Heroes and rascals, shipwrecks and lost gold: Strange but true stories and secrets of Oregon's wild past | Offbeat Oregon History The Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (now known as Osho -- yes, THAT Osho) as he appeared when he lived in Wasco County with his followers. That's also him in the white Rolls-Royce surrounded by followers, in a scene from Rajneeshpuram. (Four-part story starts with Column No. 73, May 9, 2010 While doing some cleaning-up around the Odd Fellows Hall in Scio, a local girl found a tiny coffin with this partial skeleton inside. Whose? We'll probably never know ... (Story No. 204, Oct. 14, 2012) The ever-elusive D.B. Cooper peeks into the page from behind his signature shades. The story of his skyjacking exploit starts with episode 237, from June 2, 2013. Meet Kitty Kat, the wealthiest feline in the state of Oregon and landlord to the City of Tangent. Kitty Kat, until he died at a ripe old age in 1995, owned City Hall. (Story No. 163, Jan. 8, 2012) This crazy-looking speedboat was the invention of Portland wizard Victor Strode. The city commissioned a harbor patrol boat based on his design, but it didn't work out. (Story No. 201, Sept. 23, 2012) The Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (now known as Osho -- yes, THAT Osho) as he appeared when he lived in Wasco County with his followers. That's also him in the white Rolls-Royce surrounded by followers, in a scene from Rajneeshpuram. (Four-part story starts with Column No. 73, May 9, 2010 This is the roof of the Franz Bread Rest Hut at Pixieland, the Oregon Coast's ill-starred answer to Disneyland, which opened in 1969 and went out of biz in 1974. The Rest Hut consisted of a giant fiberglass loaf of bread sticking out of the top of this giant fiberglass hollow log, the whole thing towering over a log-flume roller coaster ride. It's probably the most campily awesome example of the proud display of crass commercialism that was Pixieland. (Column No. 52 - Dec. 6, 2009)
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Oregon inventor Victor Strode’s revolutionary boat, the 'aerohydrocraft,' made the front cover of the March 1931 issue of Popular Science. The design didn't prove a useful one for the City of Portland, though, and the larger model the city commissioned to function as a harbor police boat didn't work out.

Buck Rogers-style police boat didn't work out for city of Portland

A local inventor developed the "aerohydrocraft" design in the early 1930s. But when the city built one as an ambulance boat, it flopped.

The remains of the barque Peter Iredale as they appear today, jutting out of the beach sands on Clatsop Spit at Warrenton as they have since 1906. In 1960, the wreck nearly was lost to a man who claimed he owned it.

How the Oregon Coast almost lost the Peter Iredale to a scrap-metal shark

An Oregon City man claimed he'd inherited the rights from his father, and demanded to be allowed to cut it up and haul it away. He almost got away with this little swindle.

Commander Dave Scott salutes the U.S. flag, which has just been planted on the surface of the moon. A small piece of Oregon lava rock, carried to the moon by Scott's fellow astronaut Jim Irwin, lies within this photo, next to one of the many bootprints. (Image: NASA)

There's a piece of lava from central oregon in this photo, on the moon.

It was left there by astronaut Jim Irwin at the request of a friend from Bend — who gave him a sliver of Oregon lava to leave on the moon's surface. And so he did.

The Motel 6 on Mission Street in Salem as it appeared in the mid-1970s, when Carl Cletus Bowles made his run from its back door. Don't laugh, at least not too loudly ... two innocent people would die before Bowles was back in prison.

Killer broke out of state prison during a conjugal visit at a nearby Motel 6

It had to be the most awkward prison-break scenario in the history of the universe. But it really did happen. Here's the story.

James Lappeus, former Portland Chief of Police. He eventually was fired over allegations that he'd offered to 'accidentally' leave the jailhouse door open for a convicted murderer if his wife paid a $1,000 bribe.

gambler, swindler, gunfighter, liquor man ... oh, and also police chief.

James Lappeus came to Portland to open a saloon and "theater." Despite his checkered past — or maybe because of it — he was named city marshal and, later, Chief of Police. Here's the story.

Boats of the Astoria fishing fleet, with the help of both wind and incoming tide, race away from the dangers of the Columbia River Bar in this postcard image from around the turn of the century.

When fishing was so deadly, one in 15 didn't survive the season.

They drifted downstream in heavy 24-foot boats with their nets out ... and prayed the tide would turn before they got sucked out onto the bar. Here's the story.

This postcard picture of Cannon Beach was created in 1966, which means just off to the left of the frame is a beach with a fence around it and "no trespassing" signs.


A Portland real-estate guy found a loophole in the law and claimed a patch of beach for his own, and his friends in the state Legislature tried to keep it that way. Here's the story.

A color lithograph of George and Kate Ann Williams’s Victorian  mansion, located at 18th and Couch streets downtown.

