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.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.


The gravestone of Ame, who despite having died 10 years after the Civil War, was still considered a slave.

sHE DIED AROUND 1874. SO WHY DOES THE GRAVESTONE SAY SHE WAS A SLAVE?

Ame came over the Oregon Trail from Missouri. But when the North won the Civil War, her status as a slave didn't change. Here's what happened.


Ray V.B. Jackson in a booking photo from the Oregon State Pen, in 1896. Four years after this photo was taken, he was teaching grade school in Silver Lake.

Is this the face of oregon's first serial killer?

Like an "angel of death," ex-con Ray V.B. Jackson just happened to be at the scene of at least five Central Oregon homicides. What are the odds? Here's the story (in two parts).


The steamer Telephone, fastest boat on the river in the 1880s and possibly the world -- until it burned to the waterline one day.

riverboat captain had to choose: save passengers, or save his boat?

The steamboat Telephone caught fire at the widest spot in the Columbia; the decision must not have been too tough, because Captain U.B. Scott didn't hesitate for a moment. Here's what happened.


A shallow-draft riverboat of the type pioneered by Uriah B. Scott, on the river at Albany around 1900 or so.

Turns out the 'ignoramus from back east' knew what he was doing.

The big steamboat outfits laughed at the crude, ugly riverboat Uriah B. Scott was building ... until he used it to eat their lunch. Here's how.



The Sagebrush Symphony Orchestra on its 'giant violin' float, after riding it through the town of Burns in the Fourth of July Parade, 1915.

america's first youth orchestra came out of tiny sagebrush town.

The Portland Youth Philharmonic says it was founded in Portland in 1924. Actually, it's older than that -- and much more rural. Here's the story.


Vaudeville's famous Klondike Kate became a Central Oregon legend

central oregon's most fabulous homesteader ever.

Homesteader Kitty "Klondike Kate" Rockwell, retired from the bright lights of Vaudeville, often wore full costume just to weed the garden. Here's the story.


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.


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.


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

Black sheep of the Union Army was Oregon's last Civil War vet

Lebanon man lived a quiet, respectable life after the Civil War, but back in his youth he was a member of Olney's Detachment of the Oregon Cavalry — a Union Army outfit nicknamed “Olney's Forty Thieves.”

Gravesite of Pvt. James W. Smith, Oregon's last surviving Civil War veteran
The grave marker of James W. Smith, Oregon’s last surviving Civil
War veteran, as it appears today in Lebanon’s IOOF cemetery.
(Photo: Randol B. Fletcher) [Larger image: 1200 x 868 px]

If you had told James W. Smith of Lebanon that people would one day visit his grave to pay tribute to his service in the Union Army during the Civil War, he might have laughed.

He might also have run for the door. The unit of the Union Army in which Smith served had a bit of a reputation. During their three-month operating career, before the Army wised up and disbanded them, Smith’s unit became known among regular Army units as “Olney’s Forty Thieves.”

Protection rackets and security theater

The story of the Forty Thieves company is an obscure one, and it hasn’t been studied much; there isn’t a whole lot of information about it out there. But what we do know is that it formed as a unit of 40 citizen-soldiers under the command of brothers Nathan and Orville Olney late in the war, in July 1864. Its official name was “Olney’s Detachment of the Oregon Cavalry,” and it was tasked with patrolling and providing security for important parts of the Columbia River Gorge.

This it may have, in fact, done. But it’s tempting to think the Olney Detachment’s real contribution to history was the invention (or at least, the refinement) of the art of security theater.

George H. Jones and Theodore A. Penland of the Grand Army of the Republic, less than a decade before the GAR ceased to be.
GAR Commander-in-Chief George H. Jones, left, talks to Theodore A.
Penland of Portland at the 77th GAR Encampment in Milwaukee, Wisc.,
in 1943. Penland became the GAR’s last commander-in-chief six years
later. (Photo: Richard Penland) [Larger image: 1200 x 1439 px]

Today, of course, a modern form of security theater is performed daily in hundreds of airports across the country, especially the ones equipped with Backscatter scanners. A stranger in an official-looking hat looks at images of you naked, talks to you like a New Orleans cop interrogating a murder suspect, and confiscates your toothpaste before letting you on the plane. The idea is to inconvenience you so much, you think the security guys are really on the ball, and quit worrying about the headline you read earlier this year about the loaded .38 Special that fell out of someone’s luggage at LAX.

