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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).

The four-masted schooner North Bend, stranded on a sandy spit, 'sailed' through two and a half miles of sand and relaunched itself on the other side.

The stranded sailing ship that salvaged and re-launched itself.

The North Bend was the last tall ship ever built on the West Coast. When it ran aground on Peacock Spit, it just kept on sailing through the sand, crossing two miles of sandy beach to reach Baker Bay. It took over a year. Here's the story.

The Sagebrush Symphony Orchestra on its “giant violin” float, after riding it through the town of Burns in the Fourth of July Parade, 1915.

america's first youth orchestra came out of tiny sagebrush town.

The Portland Youth Philharmonic says it was founded in Portland in 1924. Actually, it's older than that -- and much more rural. Here's the story.

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.

Shipwreck ended Astoria's 1840s bid to become the Nantucket of the West Coast

astoria could have become a mecca of whale hunting ...

... had it not been for the Columbia River Bar, which wrecked the only whaling ship that ever dared try to cross it with a full cargo hold. It was a total loss. 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.

Delake Rod and Gun Club as it appeared in 1960.

mysterious mansion was haunted only by olympic medalist's dream.

OSU Wrestling legend Robin Reed, an Olympic gold medalist, was never pinned once in his entire career. But his plan for the Delake Rod and Gun Club ended in defeat. Here's the story.

U.S. Coast Guard cutter Algonquin.

bootleggers save sailors' lives, but get thrown in jail anyway.

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.

Bobbie the Wonder Dog

Bobbie the wonder dog's 2,400-mile odyssey.

Left behind in Illinois, the big collie dog walked home to Silverton, Oregon. It took him six months. Here's Bobbie's story.

A modern reproduction of a classic Concord Stagecoach.

a few legends of buried gold and treasure ...

Some of them might even be true. Here's a selection of them — as far as we know, the loot from any of them has never been found.

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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THE SHIPWRECK VICTIMS WHO THOUGHT THEY WERE GONERS ... UNTIL A TRAIN SHOWED UP.

Usually when something steams out to sea to rescue shipwrecked sailors, it's not a railroad train. Here's the story of the one (and probably only) time it was.

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Far-out guru "enlightens" Central Oregon.

What happens when a colony of acolytes of an East Indian guru move in, then try to take over Wasco County? Check out the four-part story of the rise and fall of Rajneeshpuram ...

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this oregon youth went on to save half a billion lives...guess who?

A local Willamette Valley teen-ager named Bert Hoover, an orphan sent from Iowa to live with his uncle, went on to save millions of lives and become a singularly ill-starred U.S. president.

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oregon's most spectacular shipwreck ever.

The steam schooner J. Marhoffer was almost brand-new when, burning fiercely from stem to stern, it piled onto the rocks near Depoe Bay. It's the remains of this fiery shipwreck that gave Boiler Bay its name ...

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the gallant rescue of portland's floating brothel.

Maritime madam Nancy Boggs kept her bordello on a barge floating in the river, until a police raid cut it loose. But the captain and crew of a sternwheeler came to save the day. Here's the story.

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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

Aurora Colony showcased the best of Utopian movement

In contrast to the bloodshed and madness that accompanied other attempts to form a more perfect society, the Aurora Colony lived graciously and ended gracefully. Today, it's remembered proudly and fondly by almost everyone.

Aurora Colony, main street, circa 1910.
This image made by an unknown photographer shows the main street
in Aurora about 1910. There is a meat market on the right and a water
tower in the back. (Photo: Salem Public Library/Ben Maxwell collection)
[Larger image: 1500 x 824 px]

When historians talk about early American utopian societies and communal cults, they're usually talking about a grand tragedy. Such affairs seldom end well — there are a few notable exceptions, but all too many of them end up an undignified mess of litigation and hard feelings, and some even in bloodshed and madness.

There's one communal society, though, that's consistently cited in positive terms even by authors openly hostile to its religious underpinnings. For thirty years, the Aurora colonists just south of Canby prospered relatively happily under the mostly benign eye of their charismatic leader, Wilhelm Keil.

And in marked contrast to the embarrassment folks in many other communities in the American West feel about the cults that made their towns famous decades ago, people in the area still have warm, fuzzy feelings for the colony today.

The colony forms in Missouri

Aurora got its start in Missouri, as a colony of a colony, as it were. Keil and his followers had formed a Methodist-inspired communal living colony there, calling it Bethel. But Missouri was growing fast, and the Oregon Trail had opened into a torrent of wagons leaving from that very state. Keil and his flock decided to join the throng.

Dr. Wilhelm Keil's home as seen in 1950, in bad shape. It has since been restored.
This big, 2-story house was the home of Dr. Wilhelm Keil, founder of
the Bethel and Aurora colonies. It was built in the late 1850s by Dr. Keil
and used for a time as a sort of bed-and-breakfast until the colony built
its hotel. The house had a porch on both floors. In 1959 when
photographer Ben Maxwell made this image, it was in bad shape.
Windows were broken and the wooden siding was falling down. The
house has since been restored. (Photo: Salem Public Library/Ben
Maxwell Collection) [Larger image: 1500 x 906 px]

Their journey to Oregon got started in 1855 — in a wagon train led by Keil's dead son, preserved in whisky, to honor a promise made to the lad before his death. (That's a story in itself — click here to read it.) That journey led them to Willapa Bay in Washington, which an unfortunate follower had visited in the summertime when it was gorgeous. Keil's party arrived, as wagon trains usually did, in the late autumn, just as the southern Washington coast's famous rainy season got under way. Keil was not impressed. Road-weary though everyone surely was, they immediately packed up again and headed south to what’s now Aurora.

