Heroes and rascals, shipwrecks and lost gold: Strange but true stories and secrets of Oregon's wild past | Offbeat Oregon History While doing some cleaning-up around the Odd Fellows Hall in Scio, a local girl found a tiny coffin with this partial skeleton inside. Whose? We'll probably never know ... (Story No. 204, Oct. 14, 2012) The ever-elusive D.B. Cooper peeks into the page from behind his signature shades. The story of his skyjacking exploit starts with episode 237, from June 2, 2013. Meet Kitty Kat, the wealthiest feline in the state of Oregon and landlord to the City of Tangent. Kitty Kat, until he died at a ripe old age in 1995, owned City Hall. (Story No. 163, Jan. 8, 2012) This crazy-looking speedboat was the invention of Portland wizard Victor Strode. The city commissioned a harbor patrol boat based on his design, but it didn't work out. (Story No. 201, Sept. 23, 2012) The Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (now known as Osho -- yes, THAT Osho) as he appeared when he lived in Wasco County with his followers. That's also him in the white Rolls-Royce surrounded by followers, in a scene from Rajneeshpuram. (Four-part story starts with Column No. 73, May 9, 2010 This is the roof of the Franz Bread Rest Hut at Pixieland, the Oregon Coast's ill-starred answer to Disneyland, which opened in 1969 and went out of biz in 1974. The Rest Hut consisted of a giant fiberglass loaf of bread sticking out of the top of this giant fiberglass hollow log, the whole thing towering over a log-flume roller coaster ride. It's probably the most campily awesome example of the proud display of crass commercialism that was Pixieland. (Column No. 52 - Dec. 6, 2009)
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A screen capture from an episode of ABC's legendary 1970s show "Happy Days." Because the show is set in 1950s Milwaukee, Wisc., "The Fonz" is actually breaking the law in this scene; pinball was outlawed in Milwaukee at the time.

The tawdriest love triangle in the history of the universe.

Lulu Reynolds was having a torrid affair with her music teacher. Her husband carried a .38 in his jacket pocket. It wasn't the kind of thing that ends well. It didn't.


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Graft, corruption, racketeering, and ... uh, pinball?

Until just a few dozen years ago, pinball was illegal, and the mobbed-up characters who supplied the games played for keeps.


The front cover of the May 1946 issue of 44 Western Magazine shows a scene vaguely reminiscent of the downtown gunfight between feuding newspaper editors in 1871 Roseburg.

The Roseburg "newspaper war" that was settled with a gunfight

The owners of rival papers escalated their war of words when they went for pistols on a downtown street one morning in 1871.


An artist's sketch of what D.B. Cooper may have looked like, from an FBI bulletin sent out shortly after the skyjacking.

The legend of cool-cat skyjacker
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The man calling himself Dan Cooper parachuted into legend, and 40 years later the case remains unsolved ... but there are plenty of theories.


The front cover art of "For Men Only" Magazine showed a scene that bore some resemblance to the scene on the day Dave Tucker robbed the bank of which  he would, 32 years later, be named Vice-President.

The bank robber who became vice-president of the bank he robbed

After he got out of prison, Dave Tucker spent 30 years rebuilding his reputation in his hometown of Joseph, and it seems he succeeded.


A detail from the movie poster for the 1915 racist move 'Birth of a Nation,' which inspired and propelled the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in the years just after the Great War.

The Rise and Fall of the House of Klux in Oregon

A slick marketing campaign and a taste for political power marked the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, which spread through Oregon like a racist virus — and then collapsed.


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.

"I can make a
six-shooter sing 'come to jesus'!"

Meet Robert Gordon Duncan, the pioneering Portland shock-jock who was the first person ever sent to prison for cursing on the air, in 1930.


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.


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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.


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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.

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During a conjugal visit at a cheap motel, the prisoner escaped

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.


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HOW OREGON ALMOST LOST PUBLIC ACCESS TO ITS BEACHES

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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? . 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.


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.

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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).


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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.


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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).


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Offbeat Oregon History: Album cover art

Legendary Civil War ship came to ignominious end in Coos Bay

During its glory days, the Gertrude was the fastest blockade runner in the Confederate fleet. But just 17 years later, it was just another dumpy old steamer on a lowly coastwise run, wrecked in what was probably an insurance-fraud scheme.

The Gussie Telfair as it appeared shortly before it ran aground in Coos
Bay. The sleek lines and stealthy portholes of the old blockade runner
are still visible, despite the conspicuous white superstructures that had
been added later for passenger comfort. (Image: Coos County
Historical Museum)

On September 25, 1880, an old and battered but sleek-lined steamship drew into the mouth of Coos Bay, at the end of its voyage from Portland.

As the vessel churned its way into the bay, it suddenly and definitively veered out of the channel and slammed directly into the bank, close by Rocky Point — hard aground.

All 20 passengers aboard the ship were safely removed from the ship, and barely inconvenienced; after all, the shipwreck had occurred at their destination. The cargo of coal was mostly removed without incident as well. But the ship itself was done for. It had hit the bank hard at the peak of high tide. It was stuck there for good.

