science. The design didn't prove a useful one for the City of Portland, though, and the larger model the city commissioned to function as a harbor police boat didn't work out.

Buck Rogers-style police boat didn't work out for city of Portland

A local inventor developed the "aerohydrocraft" design in the early 1930s. But when the city built one as an ambulance boat, it flopped.


The remains of the barque Peter Iredale as they appear today, jutting out of the beach sands on Clatsop Spit at Warrenton as they have since 1906. In 1960, the wreck nearly was lost to a man who claimed he owned it.

How the Oregon Coast almost lost the Peter Iredale to a scrap-metal shark

An Oregon City man claimed he'd inherited the rights from his father, and demanded to be allowed to cut it up and haul it away. He almost got away with this little swindle.


Commander Dave Scott salutes the U.S. flag, which has just been planted on the surface of the moon. A small piece of Oregon lava rock, carried to the moon by Scott's fellow astronaut Jim Irwin, lies within this photo, next to one of the many bootprints. (Image: NASA)

There's a piece of lava from central oregon in this photo, on the moon.

It was left there by astronaut Jim Irwin at the request of a friend from Bend — who gave him a sliver of Oregon lava to leave on the moon's surface. And so he did.


The Motel 6 on Mission Street in Salem as it appeared in the mid-1970s, when Carl Cletus Bowles made his run from its back door. Don't laugh, at least not too loudly ... two innocent people would die before Bowles was back in prison.

Killer broke out of state prison during a conjugal visit at a nearby Motel 6

It had to be the most awkward prison-break scenario in the history of the universe. But it really did happen. Here's the story.


James Lappeus, former Portland Chief of Police. He eventually was fired over allegations that he'd offered to 'accidentally' leave the jailhouse door open for a convicted murderer if his wife paid a $1,000 bribe.

gambler, swindler, gunfighter, liquor man ... oh, and also police chief.

James Lappeus came to Portland to open a saloon and "theater." Despite his checkered past — or maybe because of it — he was named city marshal and, later, Chief of Police. Here's the story.


Boats of the Astoria fishing fleet, with the help of both wind and incoming tide, race away from the dangers of the Columbia River Bar in this postcard image from around the turn of the century.

When fishing was so deadly, one in 15 didn't survive the season.

They drifted downstream in heavy 24-foot boats with their nets out ... and prayed the tide would turn before they got sucked out onto the bar. Here's the story.


This postcard picture of Cannon Beach was created in 1966, which means just off to the left of the frame is a beach with a fence around it and "no trespassing" signs.

HOW OREGON ALMOST LOST PUBLIC ACCESS TO ITS BEACHES

A Portland real-estate guy found a loophole in the law and claimed a patch of beach for his own, and his friends in the state Legislature tried to keep it that way. Here's the story.


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.


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.


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.


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.


Offbeat Oregon History: Album cover art

In Great War, Allies flew planes made of Oregon spruce

Famous First World War aircraft were made of spruce, and one of the most important sources of the strategic wood was the northern Oregon coast.

The Spad C.VII flown by Italian pilot Ernesto Cabruna, on display at the
Museo Storico dell’Aeronautica Militare in Vigna di Valle, Italy. This
aircraft almost certainly contained at least some Oregon spruce. (Image:
Martin Bergner)

The last year of the First World War saw an explosion in Allied aircraft. The forces of Imperial Germany put up the best fight they could, and fielded probably the best aircraft of the war — the Fokker D.VII, which famously could hang on its propeller — but the few they managed to make were overwhelmed by swarms of the latest SPADs, Nieuports and DeHavilands, which were close to equal quality and far more numerous.

The fact is, after Oregon got involved in the war, the German air force didn’t have a chance.

The town of Toledo as it appeared in 1911, before the Army’s spruce mill
was built on the island in the bay. (Postcard image)

At least one out of every three Allied fighter planes built during 1918 was made with at least some Oregon spruce — spruce that just months before had been growing in the hills of Lincoln County, probably close by Yaquina Bay.

The wonder wood

When airplanes were first created, they were essentially giant box kites with crude gasoline engines on board, made with wood and fabric. As with any kite, weight was a big issue, so the wood used in these early machines had to be strong and light.

After experimenting with lots of different types, early aviators quickly figured out there was one type of wood that was head and shoulders above the rest: Old-growth spruce. And of all the different types of spruces, the variety known as Sitka spruce was among the very best.

