Heroes and rascals, shipwrecks and lost gold: Strange but true stories and secrets of Oregon's wild past | Offbeat Oregon History Click in the very top of this header to go back to the main menu page. Yaquina Bay was home to the best-tasting oysters anywhere, and naturally they soon provoked a battle: The Yaquina Bay Oyster War. 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. The voice of Goofy -- as well as many other grand old cartoons -- was animation pioneer and performer Vance 'Pinto' Colvig, a Jacksonville native and an OSU grad. The one and only Buster Keaton in 'The General' -- one of several legendary films made here in Oregon. Local aero-daredevil Silas Christofferson flew this rickety airplane off the roof of a downtown hotel in 1912! 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)
2012 articles 2012 articles 2012 articles About Offbeat Oregon 2012 articles 2011 articles 2010 articles 2008-2009 articles Store (the Finn J.D. John Centre for Crass Commercialism and Filthy Lucre)

Table of Contents: 2014 articles

These are all the columns published in the seventh year of Offbeat Oregon History. (Click here to jump to most recent year)

<<<   Older: 2014 stories      |     — This page: 2015 stories —     |      Newer: 2016 stories    >>>


December 28, 2014

Roseburg “Champagne Riot” likely wasn't what you think

The year after the Civil War ended, partisans of North and South still clung to their resentments in Douglas County. On Christmas Day, those hard feelings broke out in a knock-down-drag-out that left two men dead.



December 21, 2014

Oregon Senator almost became President; luckily, he didn't

New York schemers sought to have Joseph Lane named President. Had they succeeded, the Civil War likely would have been the North seceding from the South, and possibly an independent Pacific Republic in the West.

•Washington, D.C.


December 14, 2014

Simpson empire made Coos Bay a shipbuilding Mecca

Asa Mead Simpson came out West for the Gold Rush, but he soon learned there was more money in the timber that blanketed its hills than would ever be scratched out of its rapidly dwindling gold mines.

•North Bend


December 7, 2014

Free-love “Harmonial Brotherhood” colony was a disaster

The catastrophic failure of several of the Utopian cult's articles of faith — especially on matters of diet and health care — had doomed the community to misery and sickness before it even got a start.



November 30, 2014

The father of Oregon’s nursery industry's “free-love” cult

Former devout Quaker Henderson Luelling developed some odd beliefs in late middle age, founded a cult called “Harmonial Brotherhood,” and led his followers into the Central American wilderness. It did not go well.

•Milwaukie, San Francisco, Mexico, Honduras


November 23, 2014

Shouldn’t Oregon’s official language be Chinook?

Sure, most people speak English. But there's an older language whose roots run far deeper in Oregon's culture and history, and it's one that nearly every Oregonian knows a word or two of.



November 16, 2014

Wreck of the steamer U.S. Grant: Baffling historical mystery

The little riverboat came loose from its moorings during a storm and floated downriver and onto the deadly bar with the owners aboard. How could such a thing have happened? Did someone do it on purpose?

•Astoria, Fort Canby


November 9, 2014

Nutty 1890s governor left Oregon with two Thanksgivings

In 1893, famously irascible governor Sylvester Pennoyer made a mistake on the date of Turkey Day in a speech. But then, instead of admitting his error, he defiantly doubled down on it.



November 2, 2014

The short, tragic story of Portland's municipal whale

“Ethelbert” the orca somehow ended up stranded miles from the ocean in the Columbia Slough, much to the delight of most Portland residents. But it wasn't long before the city's Nimrods came out and spoiled everything.



October 26, 2014

Scholarly Albany flyer was true father of Oregon aviation

In a race with Portland neophile Henry Wemme to be the first owner of an airplane in Oregon, Cornell-educated John Burkhart was two weeks too late; but unlike Wemme, he designed, built and flew his own machine.

