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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How Bill Miner learned to rob trains ... he learned the hard way.

But his botched Portland job appears to have inspired an iconic 1903 movie called 'The Great Train Robbery' a month or two later. Maybe he even watched it later ... in prison.

A scene from the Disney movie "Saludos Amigos" (1943), a sort of cartoon-character tour of South America. This scene is from the Argentina part, with Goofy dressed as a gaucho. In this cartoon and most others, Goofy was voiced by Pinto Colvig.

Goofy was from Oregon. Also Bluto, Grumpy, Sleepy, Bozo, dozens more.

Vance "Pinto" Colvig, from Jacksonville, was a pioneer in animated cartoons and a gifted show-biz man.

Earle Leonard Nelson, a.k.a. The Dark Strangler, as he looked a week or two before his execution in Canada. Nelson's hanging ended a cross-country and international murdering spree in which he murdered dozens of women.

When the 'Dark Strangler' preyed on Portland landladies

His M.O. was simple: While a woman was showing him a room or house for rent, he'd strangle her, take her jewelry and flee.

A breathless headline that appeared in the Portland Morning Oregonian after Lulu Reynolds revealed her clandestine lover's guilt in a particularly dramatic and creepy way.

The tawdriest love triangle in the history of the universe.

Lulu Reynolds was having a torrid affair with her music teacher. Her husband carried a .38 in his jacket pocket. It wasn't the kind of thing that ends well. It didn't.

A screen capture from an episode of ABC's legendary 1970s show "Happy Days." Because the show is set in 1950s Milwaukee, Wisc., "The Fonz" is actually breaking the law in this scene; pinball was outlawed in Milwaukee at the time.

Graft, corruption, racketeering, and ... uh, pinball?

Until just a few dozen years ago, pinball was illegal, and the mobbed-up characters who supplied the games played for keeps.

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The owners of rival papers escalated their war of words when they went for pistols on a downtown street one morning in 1871.

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The legend of cool-cat skyjacker
D.B. Cooper:
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The man calling himself Dan Cooper parachuted into legend, and 40 years later the case remains unsolved ... but there are plenty of theories.

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The bank robber who became vice-president of the bank he robbed

After he got out of prison, Dave Tucker spent 30 years rebuilding his reputation in his hometown of Joseph, and it seems he succeeded.

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The Rise and Fall of the House of Klux in Oregon

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Senator John H. Mitchell: Oregon's own real-life Snidely Whiplash

He abandoned his family, changed his name, moved to Oregon, bilked widows and orphans in two big real-estate swindles ... and was promptly elected to Congress.

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Mysterious skeletons of Oregon: If these bones could talk ...

A long-dead dry-land homesteader ... a medical specimen in an Odd Fellows lodge ... what are their stories? We'll never know.

Oregon inventor Victor Strode’s revolutionary boat, the 'aerohydrocraft,' made the front cover of the March 1931 issue of Popular Science. The design didn't prove a useful one for the City of Portland, though, and the larger model the city commissioned to function as a harbor police boat didn't work out.

Buck Rogers-style police boat didn't work out for city of Portland

A local inventor developed the "aerohydrocraft" design in the early 1930s. But when the city built one as an ambulance boat, it flopped.

The remains of the barque Peter Iredale as they appear today, jutting out of the beach sands on Clatsop Spit at Warrenton as they have since 1906. In 1960, the wreck nearly was lost to a man who claimed he owned it.

How the Oregon Coast almost lost the Peter Iredale to a scrap-metal shark

An Oregon City man claimed he'd inherited the rights from his father, and demanded to be allowed to cut it up and haul it away. He almost got away with this little swindle.

Commander Dave Scott salutes the U.S. flag, which has just been planted on the surface of the moon. A small piece of Oregon lava rock, carried to the moon by Scott's fellow astronaut Jim Irwin, lies within this photo, next to one of the many bootprints. (Image: NASA)

There's a piece of lava from central oregon in this photo, on the moon.

It was left there by astronaut Jim Irwin at the request of a friend from Bend — who gave him a sliver of Oregon lava to leave on the moon's surface. And so he did.

