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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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.

the most awkward prison-break scenario — ever.

The bad guy, a convicted cop killer, simply walked out the back door of the Salem Motel 6 during a conjugal visit. Here's the story.

Jim Wright, at the stick of his Hughes H-1 Racer, flies a low pass over the airfield at Cottage Grove State Airport - which has since been renamed Jim Wright Field in his honor.

the heroic pilot who had to choose who would die in crash-landing.

Jim Wright built a perfect replica of one of history's most important airplanes, and for a time, all was good. But one day he was forced to choose between landing it in a crowded field of tourists, and dying in a giant fireball. Here's what he did.

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.


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.

An illustration of the scene in the Davis Hotel when detectives saw a hand suddenly  reach out from under the bed, grabbing for a pistol hidden there, from the Portland Morning Oregonian.

Railroad Murder mystery solved with the victim's help

The thieves, cornered in a boxcar, shot their way out, mortally wounding a railroad "bull." But the dying man was still a pretty good shot. 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.

Jonathan Bourne Jr., the rascally and creative political mastermind behind the 'hold-up session.'

The legislature's notorious 40-day drunken party

Lawmaker Jonathan Bourne Jr. knew if the state House convened, it would elect his opponent. So he held things up for six weeks — with a Bacchanalian bender. 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 steamer Telephone, fastest boat on the river in the 1880s and possibly the world -- until it burned to the waterline one day.

riverboat captain had to choose: save passengers, or save his boat?

The steamboat Telephone caught fire at the widest spot in the Columbia; the decision must not have been too tough, because Captain U.B. Scott didn't hesitate for a moment. Here's what happened.

The gravestone of Ame, who despite having died 10 years after the Civil War, was still considered 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.

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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.

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 ...

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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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Far-out guru "enlightens" Central Oregon.

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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 ...


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.


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.


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

Long-gone dance hall hosted Chuck Berry, Johnny Cash, more

Elvis himself is rumored to have played at The Cottonwoods, a jumpin' joint near Lebanon, where thousands danced to the music of many of the 20th Century's greatest musicians. Today, it's a vacant lot — piled high with memories.

The Woody Herman Band performs at the Cottonwoods Ballroom in
November 1947. (Photo: John Eggin)

Halfway between Albany and Lebanon on Highway 20, not far from the bottomlands of the South Santiam River, there’s a little store called the Cottonwoods Market.

If you should find yourself driving by with a few minutes to spare, you may be tempted to stop for a snack. If you do, pause for a moment on the porch of that market and look across the street at the dusty, overgrown vacant lot on the other side.

That’s the former site of the Cottonwoods Ballroom.

A legendary dance hall

The Cottonwoods Ballroom was probably the most important entertainment venue between Portland and Eugene, a kind of first-among-equals of the dance hall-community centers that once peppered the Willamette Valley. The list of acts that have performed there reads like an excerpt from some kind of multi-ethnic Who’s Who of 20th-century musicians: Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, the Nat King Cole Trio, Duke Ellington, Sons of the Pioneers, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Lefty Frizzell, Hank Snow, Tex Ritter, Fats Domino, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, Johnny Cash.

This vacant corner lot was, until the early 1990s, the home of the
Cottonwood Ballroom, the hottest dance venue between Eugene and
Portland, which from 1930 to 1959 attracted performances from
Count Basie, Hank Snow, Jerry Lee Lewis and dozens of others —
including, maybe, Elvis Presley.

“Big bands, such as Fats Domino and Johnny Cash, made appearances at Cottonwoods in the middle of the week between gigs in Portland and Eugene,” explains historian and Western Oregon University grad student Toni Rush, on the blog she’s created to memorialize and document the Cottonwoods Ballroom.

There’s another name you’ll hear mentioned as having played at the Cottonwoods, too: Elvis Presley. A number of mid-valley residents have recalled conversations in which his name came up as a performer at The Cottonwoods, long before he was famous. The problem is, we can’t be sure, because firsthand accounts are lacking — “I saw Elvis at The Cottonwoods in 1946,” that sort of thing — or advertising.

Historian Jim Creighton is frankly skeptical. “Elvis sightings at Cottonwoods are fairly common, and completely mythical,” he said. “I’ve done much research trying to find the truth and everything points to him not being there.”

The same is true for rumors of a show by country music legend Hank Williams, he added.

The Depression years

The ballroom got its start in 1930, at the start of the Great Depression, when Gladys and Harry Wiley built it as a performance venue and community center, located at an important crossroads among half a dozen small and medium-size Willamette Valley communities.