The bayfront at Toledo as it appeared at low tide, in 1958. The Pacific
Spruce Corp. mill is in the distance, to the right. (Image: Ben Maxwell/
Salem Public Library)

It was certainly the biggest. Sitka spruce trees can get over 200 feet tall, with trunks over 10 feet in diameter. One 500-year-old Sitka spruce tree can provide enough straight, clear spruce to build about 150 Nieuport 28s. The wood is extremely rigid and lightweight. Furthermore, as it turned out, it wouldn’t shatter when hit with a rifle bullet.

By the time the war had broken out in Europe, the belligerents all knew what to make airplanes out of. Germany, with access to plenty of Norway spruce in its northern reaches, was in the best shape. Not much spruce grows in France, and even less is found in Britain.

But the Allies, as it turns out, had a secret weapon … the central coast of Oregon.

The mighty Sitka spruce

Sitka spruce grows all along the West Coast of North America, from northern California all the way up to — well, Sitka, Alaska. But the biggest, thickest stands of the most massive Sitka spruces were found in Washington’s Clallum County, and Oregon’s Lincoln County. They still are.

As soon as the war broke out, prices for clear spruce started shooting up. British and French buyers were lined up to snap up as much of the golden wood as they could get their hands on, to be slipped across the sea in convoys past German U-boats and turned into airplanes: spindly British B.E. 2 deathtraps and Bristol Scouts, and agile French Nieuport 11s. Even before the war broke out, a hefty percentage of Allied aircraft could trace their origins back to a deep forest somewhere near the central Oregon coast.

There was always far more demand than supply, though, and spruce production was not rising very quickly in response. So when the U.S. stepped into the conflict, the government decided it was time to make a more serious effort to get the wood out.

The War Department sent Col. Brice Disque into the timber country, with an eye to seeing how production might be boosted, and he soon learned that mill owners were locked in a struggle with the Industrial Workers of the World union. After talking the situation over with everyone involved, Disque concluded that nothing would change unless the Army took over.

An army of loggers, literally

U.S. Army “soldier-loggers” take a break around a massive rough-sawn
spruce timber in 1918. (Image: UO Archives)

So it did. The War Department promptly formed the Aircraft Production Board, which immediately got busy acquiring as much spruce-bearing timberland as it possibly could. Then a detachment of soldiers was issued crosscut saws and deployed to the forests east of Newport.

This intervention was resented by almost everyone in the field — the mill owners feeling like they’d been robbed, the union feeling their strike had been broken. But, as Disque frequently pointed out, there was a war on, and everyone just had to suck it up. And so, with few exceptions, they did.

Soon the soldier-loggers and other crews were sending rail car after rail car back northeast, loaded with spruce logs. The logs were processed at a massive sawmill in Vancouver, Wash., and sent off to aircraft factories from there.

But it made a lot more sense to have the sawmill where the trees were, so they could be handled less. And so the government started looking around for suitable places to build a massive sawmill.

Toledo becomes spruce capital of the world

The Pacific Spruce Corporation mill in operation in 1940. (Image: UO
Archives)

The Coast Range town of Toledo turned out to be perfect. Toledo sits on the Yaquina River, just inland from the sea, close to the upstream limit of the estuary. In 1917 it was a small timber town with several hundred people, most of whom worked at one of the three sawmills on its outskirts.

Toledo is situated on a wide bend in the Yaquina River, and there’s a broad, low 60-acre island of reclaimed tidal flats  in the middle of it. It was on this island that the War Department decided to build its mega-mill.

Soon soldiers and laborers were hard at work on a massive, state-of-the-art sawmill, a million-dollar mill. But before they could finish, the Germans surprised everyone by abruptly losing the war.

Now what?

That put the brakes on the sawmill project fast. After the end of hostilities, Americans were in no mood to continue spending money building warplanes that they thought they’d never again need. Congress, feeling that President Wilson had been altogether too eager to get the government into businesses, pulled back sharply on the reins.

So the War Department put the whole works up for sale — the mammoth almost-finished sawmill, a short railroad line, timberlands with nearly 800 million board feet of standing timber, everything.

A year or so later, a group of investors headed by C. Dean Johnson and his son, C. Dean Johnson II, came forward with a $2 million offer, which has to have been the deal of the decade. By the early 1920s, the Pacific Spruce Co. was a thriving concern, with roughly 1,000 employees, and Toledo was, for all practical purposes, a company town.

It was also, for many years after that, the spruce capital of the world — and the spawning grounds of some of the world’s best aircraft, even well into World War II.

(Sources: Cox, Ted W. The Toledo Incident of 1925. Corvallis: Old World, 2005; Johnson, Bolling, ed. Pacific Spruce Corporation. Chicago: Lumber World Review, 1924)