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Oregon crooks have always enjoyed their dynamite

Extortionists, jailbreakers, safecrackers, jealous lovers and even truant students have, throughout the early years of Oregon history, found high explosives a powerful aid to their nefarious schemes.

An aerial view of Kelly Butte in Portland, taken in 1963, a decade or so after the jail and rock quarry there had been shut down. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

For the criminally minded Oregonian of yore, dynamite had much to recommend it. It was relatively easy to buy the stuff, surprisingly easy to steal it from a construction depot, and almost shockingly simple to brew up at home using a few simple, innocuous ingredients from the local drugstore.

Furthermore, when used in a criminal enterprise, dynamite was like a first-class ticket to the front page of the local papers. A lot of crooks really enjoyed the ensuing notoriety.

So it’s not surprising that it enjoyed a relatively high level of popularity among the state’s criminal class. It’s been used for plenty of crimes over the past 100 years or so — crimes against society as well as crimes against good sense. In addition to obvious abuses of dynamite by safecrackers, train robbers and self-styled dead-whale disposal experts, dynamite has also proved a great boon to …

Extortionists. Naturally, “pony up or be blown up” is a compelling argument, although it doesn’t always come together the way the extortionist wants it to. In the case of D.B. Cooper, the skyjacker who in 1970 took a commercial airline flight hostage for a $200,000 payoff, it worked nicely — although there’s plenty of doubt as to whether Cooper lived to enjoy it. In the case of David Heesh, the “Beavercreek Bomber,” who in ’74 dynamited a dozen high-voltage power lines and threatened cut off power to Portland if he didn’t get a $1 million ransom, it did not — the FBI triangulated on his CB radio signal and caught him red-handed.

The Failing School as it appeared in 1894, two years before “Mount Hood” Kessler distributed a thousand stolen dynamite caps throughout its halls. (Image: Oregonian’s Northwest Handbook)

Jailbreakers. Prison, until relatively recently, was a place where inmates worked hard at tough, dangerous, exhausting jobs — building roads, breaking rocks, and so on. Projects like that sometimes involved dynamite. When they did, enterprising would-be busters-out were not slow to take advantage of any opportunities that came their way.

Late in the evening of July 28, 1907, a massive explosion rocked the Portland city jail at Kelly Butte. A group of four inmates had managed to smuggle three sticks of the good stuff home from the jail’s rock quarry. Then they spent at least a week trying to surreptitiously drill a hole in the prison wall, using a railroad spike for a bit and the heel of a shoe for a hammer. Finally, having made about a one-inch-deep divot in the wall, they tamped the dynamite against it as best they could, lit the fuse, and took cover.

The blast cracked the concrete wall of the prison bunker, but didn’t breach it. Unfortunately for the inmates involved, it was pretty easy to figure out who was responsible. Everyone in the joint ran for cover except four guys, who eagerly ran straight into the smoke and falling plaster. No doubt they tried their best to “act natural” when they got to Ground Zero and saw the wall still there, but the guards didn’t buy it, and all four of them were busted.

Things worked out even worse for a convict named Harry Edwards at the pen in Walla Walla, just over the border in Washington state, in late 1915. Edwards’ plan involved extracting the nitroglycerin from the dynamite he’d stolen by boiling it in a big kettle — a technique well known to the “yeggs” of the day, who liked the more concentrated and pourable nitroglycerine for tough safecracking jobs. The “soup” would float to the surface, where it could be skimmed off and carefully bottled up for later use.

Unfortunately for Edwards, the state was using a different kind of dynamite….

“After an explosion which wrecked a corner of the bunkhouse and inflicted minor injuries to two sleeping convicts, Edwards was found fully dressed, while fragments of a metal kettle were distributed over the landscape,” the Pendleton East Oregonian reported the next day. “Edwards was considerably ‘peeved’ at the state for providing dynamite which proved so tricky.”

The paper doesn’t mention how badly Edwards was hurt in the blast, but it couldn’t have been too bad, because he was out of the hospital within a week.

