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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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.

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.

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.


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).



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.


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 ...


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 ...


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.


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 ...


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.


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

Shipwreck ends Astoria's bid to be “Nantucket of the West Coast”

When the treacherous bar claimed a fully-loaded whaling ship, its owner chalked it up as a very expensive lesson learned, and gave up on its plan to hunt whales out of the Oregon seaport.

Whaling ship Charles W. Morgan (1841), an exhibit at the Mystic Seaport museum in Mystic, Connecticut.
This image shows the whaling ship Charles W. Morgan in Mystic,
Connecticut, where it is an exhibit at the Mystic Seaport museum. Built in
1841, the Charles W. Morgan is the oldest surviving merchant vessel in
the world, and is a typical example of the type of ship used to hunt whales
in the 1840s; the Maine would have been similar. (Image courtesy Mystic
Seaport) [Larger image: 1200 x 1245 px]

“Welcome to Oregon: Whale Hunting Capital of the West Coast.”

It doesn't sound like the kind of slogan the state's tourism commission would want to get behind, does it? Yet it came surprisingly close to becoming a true statement, and in fact if the Columbia River Bar had not been so fearsome, it probably would have.

A world lit by whale oil

The world was a different place before March 27, 1855. That was the day a physician-inventor named Abraham Gesner patented a technique for refining petroleum into something he called Kerosene. Before that day, if you wanted to see at night, you had two choices of fuel types to burn in your lamps: Cheap toxic stuff that smoked and stank, and whale oil. Those who could afford it burned whale oil.

The whaling industry was huge in America in the 1840s. Ships would embark from Nantucket or from New Bedford, Mass. — “the city that lit the world” — and spend years at sea, chasing sperm whales all over the Atlantic and Pacific. The South Pacific was especially productive.

But the South Pacific was a bit of a long way from New Bedford, especially in the days before the Panama Canal was even thought about. A ship that had a particularly successful voyage might find itself, the barrels in its hold all full of whale oil, passing up valuable opportunities on the voyage back around the horn.

Wanted: A Pacific coast whaling port

It would certainly make sense to have another port, on the Pacific coast, from which to operate whaling expeditions. At least, that's what the owners of the whaling ship Maine thought. So in 1846, when the Maine sailed out of its home port in Fairhaven, Mass., on a several-year cruise, the captain was instructed to put in at Astoria, the most well-developed port on the American West Coast at the time.

You might think the logical place to do this would have been San Francisco. But in 1846, San Francisco was a Mexican city, and the U.S. had just gone to war with Mexico. Seattle wasn't even a trading post yet. So, Astoria it was.

The Maine spent a couple years prowling the south seas. By the time it was ready to come into port in late August of 1848, its hold was stuffed with 1,400 barrels of whale oil, along with 120 barrels of spermaceti oil (the hard, waxy substance from the head of a sperm whale, which was used to make top-quality candles) and seven tons of whale bone. It probably took at least 30 whales to produce this amount of cargo.

This load would be offloaded at Astoria, and some sort of facility set up for handling whale products there; then the Maine would head out again to fetch more.

At least, that was the plan.

Crossing the Columbia River bar ... or not

At Astoria, the seas were too heavy for Astoria's bar pilot to get safely aboard the Maine. After some time, the skipper of the Maine got tired of waiting. How bad could it be, anyway? No doubt the bar looked perfectly safe to him.

He decided to take a chance.

Well, one of the things a bar pilot in those days was supposed to know about was wind shadows. The wind profile at the mouth of the river is rather complicated, and more than one sailing ship has had defeat snatched from the jaws of victory when the wind suddenly shifted or dropped to nothing at just the wrong moment.

This is exactly what now happened to the Maine.

Canvas hanging impotently from the yardarms, the heavy-laden ship drifted out to sea at the mercy of the current and, in slow motion, fetched up on Clatsop Spit.

All that could be salvaged was the cooper's shop. The rest of the Maine, and her valuable cargo, was a total loss.

Whaler owners pull the plug

That was the beginning and the end of Astoria's bid to become the “Nantucket of the Pacific.” The ship's owners in Fairhaven were quick to learn the lesson that Astoria was simply too dangerous to be used as a regular base of operations.

Perhaps it was just as well. A dozen years later, new petroleum-based kerosene would be the lamp fuel of choice almost everywhere, and the whaling industry would fade into little more than an East Coast maritime memory. Had Astoria gotten involved, it would have been too late to participate in more than just the sunset years of the whaling industry's golden age.

By the 1880s, there were still whaling ships regularly calling at San Francisco, but there was no longer enough money in the trade to make whaling a prestige gig for sailors and most sailors tried very hard to not end up on one. In fact, deepwater whaling ships made a significant contribution to San Francisco's status as shanghai capital of the world for many years, before that crown was stolen away by Portland just after the turn of the century.

Space-age whale hunting?

Astoria made a second foray into the whaling industry, too -- much more recently. Seeking, among other things, whale oil for the space program, an Astoria-area company launched a whaling venture in 1961. For details about it, see this article.

(Sources: Personal recollections of Frank Parker Jr.; Webb, Robert Lloyd. On the Northwest: Commercial Whaling in the Pacific Northwest. Vancouver: UBC Press, 1988; Marshall, Don. Oregon Shipwrecks. Portland: Binford, 1984; The Daily Astorian, May 11 and 24, 2011; Todd, Sheryl, “Astoria Daily Photo” blog, www.astoriaoregondailyphoto.blogspot.com)