The Olney Brothers were early adopters of a different form of security theater, which they practiced up and down the Columbia River Gorge. They had it working so that not only did it provide a pantomime of security-related action on their part, it paid nice financial dividends as well. Here’s how it worked:

At the time, Union Army soldiers enjoyed some of the finest clothing to be found on the frontier, including long, heavy blue wool coats that were much prized. The Olney boys developed a nice little scam in which the company would sell off its coats and other valuable Army stuff in one town, then go to another. There, they would claim to have just returned from action against Indians, in which all their supplies were seized by the enemy. Then they would send word to the Army that they needed more. They did this several times.

They also acquired a reputation for, as historian Randol B. Fletcher puts it, “fundraising” from the citizens they were supposed to be protecting. Surely we can’t credit the Olney company with having invented the “protection racket,” but it appears they weren’t strangers to the concept, either.

And this is probably why, in October 1864, at a time when the Union Army needed every man it could get hold of, it canned these 40 men outright. Some of them may have found their way into other military units, but Olney’s company as such ceased to exist eight months before the war itself ended.

Oregon’s star of the GAR

Now, let’s skip ahead to September 1950. The commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, Theodore A. Penland of Portland, has just died. The state of Oregon grieves the loss of what it thinks is the last surviving veteran of the American Civil War.

Penland was the kind of veteran that makes a state proud. As a lad of 16, in Illinois, he desperately wanted to join the Army and fight, but he wasn’t the kind of kid who can tell a lie and feel OK about it, so he was turned away twice when they asked him his age. Finally he actually wrote the number “18” on two pieces of paper and stuck one into each boot, so that he could tell the recruiter that he was “over 18 now.” That did the trick.

After the war, Penland moved out West and joined the Grand Army of the Republic, the exclusive Civil War veterans’ association. In the GAR, Penland distinguished himself as he’d never been able to in the actual Army. By the time he moved to Portland, in his 70s, he was already high in the organization’s rankings, a sought-after public speaker and radio personality who loved to talk about his experiences in the war and the time he saw President Abraham Lincoln.

In 1949, at the very last annual GAR meeting, the surviving members of the GAR voted Penland their commander in chief, a title he held until he died. So Theodore Penland of Portland was the last Commander in Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic.

When he died, the state of Oregon grieved, thinking it had lost its last Civil War veteran. But some time later, somehow it came to the state’s attention that it had missed one.

That’s right — Oregon’s last surviving Civil War vet was not the heroically active and patriotic Penland, but — not to beat around the bush too much — one of Olney’s Forty Thieves.

That would be James W. Smith.

Oregon’s last Civil War vet, for real

After being booted out of the Army with his comrades/co-conspirators, Smith had settled in Lebanon and lived a quiet, law-abiding life. He never applied for a pension; he apparently never even contacted the GAR. Perhaps he was embarrassed by the wildness of his youth. Or perhaps he thought he might have warrants. Who knows?

Smith died at the age of 108, six months later than Penland. And it took a while for Oregon to figure out its mistake. But on June 23, 2010, the Sons of Union Veterans officially rectified it when they gathered around his modest grave in the Odd Fellows cemetery and, in a graveside service including a musket salute, affixed a brass plaque to the stone identifying him as Oregon’s last Civil War vet.

It’s hard not to notice what a great metaphor Smith was for his home state of Oregon — wild and more than a little notorious in its youth, grown mature and mellow with age, but still with that old rascally twinkle in its eye.

(Sources: Fletcher, Randol B. Hidden History of Civil War Oregon. Charleston, S.C.: History Press, 2010; The Lebanon Express, July 7, 2010; Sons of Union Veterans Website at www.suvcw.org; www.findagrave.com)