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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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.


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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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

Mass murderer honored in monument at county courthouse

75 years ago, without realizing who he was, Wallowa County included Bruce “Blue” Evans — leader of the gang that massacred dozens of innocent Chinese miners back in 1887 — on a plaque commemorating its pioneers.

The pioneer arch monument at Wallowa County Courthouse. Image from http://rgregorynokes.com
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. (Photo:
Diane Dickenson/ rgregorynokes.com) [Larger image at http://
rgregorynokes.com
along with several other related images]

Wallowa County covers the northeast corner of Oregon — a gorgeous area of rugged, remote mountain lakes, the homeland of the legendary Chief Joseph.

It’s also the only county in the state whose courthouse grounds includes a monument dedicated to a known mass murderer.

That sounds worse than it actually is. There are, in fact, about 200 names on the monument, which is an archway built in 1936 through which visitors walk to approach the courthouse steps.

The archway is labeled “Wallowa County Pioneers,” and the brass plaques on the inside of the arch list them by date of arrival — 1871 to 1879. Murderer or no, Bruce “Blue” Evans did in fact settle in Wallowa County in 1879. They couldn’t have just left his name off the list just because he was a notorious horse thief who’d escaped from police custody at gunpoint and led a gang that coldly murdered three dozen people, now, could they?

A community tries to forget

Looking back on it today, it’s hard to imagine why they didn’t — if nothing else, they could have lopped the entire year of 1879 off the list. But in 1936 when this plaque was commissioned, it’s a good bet the people working on it didn’t even know about the massacre — or if they did, thought it was a nasty rumor. Wallowa County had tried hard to forget. Records from the investigation of the incident and the court case that resulted from it had been tucked away in unlikely places to keep them from being found. People who knew about it kept their mouths shut. There was a deep sense of secret shame about the whole thing — at least in part because some of the men involved were scions of some of the county’s most respected families.

The plaque in the Pioneer Arch, commemorating Wallowa County's earliest residents — including one mass murderer.
A 1960 photo of one of the two bronze plaques in the pioneer
archway, on the grounds of the Wallowa County Courthouse,
which honors the first 199 settlers in the county — including
mass murderer and horse thief Bruce “Blue” Evans. Evans
is on the other plaque, the one that lists 1878 and 1879 settlers.
(Photo: Ben Maxwell/ Salem Public Library)

Those other men were J. Titus Canfield, Omar LaRue, Hezekiah “Carl” Hughes, Hiram Maynard, Frank Vaughn and Robert McMillan. Evans was, beyond question, their leader, and many Wallowa County residents thought of him as having led the others astray.

Horse thieves and Chinese miners

The killing happened in the last days of May 1887, when Evans and the other gang members were moving some stolen horses around on the Oregon side of the Snake River, near Deep Creek. The area is remote and inaccessible even by Wallowa County standards, and it made a great place for a bunch of horse thieves on the run from the law to hide out. And they were on the run; authorities had tried to serve Evans with papers a few days earlier. Trouble was coming.

Deep Creek runs into the Snake River at a spot with high rimrock all around and no cover of any kind. On this particular day, a group of Chinese gold miners was down along the creek below, working through a gravel bar with gold pans, looking for — and apparently finding — “flour gold.” A few minutes after Evans and his gang met them, these innocent strangers were dead — and the gang had graduated from rustling to cold-blooded murder. 

Stories conflict over why Evans and his gang did it. One account says they asked the miners to lend them a boat to ferry their stolen horses across into Idaho and, when turned down, became enraged; another says that, knowing the miners had been there a while, they figured they’d have lots of gold, which would be useful since they were now fugitives from justice. Greg Nokes, in his book, makes the case that simple racist hatred was a major factor, and he is probably right.

Gunfire

The pioneer arch monument at Wallowa County Courthouse. Image from http://rgregorynokes.com
The new monument to the Chinese miners at the newly renamed
Chinese Massacre Cove, installed June 22, 2012. [Larger image on R.
Gregory Nokes' Facebook page ]

Whatever the motivation, the gang members simply started shooting the terrified miners from the rimrock with high-powered rifles, taking their shots carefully and simply exterminating these inoffensive strangers as if they were prairie dogs, one by one, until they were out of bullets and only one was left — and they chased him down and brained him with rocks.

The number of miners involved is unclear as well. Most sources agree there were 10 in the first group. Most sources also say there were other Chinese miners in the area, and the gang found and massacred them in the same fashion. The total death toll was most likely 31 or 34. Of all of the murdered men, the names of only 10 are known.

Of the seven gang members, one stayed at the remote cabin they were camping in — probably McMillan, who was just 15 at the time. One source quoted in Nokes’ book says there was also a young orphan boy with them who, after the shooting started, took off running and was tracked down and killed by Evans to keep him from squealing.

It's worth noting, by the way, that one of the Chinese miners had a .22 pistol and used it to return fire. Despite the near impossibility of connecting with a small-bore pistol at such long range, this intrepid miner managed to park a slug in the leg of Frank Vaughn, one of the murderers. Vaughn walked with a limp for the rest of his life as a result of this.

A short trial, a long forgetting

Eventually, Vaughn turned state’s evidence, and gave a confession. Evans, Canfield and LaRue fled the state before trial; the other three were arrested and given a speedy but friendly trial. After apparently blaming the missing three for the whole thing, they were acquitted.

Vaughn’s confession has disappeared. The court records for the entire day in which the case was heard are likewise missing — the only blank page in the entire court journal. What documents there are were tucked away in unlikely places — the county planning records department, a dusty unused office safe — and forgotten.

Of the three fugitives, very little further is known. Canfield ended up changing his name to Charles and opening a blacksmith shop in southern Idaho — possibly with the proceeds of the massacre. None of them were ever arrested, charged or even really sought after. They had perpetrated the worst massacre of Chinese people in U.S. history, and gotten away with it.

But in spite of the startling lack of judicial action, it would be a mistake to suggest that the people of Wallowa County didn’t think killing those Chinese people was that big a deal. The extraordinary attempts to cover the crime up and pretend it never happened testify to that.

Even today, the shame of what those seven men and boys did still haunts their families, their community — and, yes, their state.

Editor's Note: Late last month (June 2012), the long-awaited monument for the massacred Chinese miners was installed at the scene of the crime, now called Chinese Massacre Cove. As far as I know, the other monument — the one with their killer's name on it — is still in place.

(Sources: Nokes, R. Gregory. Massacred for Gold: The Chinese in Hells Canyon. Corvallis: OSU Press, 2009; Nove, Michael. “Ambushed: The Hells Canyon Massacre of 1887,” Oregon State Bar Bulletin, November 2007; Cockle, Richard. “Massacred Chinese gold miners to receive memorial along Snake River,” Portland Oregonian, Nov. 26, 2011)