The “Bucket of Blood” saloon: A souvenir of the age of shanghaiing
East Portland's White Eagle Saloon has a colorful past. Over the years, it's been local headquarters for the Polish Resistance, a rough watering hole for sailors and dock workers, and Portland's hottest blues and rock-and-roll hot spot.
By Finn J.D. John — March 19, 2017
EDITOR'S NOTE: This column is a rewriting and thorough re-researching of a much shorter column first published in August 2009, which you’ll find here.
Low on the east bank of the river, in the shadow of the Fremont Bridge, stands a narrow brick building that looks like it’s right out of the 19th Century.
It’s not — almost, but not quite. The White Eagle Saloon was actually built in 1905. But it’s one of a tiny handful of watering holes still open today that people were almost certainly shanghaied out of back in the age of sail.
Now owned by the McMenamins brew-pub-and-restaurant chain, it also regularly tops the lists of “most haunted places in Portland” which occasionally appear in the popular press.
“At the White Eagle, the line between this world and the other — and between fact and fiction — seems to have been thoroughly and wonderfully blurred,” writes the author of McMenamins’ official history of the place. “There is more than just good storytelling going on here, though.”
Whatever may be the truth of that, there have been quite a few reports of strange happenings at the White Eagle over the years. According to these reports, things get mysteriously thrown around; people feel strange touches; toilets flush for no apparent reason; doors slam; and sometimes people hear things.
According to Susan Smitten, the author of Ghost Stories of Oregon, a number of psychics have visited the place and report “a sensation of violence and death in the basement, some playful and mischievous energy on the main floor, and a deep well of sadness on the second floor.”
The more skeptical among us might be tempted to suggest that all of this is “a deep well of SOMETHING, all right.” But the ghost stories spring from a history that’s colorful enough that it really doesn’t need supernatural help to be interesting.
The White Eagle was established in 1905, close to the waterfront in the hard-working neighborhood of Albina. It was founded by two Polish immigrants, and it was named after the white eagle that appears on the Polish national coat-of-arms and flag.
Poland at the time existed only in the hearts and minds of its patriots; 110 years earlier, its neighbors — Russia, Prussia and Austria — had ganged up on it, carved it up and absorbed it into their empires. Poles around the world were deeply interested in the resistance movement that was still busily and furtively making life difficult for the conquerors, and planning and dreaming of a free and independent Poland in the future. The White Eagle, naturally enough, became a local focal point for the Polish expat community in Portland.
It also became a focal point for the hard-drinking stevedores and sailors who worked the nearby waterfront. Among these hard-working, hard-playing rowdies, it acquired a new name: “The Bucket of Blood.”
It was during this time, the saloon’s first 10 years of existence, that shanghaiing would have been done there. Shanghaiers don’t keep records of their conquests, so it can’t be proven; but the practice was very common in Portland before 1915. As late as 1912 the president of the International Seamen's Union testified before Congress that Portland was the worst nest of shanghaiers in the country. So it would have been weird if a waterfront bar as rough and rowdy as the old Bucket of Blood didn’t participate.
One persistent legend claims that there was a tunnel in the basement of the building leading to the waterfront, used to shanghai sailors. There may well have been a tunnel there, but if so, it would have been used to smuggle booze, not sailors. Prohibition in Oregon started in 1916 and ended in 1933, and that would have been a long time to try to survive as a soda-and-ice-cream shop. Shanghaiing, when it was practiced, didn’t require furtive stealth. No one could tell the difference between a sailor, passed out after drinking too much, being carried back to his ship to sleep it off; and a farm hand, doped with laudanum, being kidnapped.
Other stories include a claim that there was an opium den in the basement. It’s almost inconceivable for this one to be true. Opium was legal in 1905, but profoundly unrespectable outside the Chinese community. A dock worker of European descent smoking opium in 1905 would be like a mill worker today huffing spray paint.
Less egregiously bogus, but still pretty unlikely, are the stories of a brothel run discreetly upstairs. The rooms in the upstairs part of the White Eagle are of the classic flophouse type — bed, nightstand, tiny sink hanging on the wall — and were typically rented out cheap to dock workers. Some of these dock workers, after payday, would hire female companionship for the evening and bring the ladies home with them, and that’s most likely where these rumors came from.
After Prohibition ended in 1933, the White Eagle remade itself as a neighborhood hard-hat bar, pouring cold glasses of Olympia and serving hamburgers and fries and similar good American tavern food.
Then in the 1970s an ex-bookie from Brooklyn named Tony Ferrone took over and started booking live music. Within a couple years, the White Eagle was one of Portland’s hottest hot spots for rock-and-roll and blues.
Throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, the bar hosted such locally famous acts as Robert Cray, Paul DeLay, the Holy Modal Rounders, the Pete Karnes Blooz Band, and the Razorbacks.
The beverage of choice during the Tony Ferrone era at the Eagle was tequila, served in a shotglass with a slice of lemon and sold for less than a buck a shot. Ferrone was the kind of gruff, hot-tempered bartender who would kick you out if you tried to order something complicated when things were busy. During shows by popular acts, sometimes he’d have them stacked up on the bar, dozens of shotglasses full of Cuervo Gold with lemon slices on top, ready to go.
On one memorable occasion, after a Mighty Good Eatin’ show in 1974, the band decided to spend its pay for the night — $100 — on shots of tequila for the audience. Ferrone stacked 125 tequila shots on the bar as happy customers swarmed it. It was a night to remember … or not, depending on how many of those free shots one got.
Today the waterfront neighborhood the White Eagle stands in looks a lot different than it did 100 years ago. The two freeways — interstates 5 and 405 — both cut through within a few blocks of it, leaving it in a little triangle-shaped island, and it can be difficult for the uninitiated to figure out how to get to it. But it’s well worth the effort just to sit and have a burger and/or brew at a 110-year-old bar and contemplate all the others who sat there before you, in that very same spot, waiting for a Robert Cray show — or, going farther back in time, chatting and drinking with a friendly stranger and never dreaming they were about to become sailors.
(Sources: Blalock, Barney. Portland’s Lost Waterfront. Charleston, S.C.: History Press, 2012; “Legends of the White Eagle,” history whitepaper from mcmenamins.com/white-eagle-saloon-hotel; Dillon, Richard. Shanghaiing Days. New York: Coward McCann, 1961)