This spooky-looking Portland mansion was home of a 'starvation cult'

A prominent Portland socialite led a sect called "Truth," with the motto "Pray and Be Cured," that required 40-day fasts. It vanished after its leader starved herself to death during a 110-day fast. Here's the story.

The archway monument leading up to the Wallowa County Courthouse,  built in 1936. The bronze plaque on the inside left of the arch includes  the name of murderer and horse thief Bruce “Blue” Evans.

A monument in honor of a horse thief and mass murderer?

Bruce "Blue" Evans led the gang that slaughtered over 30 innocent Chinese miners in 1887. So why is his name celebrated on a monument to Wallowa County Pioneers? Probably because they didn't know. 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.

Three Rocks Beach, Camp Westwind, the mouth of the Salmon River and Cascade  Head as they appear today.

Is there pirate loot buried at this YWCA youth camp?

The discovery of a giant skeleton in the 1930s suggested that the old Indian legend of a pirate ship sinking in the Salmon River might be true ... or maybe not. 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.

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).

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.

.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.

U.S. Coast Guard cutter Algonquin.

bootleggers saveD sailors' lives, were rewarded with prison.

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.

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.


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.


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.


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

Auburn: A long-gone gold town’s short but colorful past

This was the town where the Eastern Oregon Gold Rush of '61 got started, and it was a wild and lawless place; town ordinances did prohibit stabbing or shooting people “in public places," but otherwise the town was mostly wide open.

Auburn was founded by miners who sought placer gold the old-fashioned
way, with a shovel and a pan, but  more sophisticated techniques were
soon in play. One of the reasons Auburn died, though, was a lack of
water; the creek that ran through town didn’t deliver enough to supply
operations like the one pictured here; this particular operation is Sheriff
Brown's placer mine, near Baker City.

A few dozen miles southwest of Baker City, if you know right where to look, you just might stumble across a few weatherbeaten gravestones — all that’s left of an old cemetery.

And that old cemetery is all that’s left of what might have been the biggest city in Oregon, a teeming rough-hewn metropolis of 6,000 souls that was called Auburn, Oregon.

Auburn was Ground Zero in the Great Eastern Oregon Gold Rush. It was a massive mining camp, pure and simple. It was founded in the spring of 1861, and by 1864 it was already fading away.

Gold in Griffin Creek

The story of Auburn’s founding is as colorful as any of the dramas that played out in its streets. It seems that back in 1861, a prospector named John Adams was in Portland, flashing gold nuggets around and trying to recruit a mining party. He claimed he’d stumbled across the legendary Blue Bucket Mine, but the Native Americans were too hostile for him to risk sticking around, so he needed some strong friends to come work it with him.

This postcard, postmarked in 1915, shows a mine near Baker

In short order he had a group of some 70 eager miners ready to go, and off they went into the hills.

The newcomers soon grew suspicious, though. Adams was not acting like a man who knew where he was going. He was poking around, digging holes, doing exploratory mining — like a regular prospector. He was not behaving like a guy who was leading a group back to a place he knew was loaded with gold.

Now suspicious, the new miners questioned Adams closely, using, shall we say, enhanced interrogation techniques. Finally he admitted it: He’d made the whole thing up. All he’d wanted was to have a big enough party to be able to prospect without worrying about Indian attacks.

Well, some of these miners Adams had recruited had sacrificed a lot to seize the opportunity they thought he was offering them. There were crops rotting in the ground, donation land claims being lost, brides-to-be left crying at the altar. Some of these guys now wanted blood.

After a long and lively argument between the miners who wanted to lynch him on the spot, and the ones who wanted to spare his life, a compromise was reached. Adams would be kicked out of camp with no gun, no horse, no knife and no blanket. All they'd give him was 15 minutes in which to get himself lost, after which anybody with a clear shot at him would be welcome to go ahead and take it.

A hand-tinted postcard of the town of Sumpter, located a few dozen miles
west of Auburn, as it appeared in the late 1800s from a high spot at a
nearby placer mine.

That done, the would-be miners turned and headed for home.

On the way, a group of them stopped to camp for the night in a flat spot by a small creek, and one of them — Henry Griffin — dug a test hole while dinner was cooking.

Three feet down, he hit bedrock … and gold.

It wasn’t the Blue Bucket Mine, but it was a lot of gold.

Adams, by the way, had been following the party at a distance; some of his friends had been supplying him with food. After this happy discovery, several sources say he was allowed to rejoin the party and stake his own mining claim; I haven’t been able to verify this, but it’s a nice thought.