Jealous lovers. Yes, there have been a few examples of young men using dynamite for this purpose — either trying to murder the unresponsive objects of their affection, or their rivals. One memorable case happened in Klamath Falls in 1912, when a 30-year-old logger named George Gowan learned that the 17-year-old girl he was sweet on, Miss Adeline Beck, was exchanging letters with another man. Gowan bought 10 pounds of 40-percent dynamite powder at the Baldwin Hardware Store, telling the clerk he wanted it for a construction project. Then he packed it in a can with a fuse, essentially making a bomb of the classic Wile E. Coyote type, and paid a call at his would-be girlfriend’s home.

Witnesses said he was much put out at learning that Miss Beck was out with her sister watching a movie, and actually asked her mother to go find her and fetch her back home at once.

One certainly hopes Adeline’s mother gave the response such a request deserved — but whether she did or not, Gowan didn’t have long to wait. Soon Adeline was coming up the steps with her sister. Upon seeing her, Gowan, without a word, turned and walked into the Becks’ kitchen and closed the door behind him. Given how eager he had been to see her, this had to have raised a few eyebrows. But the family members barely had time to exchange puzzled glances before a thunderous explosion cracked the plaster off the walls and blew open the kitchen door. Beyond, in the smoking wreckage of the kitchen, lay Adeline’s erstwhile suitor, considerably mangled. He died a few hours later. Investigators determined he’d been preparing his homemade bomb to throw out into the middle of the family members gathered in the living room, and it had gone off prematurely.

Truant students. Every elementary-school student knows at least one joke about blowing up the school. For some Oregon students, though — and at least one crotchety neighbor — it was more than just a joke.

Take, for instance, Ping Yang School near Marcola, a building that was blown up with dynamite three times between 1895 and 1909 — the first two times by a crotchety pioneer neighbor trying to send the school board a hint that it ought to be built farther away from his property, and the last time (according to persistent rumor) by a group of disgruntled students.

Not all students bent on blowing up the school knew what they were doing, though. In 1896, young Sidney Wallace noticed his friends in the playground at Failing Public School in Portland were playing with large numbers of what looked like very big firecrackers. Wallace apparently knew what those “firecrackers” really were — they were blasting caps. A blasting cap is to a firecracker what a Peterbilt is to a Pinto. Somebody was going to get hurt, soon, and badly.

Wallace probably agonized over this a bit — one doesn’t like to snitch on one’s friends. But he did the right thing and reported the situation to the head teacher, and the jig was up. In the ensuing investigation, more than 1,000 blasting caps were found scattered around the school and in the pockets of students. As it turned out, a group of five boys had broken into a powder magazine across the river from Sellwood, and made away with literally thousands of the things. The lads hauled them off and started handing them out to all their friends like candy.

According to the Oregonian article about this event, these blasting caps were powerful enough that, were more than one or two of them to go off at the same time, death could easily result, and a box of them would be powerful enough to do major structural damage to a building.

Authorities soon got the leader of the gang of youths — a troubled 17-year-old lad named William “Mount Hood” Kessler — to spill the beans, and they learned he’d sprinkled caches of the explosives all over the south end of town, under boardwalks and bridges and especially all around the school. He told the police chief he knew what they were, but stole and distributed them anyway.

Kessler, by the way, was very likely not in his right mind. He and another boy had been caught stealing something the previous year, and sent to the juvenile reformatory; while he was locked away there, word came to him that his father had been killed, up in Washington. It’s hard to tell from the 120-year-old news reports, but it’s just possible the boy’s grief and guilt were strong enough to drive him to do something like blow up the school.

The newspaper account implied that “Mount Hood” may have been planning a massive bombing campaign, which Wallace had disrupted. If so, Wallace may have saved dozens, or even hundreds, of lives.

 (Sources: Klamath Falls Evening Herald, 12-27-1912; Portland Oregon Journal, 7-29-1907; Portland Morning Oregonian, 1-10-1896)