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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Offbeat Oregon History: Album cover art

Gallon House covered bridge: Ground Zero in battle over booze

The historic structure, halfway between “dry” Silverton and “wet” Mt. Angel, became a meeting place for the thirsty — and a symbol of Oregon's strange relationship with good ol' Demon Rum.

Gallon House Bridge, between Silverton and Mt. Angel, as seen today.
The Gallon House Bridge as it's seen today. (Image: Valfontis/
Wikimedia) [Larger image: 1800 x 1350]

If Oregon had ever had its very own civil war, it would probably have been over a bottle of Scotch, and it would probably have broken out at the Gallon House Bridge in Marion County.

The Gallon House was a covered bridge about halfway between Silverton and Mt. Angel, in the heart of the Willamette Valley.

Two towns, two views of temperance laws

When it was first built, the entire state of Oregon was “dry” — or, rather, supposed to be. A state law promoted by Gov. Oswald West, a tee-totaling Progressive with a friendly state Legislature at his disposal, wrote into the state constitution that the “manufacture, sale or advertisement of intoxicating liquor” would henceforth be verboten.

The Gallon House Bridge as it appeared in the 1920s, shortly after it was built.
A view of the Gallon House Bridge in the 1920s, a few years after it was
built. By the time this image was made, nationwide Prohibition had put
an end to the more overt bottle sales that had been going on there.
(Image: Oregon Department of Transportation) [Larger image: 800 x
613]

In Silverton, the Protestant majority heartily approved, and a powerful temperance organization, the Good Templars, threw its weight behind the state law as well.

But Mt. Angel was not that kind of town. Founded by families from south Germany and Switzerland, it was as overwhelmingly Catholic as Silverton was overwhelmingly Protestant. Catholics, of course, took seriously the Biblical injunction to take wine with communion. They weren’t going to, as they saw it, take Os West’s word over that of Jesus Christ.

In this, they were joined by lots of non-Catholics who liked a drink once in a while and didn’t appreciate the governor telling them they couldn’t have one.

Dodging the law: “Gifts” and sales of “empty” bottles

So in much the same way that neighbors “give” each other packages of frozen locker beef stamped “not to be sold,” folks got around the law by “giving” each other spirits, hiding the money transfer that made it a sale rather than a gift. Although this was in utter violation of the spirit of state law, it was perfectly legal as long as nobody wrote out a receipt — or even if the receipt was for the bottle rather than its contents.

This sort of thing would not wash in Silverton, where the municipal code got brave where state law got shy. But in Mt. Angel, it worked fine.

So Mt. Angel bottle-and-jug merchants did a brisk trade taking care of thirsty visitors from Silverton.

Meeting at the covered bridge

Most of these didn’t make the five-mile journey all the way to Mt. Angel, though. Instead, they’d slip out of town on a back road that few traveled and go about two miles out of town to the Gallon House Bridge, a brand-new (at the time) covered bridge across Abiqua Creek.

On the Mt. Angel side of the creek was a little shack — the “gallon house” — at which the thirsty visitor could pick up a bottle, jug or fruit jar to add to his collection.

Naturally, this caused some tension between the civic leaders of the two towns, although I haven’t hard of any serious incidents having resulted. Perhaps that’s because the federal government stepped in a few years later with the Volstead Act, putting the entire country under Prohibition and driving the whole liquor trade in both towns underground.

Oregon's strange relationship to booze

A Benson Bubbler drinking fountain
One of the "Benson Bubbler" water fountains commissioned in down-
town Portland by Simon Benson after he was told there were no non-
alcoholic beverages available in Portland at lunchtime. (Image:
Cacophony/Wikimedia) [Larger image: 1800 x 1592]

This amusing little story says a lot about Oregon’s odd relationship with alcohol since its founding. The state was home to the first brewery west of the Mississippi River — Blitz-Weinhard Brewery in Portland, est. 1856.

But downtown Portland restaurants seem to have eventually gotten a bit too diligent about supporting their local brewery. As the story goes, a half century later, in 1912, Portland industrialist Simon Benson noticed that his workers were coming back from lunch slightly drunk because there was nothing non-alcoholic available in downtown Portland for them to drink.

Anyone who’s ever “pulled green chain” knows how exhausting it can be to work a heavy-industrial job, and in the summertime workers have to guzzle quart after quart of liquids just to stay hydrated. One doesn’t have to be an earnest teetotaler like Benson to see the problem with workers in sawmills and other dangerous industrial facilities having to choose between (a) debilitating and job-threatening dehydration, and (b) coming back from lunch to your job half drunk.

Benson, when he learned about the problem, invested $10,000 to have water fountains installed all over Portland — the famous “Benson Bubbler” fountains, which are still in service today.

Shanghai city: “Wake up and get to work, sailor”

There were other issues too — not the least of which was the fact that right up until about 1910 it was very dangerous to get drunk in the presence of strangers in certain waterfront watering holes. You were likely to wake up with a lump on your head and a new job as a merchant mariner, headed across the Pacific on a sailing ship to whose captain you had been delivered unconscious and wrapped in a tarp the night before by that friendly stranger who was buying you drinks.

Perhaps that’s why West found the state so amenable to outlawing beer and liquor a couple years later: all the really hard drinkers had lost fingers in a drunken sawmill accident, gotten deported by the shanghai gangs, or met some other similarly horrific fate. No one was left to vote “no.” (I say this with tongue firmly in cheek, of course, but it is certainly possible that people at least took these abuses into consideration when deciding whether to support the governor's plan.)

Microbrew capital of the world?

Today, Oregon is widely thought of as the micro-brewing movement’s home state. By 1994, there was more brewing activity per person in Portland than anywhere else in the country — even Milwaukee and St. Louis — although that may have changed since Blitz-Weinhard was sold and moved its operations out of town. Yet it’s been a while since anyone has been shanghaied out of a waterfront bar or forced to choose between dehydration and drunkenness on the job. It looks like when it comes to spirits, Oregon has finally found a good balance.

(Sources: Long, James Andrew. Oregon Firsts. North Plains, Ore.: Oregon First Media, 1994; Friedman, Ralph. In Search of Western Oregon. Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton, 1990; Nelson, Lee H. A Century of Oregon Covered Bridges, 1851-1952. Portland: OHS Press, 1960)