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)
Link to Web site for Wicked Portland: The Wild and Lusty Underworld of a Frontier Seaport Town z

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Goal of Oregon whale hunters: Grow fur coats, and put a man on the moon.

helping put a man on the moon, one dead whale at a time?

Whale oil is special stuff, and NASA needed it for the space program. So an Astoria group launched a whaling venture in the early 1960s. Here's the story.

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.

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.

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 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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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

Vaudeville's famous “Klondike Kate” became an Oregon legend

After injuries to her knee, ankle and heart, she needed to get away from show business and from an ex-boyfriend. So she retreated to the high desert near Brothers, and became a homesteader ... and looked fabulous doing it.

Klondike Kate, aka Kitty Rockwell or Kathleen Rockwell, in a handout picture from her Yukon days.
A circa-1900 souvenir portrait of “Klondike Kate” with a personal
message from Kate herself, written late in life after her marriage to
Bill Van Duren. (Image: Socotra House Publishing) [Larger image:
800 x 862 px]

The homesteaders who came to the Oregon high desert in the 1910s were a bit late to the party. All the really good land had been claimed years before, and all that was left was dusty rangeland. Most of these latecomers had a very tough time “proving up” their claims — that is, living on them for the required five years to claim title.

Among these dry-land homesteaders was a single woman by the name of Kathleen Eloise Rockwell, who was one of the most interesting characters in Central Oregon history.

Certainly it wasn't common for a woman to take on the task of proving up a 320-acre claim — not in 1914, two years after women had won the right to vote in Oregon.

But what was most interesting about Rockwell as a homesteader was her personal style. There may have been another homesteader somewhere in the American West who regularly wore Vaudeville ball gowns, big floral hats and dancing slippers while grubbing sagebrush out of the kitchen garden, but it doesn't seem likely.

Kitty Rockwell, aka Klondike Kate, poses for a photo with a colleague in one of the ladies' hotel accomodation in Dawson City.
“Klondike Kate” and an unidentified colleague pose in their costumes for
a photo in Dawson, circa 1901. (Image: www.historicphotoarchive.com)
[Larger image at historicphotoarchive.net]

And Rockwell wasn't just any Vaudeville actress. She was the original “Klondike Kate,” the most famous and beloved performer in Dawson during the great Yukon gold rush.

The glory days in Dawson

In Dawson, Klondike Kate was famous for her red-gold hair, charisma and happy-go-lucky style on stage. She was also a spectacular conversationalist. Miners in town for an evening would chuck nuggets up on the stage and she'd scoop them up; she'd drink with them afterward, sharing bottles of wine that cost $5 each and pouring her glass discreetly into a spittoon to avoid getting drunk, while they talked about their lives. She talked at least one miner out of committing suicide, talked several out of leaving their wives and even staked a few with some cash to keep them going after they'd been cleaned out by a professional gambler or robbed.

But that was long before, and now Rockwell was in Central Oregon to get away. In Dawson she'd been in her early 20s, but now she was pushing 40. She was still gorgeous, but like any athlete reaching middle age she was starting to be dogged with injuries — especially sprained ankles and twisted knees.

A studio portrait of Kitty Rockwell, aka Klondike Kate, circa 1900 during her Dawson City run.
A studio portrait of “Klondike Kate” Rockwell in the Yukon, circa 1900.
(Image: www.historicphotoarchive.com) [Larger image on www.
historicphotoarchive.com]

On top of that, the love of her life, a fellow Vaudevillian named Alexander Pantages whom she had met and lived with in the Yukon, had jilted her in a particularly ugly way, secretly marrying another woman and telling her about it by letter four days later. He'd gone on to build a huge empire of Vaudeville theaters all over the West with his name on them, and every time she passed one of them it hurt. The only thing that made it feel better was performing, and she toured and performed frenetically for a few years, trying to lose herself in her work.

Finally, after an especially bad ankle sprain brought on a sort of nervous breakdown, a doctor told her bluntly that she'd have to quit, or she'd die.

Falling in love with the High Desert

Rockwell had visited Central Oregon before, and been deeply impressed by the beauty of the high desert. Now it seemed like just the place to get away from all things Vaudeville, to forget Pantages, to re-center herself. And she had friends there — although actually she had friends almost everywhere, among the former “sourdoughs” of the Yukon gold rush.

One of the calling cards Klondike Kate handed out during performances.
Two of Klondike Kate's calling cards from her days as
a Vaudeville actor and dancer in Dawson City.
(Images: www.historicphotoarchive.com) [No larger
images available]

Another of the calling cards Klondike Kate handed out during performances, this one showing her looking rather more serious.

So with $3,500 in cash, $3,000 worth of jewelry and several large trunks full of dresses, gowns and hats, she moved onto a 320-acre patch near Brothers, Ore.

Homesteading chores done in style

She did almost everything dressed as if for a show. Folks would see her walking into Brothers in a dusty but fabulous (and fabulously expensive) evening gown about once a week.

She joked about the odd footprints she left while doing chores around the place. “Those holes are not the tracks of prehistoric bobcats,” she once said, according to Ellis Lucia's account in his book about her. “I made 'em with my dancing slippers.”

She also became an avid rockhound, one of Central Oregon's first ever. She fell in love and married a local man, Floyd Warner.

Rockwell beat the odds and became one of only a tiny handful of dry-land homesteaders to prove up a claim that didn't include a water hole. But it still didn't make sense to stay, especially for a social creature like Klondike Kate. She and Floyd sold out soon after getting title.

The one-woman fire department auxiliary of Bend

The marriage didn't last too long. By the early 1920s Rockwell was single again, and living in Bend. There, she became something of a municipal celebrity. Her home was a half block from the fire station, and she became a one-woman fire auxiliary, bringing hot coffee to the boys during fire calls.

She was a fund-raising dynamo, able to shake down almost any business or person for a contribution to a social cause; during the Great Depression she made gallons and gallons of soup to help out the hobos.

From “Miss Kitty” to “Aunt Kate”

She became known as “Aunt Kate.” Less charitable voices in Bend labeled her “our destitute prostitute”; it's pretty unlikely she was either of these things, although there were a few times her finances came pretty close.

An old postcard image of the Portland, Oregon, Pantages Vaudeville theater. Alexander Pantages, founder of this large chain of venues, jilted Klondike Kate Rockwell in a particularly nasty way.
An old postcard image of the Pantages theater in Portland, a dozen or so
years after the turn of the century. Rockwell pined after Pantages for
years after he jilted her, and displays like this in all major Western cities
may have been part of the reason she chose to retreat from city life.
[Larger image: 1200 x 770 px]

In 1929 she was called to testify in a criminal prosecution of Alexander Pantages — her ex-boyfriend, remember — when he was accused of raping a 17-year-old girl. He was found guilty, though acquitted on retrial, and died in 1936. There are those who think the entire case was trumped up by a group of Yukon soudoughs angry about how he'd treated Kate.

She got married two more times, the first time to an old sourdough named Johnny Matson — who'd carried the torch for her since 1901, and still lived and prospected in the Yukon much of the time — and, after his death, to an old friend named Bill Van Duren. The two of them moved to Sweet Home, where, in 1957, she died.

(Sources: Lucia, Ellis. Klondike Kate: The Life and Legend of Kitty Rockwell. New York: Hastings, 1962; Lockwood, Brad. “Klondike Kate: 'Our Destitute Prostitute' or 'Aunt Kate,'” The (Bend) Source Weekly, July 21, 2010; Morgan, Lael. Good Time Girls of the Alaska-Yukon Gold Rush. Kenmore, Wash.: Epicenter, 1998)