Aurora — named after Keil's youngest daughter — was the stage for the group's golden age. Members spoke German in a land that mostly didn't, which made the social boundaries so important to communal societies easy to maintain. The land was fertile and sunny, and there were already productive orchards in place there.

Good neighbors

Musicians from the Aurora Colony in the 1860s. The colony's band was regionally famous.
Pictured are five musicians and a boy from the Aurora, Oregon Colony
in the 1860s. Throughout the existence of the Colony and for many
years thereafter, Aurora was noted for its fine bands and musicians.
Pictured from left to right are: A.H. Giesy, cello; Emanuel Keil, first
violin; Fred Giesy, clarinet; Henry Giesy the boy; Wm. Giesy, second
violin; and Fred Will, Sr., cornet.  (Photo: Marion County Historical
Society) [Larger image: 1500 x 1073 px]

Aurora was also close enough to other settlements that colonists could sell their surplus goods. This was important; a key part of Keil’s objection to Willapa was its isolation. For although the Aurora colonists liked to keep a bright line between themselves and outsiders, they were by no means antisocial. The Aurora Colony, although very serious about its Christianity, exhibited an almost startling lack of crazy dogma, and did not fall into the “outside world is evil” trap. Members were free to talk to outsiders, although not to regularly socialize or marry them. The colony quickly became famous for its musicians and its hospitality — many people traveling up and down the valley timed their journeys so that evening would catch them near Aurora, so they could stay in its hotels. And the group was instrumental in bringing about the first Oregon State Fair, at which Aurora musicians and goods were proudly on display, in 1861.

This was clearly not a cult that wanted to disappear into the wilderness and go its own way, or — to use a more appropriate metaphor for a religious community — to hide its light under a bushel.

Life in the colony

As for what life in the Aurora Colony was like, sources differ pretty dramatically. Keil may not have been a faith-crazed loony like some other utopia-chasing leaders we could mention, but he was most definitely a charismatic and unambiguously autocratic leader. It’s the benevolence (or lack of benevolence) of his autocracy that’s most in dispute. Supporters called him “Dr. Keil”; opponents preferred “King Keil.”

Under his direction, there was a modest list of “don’ts,” but it didn’t include some of the most popular ones. The colony grew tobacco and members smoked. The quality of the distilled spirits they produced was famously high. They were also famous for their thrift, productivity and square dealing — a combination that led directly to a good deal of commercial success, as it had for the Quaker communities in the Midwest. In fact, the colony members had a lot in common with Quakers.

The end comes gently

Wilhelm Keil's gravestone, in Aurora, is of a modest and unassuming size.
Dr. Wilhelm Keil is buried at the family cemetery at Aurora. This is his
gravestone as photographed by Ben Maxwell in 1941. The inscription
translates as, “Here rests in peace the founder of the Bethel and Aurora
Colony Dr. Wilhelm Keil.” (Photo: Salem Public Library/Ben Maxwell
collection) [Larger image: 1500 x 1011 px]

One thing they didn’t share with the Quakers, though, was an immortal moral guide. Rather than looking for the word of God in each believer’s “inner light,” the Aurora colonists looked for it in their leader. When that leader died, rather abruptly, in 1877, it was all over. The colony’s assets were liquidated in federal court and — after presenting judge Matthew Deady with an inscribed silver bowl as a thank-you gift for his wise oversight of that process — the colonists stepped into the outside world with little or no “sturm und drang.”

The Aurora Colony probably left its biggest imprint on Oregon in the form of cuisine. As the Shaker colonies on the East Coast became famous as woodcrafters, the Aurora Colony earned renown in what we today call, rather bloodlessly, “the hospitality industry.”

Other remnants of the colony are relatively few. Some of the buildings in Aurora today date from the Keil era, and the Old Aurora Colony Historical Museum has preserved many artifacts as well. But there’s something else left there, too — something harder to pin down — and something so subjective that I’m almost embarrassed to mention it.  It’s a kind of warm, golden feel that the town has, a sense that this was a special place, a place that served up, for those few decades long ago, some of the best the American Utopian movement had to offer — and shared it unselfishly with the outside world.

Overly romantic hogwash? Probably. But the contrast between Aurora Colony and cults like the “holy rollers” of Corvallis/Waldport is striking and telling. Keil and his followers certainly were doing some important things right.

(Sources: Stanton, Coralie Cassell. The Aurora Colony, Oregon (master’s thesis). Corvallis: Oregon State University, 1963; Kopp, James J. Eden Within Eden: Oregon’s Utopian Heritage. Corvallis: OSU Press, 2009; Holbrook, Stewart. “The Aurora Communists,” Wildmen, Wobblies and Whistle Punks (ed. Brian Booth). Corvallis: OSU Press, 1992)

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