Heroes and rascals, shipwrecks and lost gold: Strange but true stories and secrets of Oregon's wild past | Offbeat Oregon History 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 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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Actor Justus Barnes takes a shot straight into the camera at the end of a 10-minute silent Edison Films production called 'The Great Train Robbery,' the filming of which started in November 1903 – two months after Bill Miner’s gang tried to rob the train just outside Portland. It’s hard to miss the similarity between Barnes’ character and Bill Miner.

How Bill Miner learned to rob trains ... he learned the hard way.

But his botched Portland job appears to have inspired an iconic 1903 movie called 'The Great Train Robbery' a month or two later. Maybe he even watched it later ... in prison.


A scene from the Disney movie "Saludos Amigos" (1943), a sort of cartoon-character tour of South America. This scene is from the Argentina part, with Goofy dressed as a gaucho. In this cartoon and most others, Goofy was voiced by Pinto Colvig.

Goofy was from Oregon. Also Bluto, Grumpy, Sleepy, Bozo, dozens more.

Vance "Pinto" Colvig, from Jacksonville, was a pioneer in animated cartoons and a gifted show-biz man.


Earle Leonard Nelson, a.k.a. The Dark Strangler, as he looked a week or two before his execution in Canada. Nelson's hanging ended a cross-country and international murdering spree in which he murdered dozens of women.

When the 'Dark Strangler' preyed on Portland landladies

His M.O. was simple: While a woman was showing him a room or house for rent, he'd strangle her, take her jewelry and flee.


A breathless headline that appeared in the Portland Morning Oregonian after Lulu Reynolds revealed her clandestine lover's guilt in a particularly dramatic and creepy way.

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.


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.

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.

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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.

When prineville was ruled by masked vigilante riders

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

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

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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.

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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.

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.


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.


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? . 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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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).


Offbeat Oregon History: Album cover art

“Blue Ruin” drove lawmakers to drink — and prohibition

Before Oregon was even a state, its territorial government outlawed all booze. Why? It all has to do with a fellow who could probably be called the true founder of the city of Portland — and his ever-bubbling moonshine still.

An engraving by Grafton T. Brown showing the first cabin in what
would become the city of Portland – a cabin occupied by William
Johnson, the Oregon Territory’s original moonshiner and maker of the
legendary “Blue Ruin.” The location given in the picture is wrong,
however; Johnson’s cabin was actually in the area of Macadam Avenue
and Curry Street. (Image: J. Gaston)

Most people know Prohibition in the United States started in 1920 when the Volstead Act went into effect. But in Oregon, Prohibition started quite a bit earlier than that. Actually, it started before Oregon was even a state.

In 1844, the Oregon Territorial Government became the first in the United States to outlaw the use, manufacture or sale of booze.

The full story of Oregon Territory’s first experiment with Prohibition will probably never be known; not a lot of written history has come down to us from early 1840s Oregon, and what we have is often contradictory. But from a distance, it looks an awful lot like the whole thing was inspired, if that’s the right word, by the commercial activities of one man — a fellow named William Johnson — and his product, a rough-and-ready distilled beverage marketed under a picturesque and, sources agree, accurate name: “Blue Ruin.”

Prohibition declared

The introduction of Johnson’s Blue Ruin to the Willamette Valley frontier community was followed almost immediately by America’s first prohibition law – the preamble to which gives a few hints as to why lawmakers felt it was necessary:
               

The original text of America's first prohibition law. (Image: State of
Oregon)

“WHEREAS the people of Oregon now occupy one of the most beautiful and interesting portions of the globe,” they wrote turgidly, “and are placed in the most critical and responsible position ever filled by men, having as they do important duties to themselves, to their century, to posterity and to mankind, as the founders of a new government and a young nation; and WHEREAS the introduction, distillation, or sale of ardent spirits, under the circumstances in which we are placed, would bring withering ruin upon the prosperity and prospects of this interesting and rising community, by involving us in idle and dissolute habits, inviting hither swarms of the dissipated inhabitants of other countries, cluttering emigration, destroying the industry of the country, bringing upon us the swarms of savages now in our midst, interrupting the orderly and peaceable administration of justice, and in a word producing and perpetrating increasing and untoward miseries that no mind can rightly estimate; THEREFORE be it enacted by the Legislative Committee of Oregon as follows ….”

Fair enough. And yet the members of the Legislative Committee of Oregon were frontier men – they liked a little nip now and then. Why would they pass a law that most of them would subsequently be violating on a regular basis?

The answer lies coyly camouflaged among the references to “industry” and “prosperity.” It’s the part about “bringing upon us the swarms of savages now in our midst.”

Which gets us right back to Mr. Johnson.

Blue Ruin

Had William Johnson lived in the present day, he might have Photoshopped
up a label for his product based on the Portland area's favorite "hipster
beer," Pabst Blue Ribbon. (Illustration: F.J.D. John)

Mr. William Johnson, it seems, had settled in a little clearing by the river a dozen or so miles downstream from Willamette Falls in around 1842. Different sources give different accounts of Johnson: one says he was a deserter from a British man-of-war who’d settled there, hiding out from the Brits; others say he was a 50-year-old family man living in Champoeg in the late 1830s with a successful farm who, for some reason, abandoned his land claim and moved 50 miles down the river to stake out a new one. The explanation may be that there were two William Johnsons in the valley at the time – Farmer Johnson and Bootlegger Johnson. Or perhaps he did something to get tossed out of the Champoeg community; we just don't know.