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.

During a conjugal visit at a cheap motel, the prisoner escaped

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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.

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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.

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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.

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? . Here's the story.

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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.

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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)

George L. Baker, the big, bluff, hail-fellow-well-met owner of Portland’s Baker Theater, was flabbergasted. As he and his fellow Portland Rosarians were getting ready to march in the 1917 Rose Festival parade, a courier had run up to him with a cryptic message:

“The grand marshal’s car awaits,” the messenger puffed. “Hurry and get in and don’t delay the parade.”

“Why, I’m not grand marshal,” Baker replied, puzzled.

Just then his friend Gus Moser, who was in charge of the parade that year, hustled over. “George, hurry up,” he said. “Get in the grand marshal’s car. You’re the grand marshal.”

“Since when?” Baker replied.

“Oh, all the time,” said Moser breezily. “We just made you grand marshal. But we couldn’t get you on the phone and we forgot to tell you after the meeting. You’ve been grand marshal all along.”

And Moser showed Baker a copy of the parade program. Sure enough, he was listed as grand marshal.

As Moser had clearly planned, the surprise honor had lowered Baker’s shields a bit, and he allowed himself to be bundled into a massive, flag-draped, chauffeur-driven car. Promptly the door was shut and the car moved out with the parade column, headed for the streets of town with him stuck inside, all by himself.

“But some of you fellows ride with me!” Baker wailed, no doubt suddenly realizing he’d been pranked.

But nobody did, and Baker had to endure the entire Rose Parade all by himself — and the jibes of the other Rosarians afterward.

“You fellows always want a fellow to be a good dog in a pinch, but this time it wasn’t so funny,” he grumbled afterward.

But this wasn’t just any local businessman the Rosarians were pranking. Baker was within a week of being sworn in as mayor of Portland. And the fact that the Rosarians felt comfortable enough to pull a stunt like this at his expense is a good illustration of what was different about Mayor George Luis Baker.

The impresario

Mayor George Baker around 1930, on the front steps of City Hall.
(Image: Oregon Historical Society)

By the time he’d finished his run as mayor of Portland, George L. Baker was probably the most famous mayor of an American city in the world.

He was a big, boisterous man, a classic early-1920s show-biz man of the cigar-chomping, back-slapping type. During his candidacy, the Oregon Voter had proclaimed him “the World Champion Loud Noise of the Northwest.” He had big black expressive eyebrows which he probably darkened with charcoal, as old Vaudevilleans used to do, and his face seemed always set in a happy smile.

Baker’s life story was like something out of a Horatio Alger novel. Born to a poor family in The Dalles, he dropped out of school when he was 9 to shine shoes and deliver papers in San Francisco, to help support the family after they'd moved there. He soon found a steadier job in a Vaudeville theater, and with that, he’d found his life’s calling. A gifted impresario, he quickly worked his way up through the ranks, and when he moved with his family to Portland, he soon was working at Cordray’s Theater at Third and Yamhill streets — tending the animals there.

It was a low-ranking position, but it was a foot in the door. One thing led to another, and by 1901 young George was the proud owner of his own theater — Baker Theater — and building a Vaudeville stock troupe with a nationwide reputation. Soon after that, he was elected to the City Council, where he became the main opponent of then-Mayor Harry Lane’s frequent anti-vice initiatives. (Baker thought vice crusades — anti-prostitution and anti-gambling initiatives, mostly — would succeed only in scattering bordellos and gambling dens all over the city rather than leaving them tucked away in the North End where they could be watched. History shortly thereafter proved him right about that.)

Finally, in 1917, Baker threw his straw porkpie hat in the ring for mayor. But it was a long shot; he was up against one of the most popular politicians of the day, union man Will Daly.

Luckily for Baker, Oregonian publisher Henry Pittock hated Daly, and in one of the more remarkable actions in the history of that otherwise-exemplary newspaper, had a staff member burgle Daly’s home and look through his papers. The burglar found a partially filled-out application for the American Socialist Party there. After Pittock published this ill-gotten information, Baker pulled ahead, and won by a 1-percent margin.

