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.


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).


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.


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 saveD sailors' lives, were rewarded with prison.

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.


This crater marks ground zero in the Roseburg Blast. It's about 60 feet across.

a nuclear strike
in downtown roseburg?

No; it was "just" an exploding dynamite truck. But the mushroom cloud was big enough to fool a passing airline pilot. Here's the full story of the legendary "Roseburg Blast."


Part of the historic entry to Portland's Chinatown.

he dressed in rags like a beggar, so no one would know ...

To avoid getting robbed and murdered, Chinese couriers dressed as beggars while carrying thousands of dollars in gold from the fields. This is the story of one of these men, and the woman whose life he saved.


Steamer Admiral Evans, f.k.a. Buckman, which the two would-be pirates tried to hijack

THE dumbest would-be pirates in the history of the universe.

Their plan: Hijack a passenger steamer (that's it, in the thumbnail above), run it aground and sneak off into the bushes with 3 tons of gold. Do I need to mention that it didn't work out? Here's what happened.


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take off to the province of oregon, eh?

Few people know how close Oregon came to officially becoming a British possession under the treaty that ended the War of 1812. Only the presence of a handful of scattered, starving survivors from Astor's fur enterprise prevented it. Here's how.


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timberline lodge could have been a glass skyscraper

Calling the plan a "profit-making eyesore," a Forest Service manager nixed 1920s plan for a modern steel-and-glass structure with an aerial tramway. You can read about it right here.


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pixieland: an edgy, vanished amusement park

Built in the late 1960s as a "fairy-tale history of Oregon," the amusement park lasted just a few years before slipping into receivership. Today, all that's left of this odd and uniquely Oregonian story is a dilapidated guardshack.


Offbeat Oregon History: Album cover art

Mill owner's fight with city sparked anti-Japanese riot

It's an event remembered with some shame in Oregon: A group of innocent, terrified men and women found themselves at the mercy of an angry mob, pawns in a power struggle between a mill owner and a group of townspeople.

The C.D. Johnson mill as it looked in 1952, a year after it had been sold to
Georgia-Pacific. (Image: UO Libraries/Roger Hart)

In the summer of 1925, an event took place in the Coast Range town of Toledo that would spark widespread outrage and an international incident. The event was, for all practical purposes, a race riot: A mob of hundreds of angry white people attacking and evicting a small group of Japanese workers.

From a distance, the story looks like an ugly episode of provincial racists behaving badly and subsequently being punished by the more enlightened. And that's more or less an accurate assessment — but it's incomplete.

Hill Street in Toledo as it appeared in the early 1920s, right around the same
time the infamous riot was brewing. (Postcard image)

The real struggle that came to a head in Toledo that summer day was not between the white residents and the Asian contract workers, but between some of the residents and the absentee owner of the sawmill that dominated their town.

Spoiler alert: The sawmill owner was the only winner here. Which is a little outrageous, considering that he did far more than anyone else to set the whole thing up.

Here’s what happened:

A virtual company town

In the early 1920s, the Pacific Spruce Company sawmill, owned by C. Dean Johnson, utterly dominated the town of Toledo. Thanks to this one mega-mill, the town’s population had grown from a few hundred to a few thousand in just a few years. Johnson had bought the mill at a tidy discount from the U.S. government after it got out of the spruce-milling business when the war ended.

Johnson lived in Portland, but his son, C. Dean Johnson II, managed the mill and lived in Toledo.

Trouble on the green chain

The "green chain" at Pacific Spruce as it appeared in 1924, the year before
the green chain's staffing became the bone of contention between the mill
owner and the city. (Image: Pacific Spruce Corp.)

The trouble started when the Johnsons started toying with the idea of hiring a contract crew of Japanese workers to “pull green chain.” The green chain was a conundrum for lumber manufacturers; it’s the most grueling work in the mill, and yet under the system they were using in 1925 it requires a high level of skill and judgment. Workers had to move fast to grab pieces of finished lumber off the conveyer chain as they move by and sort them into piles according to quality.

Traditionally, new hires would start out pulling green chain, and after a year or two move up into a less demanding, more prestigious job. The trouble was, that left the least skilled workers in the mill doing one of the more important jobs, and the quality of the mill’s output was suffering.

Toledo as it appeared around the turn of the 20th century. (Postcard image)

The Johnsons thought the solution would be to establish a whole new class of workers in Toledo — workers who would just pull green chain, who would be effectively ineligible for promotion to more desirable jobs, and who wouldn’t be so troublesome. Naturally, that entailed a segregated colony of racially different people.