The Thomas Vernon blacksmith shop in Auburn. To judge by the amount
of milled lumber visible in the picture, this was probably in 1863 or later;
for the first few years, planks had to be laboriously cut with whipsaws,
so Auburn was chiefly built with logs. (Image: Baker County Historical

Word soon got back to Walla Walla and The Dalles, and soon miners were pouring into the area — along with all those gamblers, saloonkeepers, prostitutes, gunfighters and general-purpose roustabouts that always seemed to show up to help them get comfortable. Together, this motley array of entrepreneurial humanity got busy forming a sort of rough-hewn town made chiefly out of log huts and canvas tents. They called it Auburn.


The law in Auburn was of the classic rough-cut frontier kind. The citizens actually drew up a legal code. It specifically outlawed shooting at or stabbing people in public places, for starters; presumably if you wanted to murder someone, you were expected to get a room first. It also forbade drawing any deadly weapon with the intent to use it, and "drunk and riotous conduct" in the streets; other than that, it was pretty much game-on.

Three men, dressed rather too well for a day working in the mines, pose at
the entrance of the Solomon Mine near Sumpter in the late 1800s. (Photo:
Baker County Public Library collection)

At first the town was part of Wasco County, but the county seat was 300 miles away in The Dalles. Dick Pintarich writes that one miner, arrested for killing his partner in their tent, claimed self-defense, and the townspeople decided to send him to The Dalles for trial. Two men agreed to escort him there, and the townspeople advanced $50 for their expenses. The three of them then vanished, but were seen later prospecting together in Idaho — “no doubt with $50 worth of new tools,” Pintarich observes wryly.

Generally, though, the murder rate in Auburn was kept relatively low by the ferociousness of what passed for justice there.  That ferociousness seems to have been reserved primarily for “foreigners,” though — Frenchmen, Mexicans and Chileans.

The lynching of Spanish Tom

The most notorious incident in Auburn’s short history happened when a Latino man known to history only as Spanish Tom strolled into a saloon one November night in 1862, and tried to get in on a card game being played by Henry Labaree and Jack Desmond. The problem was, he had no cash to ante up, and the other two weren’t interested in Spanish Tom’s IOUs. Voices were raised, and then Spanish Tom pulled a knife, and a couple seconds later he was running out the door as Labaree and Desmond lay bleeding, dying or already dead, on the floor behind him.

Auburn as it looked in 1862 (the photo is tagged as 1861, but
this is likely an error). Auburn was a haphazard, ramshackle
town from the start, as the miners spent as little time as possible
building and maintaining homes; time spent getting a wall
square was time lost at the diggings. (Image: Oregon Historical

When Spanish Tom was recaptured a couple days later, the sheriff and justice of the peace tried to initiate the prosecution process. The two officials started making ready for a speedy trial, probably followed by an execution.

The other 5,998 residents of Auburn, however, seemed not to be in a patient mood. Soon a mob surrounded the judge’s office. They weren’t here for the trial. They wanted the prisoner — now.

The judge, when he saw which way the wind was blowing, grabbed his docket and ran for his life, leaving the sheriff to hold his ground — which he made a valiant effort to do. But the mob got hold of Spanish Tom’s leg iron and used it to drag him away to the hanging tree, letting his head bounce on the ground as they ran.

One of Spanish Tom’s friends, whose name is also lost to history, tried to put him out of his misery with a shot, but missed him and instead wounded three members of the mob. Other members of the mob gave chase as Tom’s friend ran for his life. He was too slow, and went down in a hail of bullets.

Eventually the mob got Spanish Tom to the tree, and found him already dead. But they strung him up anyway.

A few weeks later, the sheriff started construction on a new jail — one clearly designed to withstand siege by angry mobs.

Easy come, easy go

The mining town of Cornucopia, several dozen miles northeast of Auburn,
is another mountain mining town that boomed while the "color" held out.
This image shows it during the winter of 1916; Cornucopia is a ghost town
today. (Photo postcard)

The gold in Auburn was gone in what must have seemed like the blink of an eye. Six thousand eager miners can get a whole lot of dirt dug up and moved around, and it took them just two summers to do it. By 1864, the Salem Statesman reported that the town was all but deserted. The action had moved to other nearby towns like Sumpter and Baker City, which had more going for them than just proximity to the gold fields.

Today, those gravestones are all that’s left. If you look around, you’ll find the graves of Spanish Tom’s two murder victims, and of Henry Griffin, the guy who started it all. You’ll also find plenty of anonymous graves marked only by a dip in the ground where the coffin collapsed.

Like the people buried in those graves, Auburn is long gone.

(Sources: Pintarich, Dick. Great and Minor Moments in Oregon History.  ; Bright, Verne. “Blue Mountain Eldorados: Auburn,” Oregon Historical Quarterly, Sept. 1961; McLoughlin, Virginia Duffy. “Cynthia Stafford and the Lost Mining Town of Auburn,” Oregon Historical Quarterly, spring 1977; oregonencyclopedia.org)

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