Baker as mayor

Mayor George Baker at a public event at the Portland Art Museum in 1932.
(Image: stumptownblogger.com)

As mayor, Baker was a wonder. He could be wildly inappropriate in the most adorable way, as in the time he almost caused an international incident by taking advantage of the reverent silence at France’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to launch into a political stump speech, or when he welcomed international opera star Mary Garden with a big, publicly-bestowed kiss. (Historian Karl Klooster once quipped that part of his political legacy was “public bussing.”) He personally saw Oregon soldiers off at the railroad station with tears in his eyes, bellowing, “God bless you, boys!” as they pulled out. He was a tireless and persistent booster of his city. The vast majority of Portland residents loved him.

Yet there was a dark side to Baker too. Every time trouble started brewing between workers and their employers, he would be found reliably on the bosses’ side, and he’d bring every resource at his disposal — including, as he did during the 1922 dock strike, swarms of “Mayor’s secret police” and “Portland Vigilance Police” officers to break up strikers. Claiming a violent revolution was imminent, he more or less suspended the U.S. Constitution for a mass arrest of all known union activists, trying (successfully, as it turned out) to break the power of the radical International Workers of the World in Portland.

His patriotic enthusiasm, forged in the First World War and tempered like lethal steel in the Red Scare era afterward, made him almost a poster boy for the “100 Percent Americanism” movement that brought the Ku Klux Klan to Oregon. In fact, there’s some reason to suspect he may have been a member of the Klan; he was an inveterate joiner of fraternal organizations and societies, from the Shriners to the Elks. Certainly he accepted and encouraged the Klan’s support. Baker is the mayor who appears in a famous photograph, published in the Portland Evening Telegram in 1923,  of city officials posing with two robed-and-hooded Ku Klux Klan officials.

King Kleagle Luther Powell, center, and Exalted Cyclops Fred Gifford pose
for a picture with (left to right) H.P. Coffin of the National Safety Council;
Senior Police Capt. John T. Moore; Police Chief L.V. Jenkins; District
Attorney Walter H. Evans; United States Attorney Lester W. Humphries;
Multnomah County Sheriff T.M. Hurlburt; U.S. Department of Justice
Special Agent Russell Bryon; Portland Mayor George L. Baker; and
Scottish Rite Masonic Lodge Sovereign Grand Inspector General P.S.
Malcolm. (Image: Portland Evening Telegram)

And then there were the constant rumors of corruption in City Hall — the liquor tippling and trading, the payoffs by vice operators, the bribes and kickbacks.  It wasn’t entirely clear that the corruption went all the way to the top, but at the very least, some of Baker’s lieutenants showed great moral flexibility.

Baker served as Portland’s mayor for 16 solid years. But after 1924, Baker started losing popularity as the corruption of his administration started rubbing off on him. It didn’t help that, after hearing rumors that he didn’t plan to run for re-election for financial reasons, the president of the electricity-and-streetcar monopoly passed a kitty to raise a slush fund for him, which the donors used to pay off his mortgage.

In 1932, a recall petition was on the ballot. It accused Baker of “failure to enforce the laws against various social evils” and thereby giving “aid and comfort to the denizens of the underworld and to official graft and corruption connected therewith.”

Baker survived the recall attempt, but 47 percent of Portland voters were now on record as wanting him out. A few months later, perhaps taking the hint, he announced he wouldn’t run for re-election.

Baker died in 1941 at his home in The Tides, a resort that he owned in Seaside. And he’s still remembered today, with a little help from the golden light of nostalgia, as one of Portland’s most beloved and colorful mayors ever.

But with an eye on the corruption, crypto-authoritarianism and xenophobia that marred his time in office, he's also frequently cited as one of the worst mayors in the city's history.

(Sources: Portland Morning Oregonian, 17 Jun 1917 and 17 May 1941; Klooster, Karl. Round the Roses. Portland: Klooster, 1987; MacColl, E. Kimbark. The Growth of a City. Portland: Georgian, 1979; Lansing, Jewel. Portland: People, politics and power. Corvallis: OSU Press, 2003)

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