Right from the start, the Cottonwoods was different. Its name was almost certainly intended to evoke Harlem’s famous Cotton Club; although it was a different kind of venue, the Cottonwoods quickly developed a reputation for booking spectacular African-American performers.

One key way the Cottonwoods differed from the Cotton Club was the audience. The Wileys aimed to provide a family-friendly atmosphere there … sort of. So the Cotton Club’s famous “tall, tan and terrific” dancing girls were not a part of the Cottonwoods scene, and neither were the club’s alcoholic beverages. The Cottonwoods was strictly alcohol-free.

However, patrons were welcome to crack a bottle in the parking lot just outside, and many did just that — like tailgaters at a Beavers game. And after Prohibition was repealed, the Wileys officially opened the place across the street — next door to today’s Cottonwoods Market — as a tavern (it had probably been an unofficial tavern for some time, though).

The war years, and Camp Adair

In 1939, the Wileys got divorced and Harry left; Gladys remained in charge of the place. Another change at around that time was the installation of a new dance floor, made of clear pine. Creighton told Rush that dancers felt as if they were “dancing on springboards,” and as a result they stayed up and active later into the night.

Then, as the Second World War started looming on the horizon, the U.S. Army built and opened Camp Adair — Oregon’s second-largest city, a massive Army base located about 20 miles away from the Cottonwoods. Being an Army base, it of course lacked anything like the Cottonwoods, so the 40,000 servicemen stationed there piled into old jalopies and drove across the river to the ballroom to party.

“One person remembered how it was expensive to get a taxi cab so often the men would combine their change and jump onto an old Model T, filling the car and leaving men hanging off of the running boards on their way to Cottonwoods,” Rush writes. “The images of men hanging off of the running boards on their way to a performance of Hazel Fisher and Her All Girl Band, the most popular of all the bands during the war, is enough to make anyone laugh.”

At the end of the evening, the men would pile back onto the old flivver again — usually pretty drunk by this time — and straggle back to base. Gladys Wiley actually instituted a curfew at the Cottonwoods to help encourage them to get back on time.

The golden age: 1945-1960

The Cottonwoods really came into its own, and made a nationwide name for itself among performers, in the years after the war. That’s when the really big names — Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Hank Snow, Johnny Cash — came to play.

But in 1960, Gladys closed the dance hall for reasons related to the declining health of a loved one, and the golden age was over. A few months after she did this, the dance hall reopened under new management, but apparently the magic was gone, because it was closed again before the end of 1961.

It straggled on for a few years, closing and reopening a few more times as different people tried to make a go of it. For some time in the 1970s, it was probably Oregon’s most rural disco nightclub. Eventually, in the 1980s, it became a bingo hall and community center.

The end came in the early 1990s, when a windstorm tore the roof up and ruined the structure. It was demolished, the lot leveled, and all that remained was a rusty sign by the roadside, where it stayed for years before finally being removed.

The Cottonwoods today

Locals still remember the Cottonwoods, and use it as a point of reference (“turn left at the Cottonwoods”) even though it’s been gone for almost 20 years. With it is gone an era in Oregon history, one in which dance halls hummed and throbbed with lively music on a Saturday night and neighbors met each other for pot-luck socials on a Sunday afternoon. That spirit is mostly a memory, and the best we can do is hope it comes back someday to reanimate those rural community centers and grange halls that are quietly fading away, or have already vanished, in places like Riverside and Crowfoot and St. Paul.

Maybe if it does, the Cottonwoods will be rebuilt.

Historian Creighton will be ready if it is. He’s the proud owner of a small pile of lumber — the last few pieces of the dance floor installed in the late 1930s.

“I talked to the guy who tore the building down and found out who bought the dance floor,” he told Lebanon Express reporter Matt DeBow. “The guy who bought the flooring still had a little bit left stored in a barn. I just could not resist buying the last bit of it.”

EDITOR'S NOTE: The version of this article published in the newspapers contained an error; it said the Cottonwoods closed in 1959 because of Gladys's declining health, when in fact she closed it in 1960 to focus on helping a loved one whose health was declining. This article has been changed to reflect this new information, and I apologize to anyone confused or misinformed as a result of the error.

 (Sources: Rush, Toni. Albany Cottonwoods, http://albanycottonwoods.wordpress.com ; Pacific Northwest Bands, www.pnwbands.com; The Lebanon Express, 7-04-2012; correspondence with Jim Creighton)