•Albany, Portland


October 19, 2014

Offer of bonus turned out badly for owner of wrecked ship

On the bright side, though, the owner of the Desdemona did get to go down in history — or, rather, geography — after the deadly sandbar that took his ship was dubbed Desdemona Sands.

•Astoria/ Columbia River Bar


October 12, 2014

Port Orford PR wizard managed “secession” like a movie

“Patriotic Jeffersonians intend to secede each Thursday until further notice,” the rebels said, and played their parts in the grand production to a nationwide audience as newsreel cameras rolled and reporters scribbled in notepads.

•Curry, Josephine counties


October 5, 2014

Famous 1941 Jefferson “secession” largely a publicity stunt

Boisterous and colorful man P.R. man Gilbert Gable, mayor of Port Orford, drew on the frustrations of the West Coast's remotest counties in an effort to get the state to invest in decent highways.

•Port Orford


September 28, 2014

Oregon Indian prince was Japan's introduction to the West

In his short 11-month stay, he taught 14 Imperial diplomats to speak English, and impressed them with his gentility and respectfulness. And after a long, adventurous life in Canada, his last word was, “Sayonara.”

•Astoria, Washington, Canada


September 21, 2014

A secret Native American prince's quest to reach Japan

Young Ranald MacDonald didn't know he was the grandson of Concomly, Chief of the Chinook Tribe. But before anyone could tell him, he'd run away to sea — and in so doing, dramatically changed the destiny of three great nations.

•Astoria, Japan


September 14, 2014

Legendary “Chief Bigfoot” as elusive as his hairy namesake

1860s Bannock leader disappeared as mysteriously as he appeared, leaving behind nothing but frontier folklore and a trail of 17-inch-long moccasin prints; a probably-untrue rumor claims Nampa, Idaho, was named after him.

•Eastern Oregon


September 7, 2014

Merrill brought bikes to women; prostitutes took 'em away

“World's Greatest Trick Rider” sold more than 50,000 bicycles in an age when bikes were the cutting edge of technology; women loved them — until they started getting mistaken for hookers on the prowl ...



August 31, 2014

Portland stunt made local aero-daredevil world famous

“This is an age of do-it-first,” said Silas Christofferson, and proceeded to launch his spindly kite-like “aeroplane” from the roof of a downtown motel — making aviation history in the heart of Oregon's biggest town.



August 24, 2014

Massive war game covered Central Oregon in 1943

Tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers, shipped to the Beaver State for training, learned combat lessons that would save their lives and help them win the Second World War during the huge campaign simulation known as the Oregon Maneuver.

•Central Oregon


August 17, 2014

Massive steamer wrecked by future Costa Rica Navy admiral

Ashamed to show his face in Astoria after causing the loss of the biggest passenger liner on the West Coast, Thomas Doig slunk away to South America and remade himself as a military man.

•Columbia River Bar


August 10, 2014

Thousands of Oregonians remember replanting burn

For decades after the Tillamook Burn, classes of schoolchildren were bused out to help replant. Today, thousands of Oregonians, on trips to the beach, can point to a thriving patch of forest and say, “We planted those trees.”

•Tillamook National Forest


August 3, 2014

Tillamook Burn “blew up” with shocking speed

Quick action by state forester prevented the devastating forest fire from claiming hundreds of lives when a furnace-stoking wind blew in from Eastern Oregon, flogging the fire toward the sea.

•Tillamook National Forest


July 27, 2014

Tillamook Burn sprang from logging crew's unwise gamble

A hard-pressed crew tried to snake just a few more logs out before quitting for the day, hoping nothing would go wrong in the tinder-dry forest. Unfortunately, something did.

•Forest Grove area


July 20, 2014

Bunco Kelley: The Coyote of Portland’s waterfront mythos

Is there any truth to the stories of shanghaiings of the cigar-store Indian and of the dozens of dead guys found in the basement of a funeral parlor? Well ... maybe. But then again ...

