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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Shipwreck ended Astoria's 1840s bid to become the Nantucket of the West Coast

astoria could have become a whale-hunting mecca ...

... had it not been for the Columbia River Bar, which wrecked the only whaling ship that ever dared try to cross it with a full cargo hold. It was a total loss. 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.

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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).

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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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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 ...

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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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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.

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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 ...

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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.

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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

Space-age whalers help grow fur coats, put a man on the moon

Few people know a small whaling venture was launched in Astoria in 1961 — seeking whale oil for the space program and whale meat to feed to hungry minks.

The harpoon gun used in Astoria's commercial whaling operation
The harpoon gun from the whaling ship Tom and Al, a converted trawler
that operated out of Astoria from 1961 to 1963 hunting whales to feed to
mink, is on display at the Lighthouse Museum in Hammond. (Image:
Sheryl Todd, www.astoriaoregondailyphoto.blogspot.com) [More and
larger images]

Few people think of Astoria, Oregon, as a whaling city. The sinking of the whaling ship Maine on the Columbia River Bar in 1848 nipped plans for a fleet in the bud (here's that story), and that was the end of Astoria's whaling industry.

Except ...

Except for one small whaling venture launched there in 1961, that is.

Here's how that went down:

The space-age whalers

Local processing company Bio Products put the deal together. An enormous 90-mm harpoon gun, purchased from a Norwegian whaling operation, was mounted on a large fishing vessel called the Tom & Al, owned by brothers Frank and Eben Parker, and it was sent out to sea to chase sperm whales. The big creatures were then brought back to Astoria and butchered out.

The 1961 venture was more than a bit bizarre, looked at from a modern perspective. It was a coming-together of the need of Oregon mink growers for large volumes of cheap protein, and the need of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration for large volumes of whale oil.

Whale oil — for rocket ships?

According to Frank's son, Frank Parker Jr., a big part of the reason the Parkers were hunting whales was the space program. Whale oil is an unusual substance; it can withstand extreme hot and cold conditions without breaking down or gelling up. So as NASA ramped up its space-program efforts, it was buying whale oil —and paying plenty for it.

By 1963, though, new synthetic oils had been developed that got the job done, and the prices for whale oil plummeted. Whaling, even with modern implements, was a tough way to make a living even with NASA buying the oil. With that profitable customer out of the market, Bio Products cut the prices it was paying the Parkers. It started to not make as much sense to run the boat.

Then, apparently really feeling the pinch, Bio Products asked the Parkers to buy the harpoon gun.

"There was not enough profit for us to do so," Frank Jr. recalled. "They replaced the 90mm with a 60 mm and it turned out to not be effective. I remember being out with them on a trip and the harpoon bounced off the whale."

Bad P.R.? Not in 1961

The fishing schooner that would later be renamed the Tom and Al, and would carry the harpoon gun for Astoria's early-1960s foray into commercial whaling.
A view of the King and Winge, the sister ship to the one that would
become Astoria's first and only whaling vessel, the Tom and Al. This
photo was taken in around 1916; the boat was one of the earliest to have
gasoline auxiliary power . The Tom and Al was 99 feet long. (Photo:
U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey) [Larger image: 1200 x 766 px]

You might think the discontinuation also had something to do with public relations. From a modern perspective, the whole idea is just breathtakingly unlovely: killing an animal as big and charismatic as a whale to feed to something as nasty as a mink — with the ultimate goal of killing the mink and turning it into a fur coat for some super-rich person in Manhattan? Surely that plan was a stinker even 50 years ago, right?

Not so much, Frank Jr. says. Not in 1961.

"There was really no  negative feedback back then about hunting and killing whales," he said. "There was still a small shore-based operation near San Francisco. A flenser (whale butcher) was hired from there. It was definitely a different time and different attitude. Local schools brought bus loads of kids during the fall of '62 to view the operation. The University of Oregon and Oregon State sent researchers out with the boat and took samples at the shore site."

Today, of course, Astoria and other Oregon seaports do a brisk business taking folks out onto the ocean to see the whales run. The idea of taking a shot at one seems utterly ridiculous. But for anyone who wants to see how they did it back in the era of commercial whale hunting, the harpoon cannon is on display (it looks to be the 60-mm model, not the 90) — along with a couple of the harpoons it fired, with the exploding heads deactivated of course — in the town of Hammond, just seaward from Astoria and Warrenton.

It's hard to imagine what it must have been like to be a whale getting shot with one of those things.

(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)