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A Benson log raft is turned out, ready to be shipped down the Columbia River and out to sea

How Oregon built the city of San Diego:

It took about 100 of the oceangoing log rafts invented by Simon Benson of Portland; no one had ever been able to invent a seaworthy log raft before. Here's the story.

Legendary Coast Guard rescue-boat man Tom McAdams.

Newport's legendary cigar-chomping Coast Guard lifesaver:

In one famous incident, he saved four drowning people and earned a lifesaving medal — but the Coast Guard had wanted to reprimand him for risking their nicest boat to do it. Here's the story.

Jonathan Bourne Jr., the rascally and creative political mastermind behind the 'hold-up session.'

The legislature's notorious 40-day drunken party

Lawmaker Jonathan Bourne Jr. knew if the state House convened, it would elect his opponent. So he held things up for six weeks — with a Bacchanalian bender. Here's the story.

Title screen from a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Mel Blanc, the legendary Looney Toons voice man, grew up in Portland.

The voice of Bugs Bunny went to high school in Portland

Legendary Hollywood voice man Mel Blanc's teachers weren't too impressed with his voice talents, but Oregon radio listeners and cartoon fans sure were. Here's the story.

This is not a picture of the Sunshine; it's a lumber schooner of a similar type, the Wawona. The Sunshine, on her way home from her maiden voyage to San Francisco, vanished and then reappeared, upside down, 200 miles off course.

Gold was gone when schooner washed ashore ... empty

The fate of the Sunshine's passengers and crew is unknown ... did somebody wreck the ship on purpose?. Here's the story.

One of Conde McCullough's bridges -- the steel one linking Oregon City with Gladstone. he's better known for the Oregon Coast bridges.

Sammy Davis Jr. used to regularly play portland clubs.

Many consider him the coolest member of the Rat Pack. Sammy caught his big break while he was in Portland. Here's the story.

One of Conde McCullough's bridges -- the steel one linking Oregon City with Gladstone. he's better known for the Oregon Coast bridges.

The man behind Oregon's most famous bridges.

Conde McCullough's genius was in getting the most gorgeous bridge to also be the cheapest, over the long term. Here's the story.

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 gravestone of Ame, who despite having died 10 years after the Civil War, was still considered 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 four-masted schooner North Bend, stranded on a sandy spit, 'sailed' through two and a half miles of sand and relaunched itself on the other side.

The stranded sailing ship that salvaged and re-launched itself.

The North Bend was the last tall ship ever built on the West Coast. When it ran aground on Peacock Spit, it just kept on sailing through the sand, crossing two miles of sandy beach to reach Baker Bay. It took over a year. Here's the story.

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.

Offbeat Oregon History: Album cover art

Incompetent opium smugglers had friend in high places

Political boss James Lotan had landed a federal appointment that was flush with possibilities for graft and corruption. Too bad he picked such a bumbling group of criminals to partner up with.

A drawing from early in the trial. Coblenz was one of the customs
inspectors working under James Lotan. William Dunbar was one of
the other defendants. The Oregonian’s coverage was much less
thorough than the Telegram’s, especially after Lotan’s involvement
became apparent, but the Oregonian did have the advantage of a
staff artist. (Image: Portland Morning Oregonian) [Larger image:
1800 x 1257 px]

Editor's Note: This article was rewritten and expanded into one of the chapters of Wicked Portland. For more details on the antics of the Blum-Dunbar gang, please see Chapter 6, which is titled "World's Dumbest Drug Smugglers."

As the new day dawned on the first day of 1893, Customs Collector Jim Lotan would have told you, had you asked, that life was good.

The previous year had been good to him. After years of working his way up through the ranks in the Republican Party, he’d found himself its state party leader after Senator Joe Simon went to Washington, D.C., to join the Republican National Committee.

He’d reached that position just in time to blackmail the City of Portland, which had come cap in hand asking the Legislature’s permission to borrow $200, 000 for the Bull Run water project. Lotan wasn’t a Legislator himself, but he was in a position to set party priorities, and he told the city he’d be glad to put their request on the priority list … if they’d agree to buy the ramshackle, dilapidated, obsolete Stark Street Ferry from him for $50,000. It was probably worth about $1,500 at the time.

True, the city hadn’t leaped right on that generous offer, but Lotan knew it would eventually. It had no choice, unless it wanted to continue drinking from the increasingly nasty Willamette River.

The Stark Street Ferry in roughly 1889. With the opening of the first
Morrison Street Bridge a few years before, the writing was on the wall
for the ferry at this time, but it was still a busy operation. By 1894
when the city finally agreed to buy it, though, the right-of-way had
become worthless and the equipment had deteriorated nearly to scrap
value. (Image: Oregon Historical Society ) [Larger image: 1200 x 853px]

The previous year had also been the year in which Lotan had landed, through his political maneuverings, a lucrative federal appointment. He’d been named customs collector for the City of Portland. That meant his office was in charge of inspecting incoming steamer traffic, making sure nobody was smuggling drugs or Chinese laborers into the city. Not only did the job pay a fine salary, but it had other benefits for the intrepid Mr. Lotan. It opened up, shall we say, certain extracurricular money-making opportunities. After all, who was better positioned to smuggle opium into the port, than the man whose job it was to prevent opium from being smuggled into port?