•Portland waterfront


July 13, 2014

Oregon's most notorious shanghai artist: “Bunco” Kelley

He was Portland's most notorious bad guy, with his fingers in everything from shanghaiing sailors to smuggling opium. But ironically, when he was finally sent to prison, it was for a murder he clearly didn't commit.

•Portland waterfront


July 6, 2014

Rumors of sunken submarines: Government denies it, but ...

Pulp writer and religious figure L. Ron Hubbard figures prominently in the most spectacular story of action against Japanese submarines in Oregon waters. It's known, with a smile, as the “Battle of Cape Lookout.”

•Oregon Coast


June 29, 2014

Atlantis in the Beaver State: Underwater Lost Cities of Oregon

The rising waters of lakes and reservoirs have submerged many budding Oregon metropolises over the years, from tiny one-horse towns to an entire Native American homeland.



June 22, 2014

Pioneer Chinese doctor was a municipal treasure in John Day

Settlers in John Day in the late 1800s learned the healer of Kam Wah Chung could cure diseases others couldn't; all his patients survived the fatal Spanish Flu epidemic in 1919. (Updated edition of this story)

•John Day


June 15, 2014

Did Vortex music festival prevent riots in downtown Portland?

On that tense late-August weekend, tens of thousands of young people enjoyed themselves at McIver Park, while the much-dreaded riots failed to materialize. Was there a connection? Many voters thought so.

•Estacada, Portland


June 8, 2014

Governor McCall expected “Vortex I” to cost him the election

When McCall green-lighted the plan to distract potential street rioters with a week-long music festival, he fully expected to lose his job for it — whether it worked or not.

•Portland, Salem, Estacada


June 1, 2014

Riot at PSU set the stage for “Governor’s Pot Party”

To Governor Tom McCall, it looked like Portland was about to explode, and there was nothing he could do to prevent it ... until two long-haired young people came to his chief of staff with a very unusual plan.

•Portland, Salem


May 25, 2014

Pirates were defeated in Yaquina Bay Oyster War

The oysters belonged to the Siletz Indians and their employees, but Richard Hillyer was determined to take them anyway. We don't know much about the final battle, but we do know the outcome, and it must have been a doozie.



May 18, 2014

Portland's Pioneer Square could have been a “crystal palace”

Mayor Frank Ivancie, Pioneer Courthouse Square's most intransigent opponent, gleefully declared the project “dead” in a 1982 speech. In doing so, he accidentally galvanized the citizen group that would prove him wrong.



May 11, 2014

NASA's “Moon Trees” have roots in an Oregon forest fire

Astronaut Stuart Roosa had a special relationship with the U.S. Forest Service, and when it was his turn to go to the moon, he proposed a science experiment. You can see the results towering over Peavy Hall at OSU today.

•The Moon


May 4, 2014

The mysterious disappearance of a schooner's entire crew

Pilot boat sailed back and forth on the Columbia River Bar all day and all night before finally crashing onto the beach; when onlookers ran to rescue the sailors, they found the boat empty and deserted.



April 27, 2014

Japanese shipwrecks on Oregon coast likely predate Columbus

The case of John Ottoson (ne Otokichi) in 1832 illustrates what can happen: Blown off to sea by a gale, he and his comrades rode the Kuroshio Current to Washington State — much to the astonishment of Dr. John McLoughlin.

•Oregon Coast


April 20, 2014

Bad batch of “dehorn” alcohol killed 28 hobos on Skid Road

The alcoholic derelicts of on Burnside Street knew they could count on denatured alcohol for a cheap-but-nasty buzz; it might make them sick, but it wouldn't kill them. But then, one day, it did.



April 13, 2014

Beavercreek Bomber: Give me $1 million or the lights go out

Calling himself “J. Hawker,” David Heesh dynamited several high-voltage powerline towers, then threatened to keep it up unless ransom was delivered; the FBI busted him using a CB radio trick.