In the mid-1920s, it was Japanese workers who were available and willing to work under such conditions. Fifty years earlier it would have been Chinese; a century earlier, Irish, or African slaves; today it would be Central Americans.

The battle lines are drawn: City vs. sawmill

Word of the scheme leaked out early in 1925, and it was not well received. City business leaders asked for a meeting with the younger Johnson, who told them the company was just hiring a dozen or so Japanese workers to plug a gap on the green chain; nobody’s job was going to be replaced, and there was nothing to worry about.

But they still worried. And following the meeting, there was a big community meeting, after which the city issued a written protest against bringing in “foreign labor.”

This seems to have made the Johnsons mad. Immediately they moved forward with plans to hire not a dozen, but about 60 Japanese workers through a labor contractor in Portland; to house them in a separate cantonment on company property; and to replace two shifts of green-chain workers with them.

To the townsfolk, it looked like a confirmation of their worst fears: that the Japanese workers would be a beachhead; their economic power was their ability to do better-quality work than the locals, for cheaper. They’d be established in Toledo as a separate colony, not mixing with the town at all, not contributing to the economy in any way, and their numbers would grow until the Johnsons’ sawmill was a closed system with a town, wasting away and demoralized, on its outskirts. Essentially, they feared a situation kind of like the one satirized in Roald Dahl’s  “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” after Willy Wonka brought in the colony of unpaid-but-always-happy Oompa-Loompas.

A setback for the sawmill

But meanwhile, news of the community’s opposition had come to the attention of the labor contractor in Portland, and he was not about to send his crew into a dangerous situation to become pawns in a labor struggle. He informed the elder Johnson that the deal was off.

Johnson’s response was to travel to Toledo, call another town meeting, and bully the leaders of the town into rescinding their protest. He insisted that they vote out loud, one by one, so that the only way to vote against it was to publicly identify oneself as an enemy of the most powerful man in Toledo.

He got what he wanted, and the deal was back on. From his office in the Northwest Bank Building in Portland, Johnson hastened to reassure the labor contractor that everything was now just fine, and his crew would be welcomed in Toledo.

But as the old saying goes, “a man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.”

So when that crew of Japanese workers showed up in Toledo, they had no idea that they were about to become pawns in a power struggle between the two great economic forces of the little timber town.  

The mob scene

When the Japanese workers arrived, they’d barely settled in before a huge crowd formed and moved in on them. The crowd — it was not yet a mob, but it would be shortly — planned to make a show of force and “escort” the Japanese colony out of town.

But the crowd was met at the property line by both Johnsons and some of their men, all freshly deputized old-west style — and they were ready for a fight. Not a fight for the civil rights of the Japanese workers, but a fight to defend their property from what they saw as an outrageous act of meddling in someone else’s business.

The members of this crowd don’t seem to have been planning to riot, and none of them had brought weapons. But when their leader asked to speak to the foreman of the Japanese crew, Johnson shoved him in the chest and told him to get off the property. This transformed the mass of Toledo citizens into an angry mob, which then stormed the place. People got punched, knocked down. A gun, taken from one of the mill defenders, was waved around a little, but was soon tossed into the river.

In a matter of hours, the Japanese workers were “escorted” to waiting cars and trucks and taken to Corvallis. Some of the townspeople passed a hat to give them some money, but the workers — by now getting over the shock of their treatment and starting to get angry — wouldn’t hear of it. “We don’t want that kind of money,” worker Tamakichi Ogura told the city marshal, when he tried to give it to him.

Legal consequences

In the aftermath, no charges were filed against anyone. But five of the Japanese workers sued for violations of civil rights, the first case of its kind, and won a $2,500 judgment against five of the most active participants in the episode.

As for the Johnsons’ mill, after an internal purge of all employees connected with the riot, it carried on as before. In 1951, it was sold to Georgia-Pacific.

The story of the treatment of the Japanese workers remains as a lingering and embarrassing memory, and a vivid reminder of how much has changed in Oregon since the 1920s — and also, an uncomfortable reminder of a few things that have not.

(Sources: Cox, Ted. The Toledo Incident of 1925. Corvallis: Old World, 2005; Johnson, B.A., ed. Pacific Spruce Corp. and Subsidiaries. Chicago: Lumber World Review, 1924)