Yes, 1893 was shaping up to be an excellent year for Jim Lotan. One imagines him sitting back with a fat cigar by the fire at the exclusive plutocrats-only Arlington Club, of which he was a member, and relishing the prospect of the new year.

With friends like these …

To really exploit the possibilities offered by his new position, he needed to find partners who were discreet, trustworthy and competent — partners who could keep their mouths shut.

However, instead Lotan had ended up working with the Merchants’ Steamship Company, owned by disreputable local wholesale grocers William Dunbar and Nat Blum.

As smugglers, the Blum-Dunbar boys were stunningly incompetent. Many of their operations were so bumbling and panicky that they would have made good comedy sketches. Almost as soon as they began their operations, the names of the Merchants Steamship Company’s ships, the Wilmington and the Haytian Republic, started appearing regularly in the news columns of the Portland papers.

Early in the year, the Portland Evening Telegram revealed that Merchants’ Steamship had been transferring Chinese immigrants at sea from one ship to another, a dangerous maneuver undertaken to avoid the expense of disinfecting the immigrants’ things on arrival — and, as it later turned out, to avoid also the customs inspection that would determine that the newcomers were illegal immigrants. Each man was paying the Blum-Dunbar gang $120 for this special service.

How not to smuggle dope

Word then started leaking out about the gang’s opium operations, something they undertook with a breathtaking level of ineptitude. Their scheme was this: The Wilmington or Haytian Republic would put into port in Portland. By now they were well known there, so they would be examined closely; Lotan might be a friend, but he could not be seen to be favoring people that everyone knew were smugglers. But that would be OK, because by the time they got inspected, the dope would be long gone: It would have been chucked overboard in barrels a couple miles downriver, for other members of the gang to retrieve.

Now, this might sound like a fairly workable plan. But here’s the catch. Apparently they didn’t think it important to have a second smuggler stationed at the river to receive the “freight.” The same guy would load half a ton of opium in three or four hogshead barrels aboard the Haytian Republic in Victoria or Vancouver, then take the train to Portland, hoping to get there in time to retrieve the things from the drink. On several occasions this did not work out, and gang members had to bribe suspicious farmers and curious riverboat pilots to retrieve it.

That summer, Dunbar tried to smuggle some dope into San Francisco in two big steamer trunks, but lost the claim check to one of the trunks. He was followed by two accomplices, one of whom got busted with a full 250 pounds. By the time the thumbfingered drug-runners finally straggled back home to Portland, they discovered someone had stolen 800 more pounds of opium from a gang member’s house. Apparently the word was out on the street.

A little later, 1400 pounds of dope were chucked off the Wilmington and successfully retrieved and hauled to a gang member’s house, as they often did, in the middle of the night. This evening was special, though, because the gang member’s wife had gotten into a feud with one of the neighbors, who had been just waiting for them to bring in another big load so she could call the cops on them.

Luckily, when she did, she got hold of a friend of Blum’s at the police station. So Blum ran down and introduced himself as a detective, took her information, thanked her and told her authorities were on the job. While he kept her busy telling him all about what his gang members had been up to, the gang members themselves were busy loading up a ton and a half of dope and hauling it off to someone else’s house.


This sort of thing, of course, couldn’t go on forever. In December 1893, a grand jury handed down indictments against everyone … including Jim Lotan. The charges involved smuggling more than two tons of opium (which was a tiny fraction of what they actually did), and running a human-trafficking operation smuggling undocumented Chinese laborers into Portland. Also indicted was Seid Back, the most prominent and successful Chinese merchant in the Northwest. Hoping to catch a break, Blum turned state’s evidence, was placed on the stand, and started singing.

The trial held the city spellbound. But Lotan and Back hadn’t much need to worry. The roster of court officers at this trial reads like an excerpt from the Arlington Club directory. Lotan was represented by future Senator Charles W. Fulton. Former and future state Senate President Joseph Simon represented another defendant. Perhaps most outrageously, federal prosecutor John Gearin — who had just been appointed by President Grover Cleveland as special prosecutor for opium frauds — was, in the case of this particular opium fraud, on the side of the defense.

Also, the judge was one of Simon’s  former law partners, and the jury foreman was fellow Arlington Club member Charles Ladd.

The smugglers go free

So the trial ended with a hung jury. The word on the street was that the vote was 11 to 1; jury foreman Ladd had refused to vote to convict his friend. A new trial would have to be scheduled.

The process dragged on for a couple years. Dunbar fled to China before he could be indicted. Blum, on the witness stand, got so "creative" in his testimony that by the end of the second trial, no one believed him any more. Eventually, Blum disappeared and the whole thing just sort of faded away.

As for Lotan, the resulting bad publicity does seem to have hurt him … but not much. The following year, the city relented and bought the aging, decrepit, increasingly unseaworthy Stark Street Ferry from him for $40,000 — which was still an overpayment on the order of 2,000 percent.

(Sources: MacColl, E. Kimbark. Merchants, Money and Power: The Portland Establishment 1843-1913. Portland: Georgian Press, 1988; Portland Daily Telegraph, 11/27-12/24/1893; Portland Oregonian, 11/29/1893)