In any case, Bootlegger Johnson very quickly figured out that an ambitious distiller could sell every drop of liquor he squeezed out of whatever horrific precursor sugars could be had: table scraps, molasses, rotten tomatoes, floor sweepings from the nearest flour mill — whatever.

The bluish-clear substance that oozed out of his still was like a raw, searing mixture of unaged grappa, white whiskey and Everclear. It’s also a good bet that, being keen to save resources, Johnson didn’t bother to discard the “heads” (the first ounce or two that comes out of the still with each batch, which contains all the toxic hangover-inducing wood alcohols and other nasty chemicals).

But it was cheap, there was plenty of it, and it was good enough for Johnson’s primary customers: The Native Americans.

A taste for bad whiskey

Many of the leaders of Oregon’s provisional government were former Hudson’s Bay Company employees. They knew, from firsthand experience, that letting Native Americans buy as much whiskey as they wanted was a recipe for trouble. The Pacific Northwest natives had virtually no ability to resist liquor, and would drink just as much of it as they could get, as fast as they could. It would transform them from peaceful, happy people into raging, brawling rioters. The best-case scenario was a sharp drop in their production of otter pelts; the worst-case scenario was bloodshed and property destruction.

An 1800s painting showing Hudson's Bay Co. employees trading
with Native Americans. (Image: Hudson's Bay Co./ Fulton Archive)

So the old Hudson’s Bay men were careful to prevent whiskey from falling into Native American hands. Yet those Native American hands were unusually eager to get the stuff. The laws of supply and demand being what they are, the arrival of Johnson — or someone like him — was probably inevitable.

Once Johnson’s commercial enterprises came to the attention of U.S. Indian Agent Elijah White, the official journeyed to Johnson’s place and destroyed his still. And it was around that same time that the provisional government convened and outlawed his trade.

Johnson’s reaction to this seems to have been to find a better hiding place for his rebuilt still. He may also have raised his prices. He certainly didn’t quit making deliveries.

Delivering the goods

Any questions about whether “Blue Ruin” was a genuine public menace are answered rather nicely in the memoirs of one of Johnson’s erstwhile partners — a rough-and-ready French-Canadian gambler and all-around rascal named Edouard Chambreau. Here’s how Chambreau remembers his first liquor run with Johnson:

Edouard Chambreau as a young man. (Image: Leland John)

“The next morning the skiff was made ready with a 20 gallon keg of Blue Ruin. This was hid under the things in the bottom of the boat. … There were quite a number of Indians camped here, and they were anxious to ‘swap for lumm’ (the word for whiskey)….

“We made them sit down in rows with their different things they had to put their Lumm in, and whatever they had to pay for it. They were all on the beach about ten steps from the skiff. …  We went to every one before we began to pour it out in their vessels, and agreed on what should be given for this and that measure full. Having done this, Johnson began to pour out and I carried the things to the boat. The principle things we got in exchange was Beaver and Otter skins, and Hudson’s Bay blankets.

“An Indian, when he drinks whisky, he will drink as long as he can hold his breath. By the time [Johnson] was getting through with the last ones, the first ones were getting very funny. He shouted to me to run for the boat. I ran to the boat and shoved it until I was knee deep in the water. As he had the whisky, some of them followed him to the boat. He was retreating backwards with his keg under his arm and his long knife in the other (hand). In the meantime, I covered him with my rifle. Before it takes time to tell it, he threw the keg with what remained in it as far as he could toward the camp. This gave him a chance to get away from those who were immediately near him, and he got into the boat.

“We were almost in swimming water, with three Indians hanging yet to the boat. We knocked them over the head and shoved off just in the nick of time, because we had no more than had them loose from the boat than there was a gang of about 30 that came running and yelling with all their might. Then the fighting was among themselves.

“On this trip we made very near $500 apiece,” Chambreau concludes. “The reader can draw his own conclusions of what must have been the scene in that Indian camp with 20 gallons of that abominable stuff in them.”

William Johnson died the following year. I haven’t been able to find a source that will give a cause of death, but a couple of them hint that it happened during one of these deliveries … a fate that seems grimly appropriate, like poetic justice.

In any case, Oregon’s prohibition law was repealed the year after Johnson died, and after that the booze flowed pretty freely, right up until the 1910s.

Portland’s oldest profession

The still Johnson was running when Chambreau helped him make that 1847 delivery was tucked away in a gulley about four miles downstream from Oregon City, a setting much more in keeping with the spirit of an illicit moonshine still. But it’s worth noting the location of the first one he set up — the one White destroyed when he learned the Native Americans were getting supplied by it. Most likely it was conveniently located by his cabin — in the area of what’s now Macadam Avenue near the Ross Island Bridge, right in the middle of Portland. Johnson’s was the first house in Portland … and, it seems, the first business.

 (Sources: Wehrkamp, Timothy. Edward Chambreau: His Autobiography. Dissertation (Ph.D., 1976, University of Oregon); Oregon State Archives, arcweb.sos.state.or.us; Federal Writers Project, Oregon: End of the Trail. Portland: Metropolitan Press, 1940)