•Clackamas County


April 6, 2014

Cayuse tribe's world-beating ponies are now very rare

Legendary "Cayuse pony" breed gave Indians far more endurance and speed than settlers' mounts, a fact that cost gambler and horseman Joe Crabb most of his ready cash on "The Day Pendleton Went Bankrupt"
Cayuse Tribe members ride the track at the Pendleton Round-Up, probably sometime in the 1920s. (Image: Lee Drake/ UO Archives)

•Pendleton, Umatilla Indian country


March 30, 2014

Iconic movies filmed in Oregon, Part Three: 1975-1989

As a filming location, Oregon really started to come into its own in the 1980s, and many locals can point to key cultural touchstones that played out right in their home towns.
This instantly recognizable image of downtown Brownsville as seen from the end of the Calapooia River bridge appears early in Stand By Me. (Image: Columbia Pictures)

•Astoria; Mt. Hood; Lane and Deschutes counties; Portland


March 23, 2014

Iconic movies filmed in Oregon, Part Two: 1965-1975

By the early 1960s, word started getting out in Hollywood about Oregon's virtues as a place to shoot on location. Productions made here during these eventful years follow changes in popular culture in an almost spooky way.
The meadow in which the town of “No Name City” was constructed for Paint Your Wagon, in the Wallowa Mountains. (Image: Roger Medlin/oregonicons.com)

•Salem; Deschutes, Lincoln, Lane and Baker counties


March 16, 2014

Iconic movies shot in Oregon, Part One: 1908 to 1952

As a place to go shoot pictures on location, Oregon has become pretty popular in the last few dozen years. But the Beaver State's contribution to early cinema, though more sparse, was surprisingly influential.
A vintage movie poster for Buster Keaton’s “The General,” a 1926  silent movie shot, in part, near Cottage Grove. (Image: United Artists)

•Astoria; Lane and Deschutes counties; Columbia Gorge


March 9, 2014

Brutal “Oregon Boot” made our state prison famous

Named after the warden who invented it, the “Gardner Shackle” eventually caused serious musculoskeletal damage; many former inmates limped for the rest of their lives as a result of habitually wearing one.
This small article ran in the August 1922 issue of Popular Science Magazine, demonstrating that the “Oregon Boot” was still in regular use in the early 1920s. The caption claims it weighs 50 pounds, but that figure is almost certainly a typo or a mistake; the heaviest one used at the Oregon State Penitentiary was 28 pounds. (Image: Popular Science)



March 2, 2014

After logger's murder, bordello madam mysteriously vanished

Shortly after Charles Lyons' body was found, the owner of the bordello in which he'd been partying skipped town and was never heard from again. Could she have been his murderer? Or was she an unknown killer's second victim?
A hand-tinted postcard image of downtown Klamath Falls as it  appeared around 1911, when the murder of Charles Lyons took place. (Image: OSU Archives)

•Klamath Falls


Feb. 23, 2014

Hank Vaughan in middle age: The outlaw as elder statesman

In 1883, Eastern Oregon's wildest horse-rustling gunfighter gave up his stock-thieving ways (mostly) and became a wheat farmer. But to say he'd settled down wouldn't quite be accurate.
Hank Vaughan as he appeared around the age of 35, in 1885, when he was beginning to settle down in the Athena-Pendleton area.

•Pendleton-Umatilla area


Feb. 16, 2014

Hank Vaughan: Becoming the West's most successful rustler

The Oregon frontier's most colorful almost-outlaw spent a dozen years dodging posses and slipping in and out of the Indian reservation with stolen horses and cattle. Some of his exploits are still being talked about today.
The painting on the cover of this July 1950 issue of Exciting Western shows the scene that most of us think of when we hear “rustler” — two desperados caught in the act of stealthily changing the brand on a stolen cow. While Hank Vaughan did this sort of thing, his method was to drive the stolen cattle deep into the wilderness first, and he’d never do just one cow at a time.