So the wreckage was sold for salvage, and everyone moved on.

In the town of Coos Bay (then called Marshfield), the local paper reacted to the news with bland indifference.

“She will not be much missed at this place,” the Marshfield Coast Mail newspaper remarked, “because in the matter of freighting for hire, her efforts of late have been ‘how not to do it.’”

A few eyebrows did go up, though, when word got out that the ship had been fairly heavily insured — to the tune of $7,500, or about $170,000 in modern dollars. Plus, as it turned out, the steamer’s insurance policy had just been upgraded; it seemed if the owners had wanted to commit insurance fraud, they could hardly have chosen a better way to do it.

“Her owners attach no blame to the officer (captain), and ascribe the accident to unknown causes,” an article in the Portland Oregonian explained. “It has been the practice of the owners to run a heavy insurance in the winter, when navigation is dangerous, and to lighten the coverage in the summer months. The channel where she went ashore is the most difficult one; besides being very narrow, it is bordered on either side by a ridge of low rocks and a shoal.”

Nonetheless, the captain never did specify how the ship came to grief — or if he did, none of the newspapers saw fit to pick it up.

So the wreck disappeared into the mists of memory — a relatively boring mishap, eliminating a relatively nondescript steamship from a relatively unimportant coastwise freight run.

What most people didn’t know was that the Gussie Telfair hadn’t always been a slow, dumpy cargo steamer working drearily on the outskirts of civilization. In her prime, in the service of the Confederate States of America, the Gussie Telfair had been the closest thing to a pirate ship the 1860s had to offer.

An old vessel's wild youth

A lithographic print from an 1864 issue of Harper’s Weekly, showing
a blockade runner’s capture. (Image: Library of Congress)

The Gussie Telfair was originally named the Gertrude. It was built of iron in Scotland in 1863, specifically to run the Union blockade and trade with Confederate ports. The ship was a straight-up hot rod: 153 feet long and just 21 feet wide, rated at 350 tons, it was fitted with a screw propeller — a brand-new technology at the time. Its masts pivoted to reduce its silhouette, the better to sneak past Union warships, and its funnel telescoped for the same reason.

When the Gertrude was first launched, the Union’s blockade was a bit of a joke. Actually, it was rather worse than a joke. By declaring a “blockade” of Southern ports, rather than simply declaring them “closed,” President Lincoln had by implication recognized the sovereignty of the Confederacy over them. That meant that foreign powers were, by international law, free to trade with them, so long as they could get past the blockading warships. And so they did.

It’s pretty unlikely that anything the Union had on blockade duty in 1863 could catch the Gertrude. In fact, the blockade ships couldn’t catch much of anything at first. The Union had put all sorts of awful old scows out there, because they didn’t have much to spare. Only one of them was even steam-powered when the blockade was first declared, back in ‘61. There were 3,500 miles of coastline to cover. It seemed impossible.

But over the following years, the federal navy got stronger and stronger. By the end of the war, there were 600 ships on blockade duty, in addition to the warships that were regularly shelling Confederate port towns. The blockade was really hurting the South, which didn’t make a lot of the stuff it needed to continue the fight.

By that time, though, the Gertrude was on the other side. The ship had barely started its career as a blockade runner when a federal ship, the USS Vanderbilt, managed to sneak up and capture it.

The Union Navy people knew a good thing when they saw one. So they mounted some artillery on the little speedster and sent it out under the stars and stripes to help enforce the blockade. And in this role, the Gertrude was a wonder.

Ten days into its new career as a Navy ship, the Gertrude captured the blockade runner Warrior after a nine-hour chase. Then it sank the Ellen the following January, followed the next year by the Eco. The Gertrude’s brush with stardom came when it almost caught the legendary Confederate runner Denbigh, which only managed to get away by pitching $10,000 worth of cotton overboard to lighten the cargo load.

After the war, though, the Gertrude’s glory days were over. Technology had raced ahead in the few years since it was built. What had been the fastest thing in the Gulf of Mexico back in 1863 was now, three years later, just another aging, slowish, tiny, obsolete freighter.

Now re-named the Gussie Telfair, the old warhorse soldiered on for twenty mundane years making the Portland-Victoria run before finally being sold to Frank Bernard and put to work out of Coos Bay.

And that, of course, led to what was very likely an undignified little bit of dirty work in the line of insurance fraud, and the end of a once-proud warrior that had done a yeoman’s job on both sides in the war of the century.

According to historian Don Marshall, as of 1984 it was still possible to spot parts of the wreck near the jetty on the east side of Rocky Point at very low tides. Those bits may still be there, and if so, it’s probably worth taking an afternoon to hunt them up. They’re all that’s left of one of what was, 150 years ago, one of the most storied warriors of the high seas.

(Sources: Marshall, Don. Oregon Shipwrecks. Portland: Binford, 1984; Marshfield Coast Mail, 02 Oct 1880; Portland Morning Oregonian, 28 Sep 1880, p4)