•Pendleton-Umatilla area


Feb. 9, 2014

Legendary hell-raising rustler Hank Vaughan: The early years

Quick to make both friends and enemies, Oregon's most famous frontier cowboy and almost-outlaw was a gifted horseman and rustler. But his hard-drinking, quick-shooting ways nearly got him lynched as a teen.
Howard A. Black, the curator of the Grant County Museum in Canyon City, shows the skull of murderer Berry Way, hanged for murder near Canyon City in 1864 – the same year hot-tempered 15-year-old Hank Vaughan shot two people in Canyon City. Had Hank’s aim been better, this would likely have been his fate as well. (Image: Ben Maxwell/ Salem Public Library)

•Canyon City, Brownsville


Feb. 2, 2014

Opium culture a long-forgotten part of the urban underworld

A century ago, the drug had a dark, smoky allure for the "fast" young men and women of Oregon cities, and smuggling routes through Portland were supplying the entire West Coast with the exotic, deadly stuff.
An illustration of a group of smugglers bringing opium and illegal Chinese immigrants into Oregon, from a 1889 issue of Portland-based magazine The West Shore. (Image: UO Libraries)

•Portland and other cities
•1870s to 1920s


Jan. 26, 2014

Charming gentleman by day, highway robber by night

Charles "Black Bart" Bolton's neighbors in San Francisco thought his money came from ownership in gold mines. It turned out it came from furtive excursions northward to rob stagecoaches in Oregon and northern California.
A poster advertising a 1948 “B Movie” titled “Black Bart.” Although the movie’s title character shares Black Bart’s real name (Charles Boles), the movie’s plot bears no resemblance to the real Black Bart story.

•Siskiyou Mountains


Jan. 19, 2014

Portland is home of world's only working PT boat from WWII

Twenty years ago, PT-658 was a weatherbeaten hulk, rotting away at a pier in San Francisco Bay. Today, it's a priceless piece of American history that you'll occasionally see on the waters of Portland Harbor.
The fully restored PT-658 as seen from the sidewalk on the Hawthorne Bridge during the 2011 Rose Festival. On this occasion, the PT-658 inadvertently intruded into the dragonboat races, which were then in progress, and quickly retreated back downriver – but not before giving the dragonboat-racing spectators on the bridge a spectacular view of its deck armaments. (Image: F.J.D. John)

•Portland harbor


Jan. 12, 2014

Portland's Vaudeville mayor made city famous (and infamous)

Adorably boisterous and hearty, Mayor George Baker was the life of every party. But if you were a supporter of organized labor or an anti-war activist, he and his "Mayor's Secret Police" goons were not your friends.
Mayor George Baker of Portland as he looked shortly after his swearing-in in 1917. (Image: Oregon Historical Society)



Jan. 5, 2014

The Oregonian once burgled a mayoral candidate's home

Will Daly had earned the sworn enmity of the newspaper's publisher, Henry Pittock, by exposing his plan to steal city water for his lush West Hills estate. But Pittock evened the score with a midnight visit to Daly's residence.
Will Daly as he appeared around the time of his campaign for mayor of Portland, in 1917. (Image: Portland Morning Oregonian)


<<<   Older: 2013 stories      |     — This page: 2014 stories —     |      Newer: 2015 stories    >>>

Everything on this Web site authored by Finn J.D. John is covered by a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license, meaning you are free to use it for almost anything as long as you attribute it; for details, click here.

However, please note that many of the images are not mine. The primary purpose of this site is news and education, and consequently many images here are used pursuant to the fair-use exemption of the 1976 copyright law. Before using any image from this site, please read our copyright-law information page. In fact, if you're not familiar with copyright law and fair-use doctrine, you should read it anyway. It's important for all of us to know what's ours -- that is, what's in the public domain -- to avoid infringing others' rights, and to defend our own rights as co-owners of the public domain.