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

Deadly weather catches Oregon by surprise when it comes

Cyclones, tornadoes, flash floods, earthquakes and volcanoes — the Beaver State is not immune to any of these things, but they're rare enough that no one is expecting them when they appear.

A motorist driving near Aumsville on Dec. 14, 2010, shot a short video
of the funnel cloud that hammered Aumsville and subsequently posted
it on YouTube (go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J3_pCbGHo1g
to watch it); this is a screenshot from that video. (Image:
newsiegirl2008, youtube.com)

Fifty years ago this month (October 2012), a freakishly massive weather system descended on Oregon and did so much damage that its memory is still fairly fresh today.

As you likely know, the Columbus Day Storm was a fading typhoon, still well over hurricane strength but by Caribbean standards pretty average, that showed up unexpectedly and made a big mess in western Oregon on Oct. 12, 1962.

But of course, the main reason the storm did so much damage is that Oregon is not known as a place in which you have to worry about hurricanes of any size. Nor do we get those High Plains storms with hailstones the size of golf balls, or tornadoes that vacuum up houses full of Dorothy and Toto, or dust storms you can’t see the house through. What counts for bad weather in Oregon — the western part, anyway — is gray dreariness, not deadly run-for-your-life drama. Right?

Well ... it turns out that’s not entirely true. Oregon has had some wild and grim weather events through the years. But whereas folks in other places have long since made their peace with deadly weather (by building storm cellars, for instance), the bad stuff when it arrives in Oregon always carries with it the element of surprise. Because we just don’t think we get stuff like …

Hurricane-like storms

At least 30 small fishing boats like the ones in this turn-of-the-century
postcard image were swamped and their crews drowned in 1880 when a
massive blue-sky storm kicked up over the Columbia River bar, catching
them with their nets in the water and half full of salmon.

The Columbus Day Storm certainly fits into this category. But so does an earlier storm — one that killed considerably more people, although we have no record of how strong it really was. That storm lit into the extreme northwest corner of Oregon in May 1880 — ironically, just five months after another massive storm, known simply as “the Great Gale,” struck the same area.

Records on this May storm are sketchy, mostly consisting of newspaper stories. But like the Columbus Day Storm, it was actually more than one storm; and, again like the legendary 1962 event, it happened under relatively untroubled-looking skies, right up until it pounced.

When it did, it caught virtually the entire lower Columbia salmon fishing fleet out by the river bar, nets in the water, miles and miles from the safety of the shoreline and still being carried seaward by the ebbing tide. Dozens of little 24-foot fishing boats were swamped and their crews drowned; dozens more, in desperation, cut their nets loose and pulled for shore, and some of them made it, and some did not.

Then, the next day, the storm abated just in time for the fishing tide, and more fishermen went out on the bar, and — and the storm kicked back up, just like the day before, taking a fresh batch of victims to the bottom.

The Daily Astorian at the time said about 60 fishermen drowned in those two days. Other sources put the number even higher.

This, by the way, was the year in which something like one out of every 10 fishermen working out of Astoria on the Lower Columbia drowned before the end of the season. 1880 was a terrible year for Astoria.

Flash floods

The residential district of Heppner, Oregon, as it appeared on June 14,
1904 — a few hours after a wall of water had swept through town, killing
one out of every six Heppner residents. (Image: Oregon Encyclopedia)

Remember those size-XXL hailstones I mentioned above? Some of those hailstones visited Heppner, Oregon, in 1903, and killed 247 people. Here’s how:

Heppner was going about its business on June 14, 1903. It was a typical early-summer day, but a storm was moving in, and soon those big hailstones were falling on the town. Everybody ran inside, of course, to avoid a pummeling.

The hailstones kept falling on Heppner, keeping up a steady roar, making sure that the people in the houses couldn’t hear the wall of water that was racing down the canyon toward the residential district of the town.

When the water struck, it picked up the houses and carried them helplessly downstream and deposited them in giant flattened heaps of sticks and splinters and flesh and bone. The survival rate for people caught indoors when the waters hit was very low. Estimates for the size of the wall of water range from a ludicrous 50 feet high, down to an equally ludicrous 6, but whatever it really was, it was enough.

One out of every 6 Heppner residents died. It was the deadliest non-dam-related flash flood in U.S. history, and the deadliest weather-related event in Oregon’s recorded history.


Tornadoes? So many people in Oregon seem to think we just don’t get these. But residents of the town of Aumsville know better, and so does almost everyone nearby. Just two years ago, a big fat funnel cloud put down its giant gray nozzle and vacuumed the roofs off of 20 or 30 buildings, bowled over dozens of trees and pulled houses off their foundations. The National Weather Service estimated the winds were in the 110- to 120-mph range. Miraculously, no one was killed or even hurt.

Another, less damaging tornado snuck ashore in Lincoln City in the middle of a stormy January night back in 1996. Residents woke up the next morning to find it had visited the parking lot of a manufactured home dealership, where it had picked one house up and set it down on top of another; it had also apparently scooped up a bunch of fish from the ocean and dropped them in a nearby parking lot. Again, though, nobody was hurt — other than the fish.

Older residents may remember an earlier tornado, though, in which that was not the case. In 1972, a really large tornado (well, large for Oregon; by Midwestern standards, it was pretty average) formed over north Portland, blowing north toward Vancouver. Just as it reached the Columbia River, it dropped a funnel cloud down to the ground.

Luckily for Oregon, all it did was trash a marina full of unoccupied cabin cruisers. But Washington wasn’t so lucky. After crossing the Columbia River, the tornado lit into Vancouver and made a beeline for an elementary school. It destroyed the school, flattened a nearby bowling alley, damaged a number of homes and carved a nine-mile gash into east Vancouver before petering out. Behind it, it left six people dead, and 70 elementary-school students injured. Winds were estimated in the 160 to 200 mph range; it was the worst tornado in West Coast history.

So, yes, we get tornadoes. Just not often enough for us to be expecting them when they come. In fact, according to the National Weather Service, there have been a total of just 69 of them in the past 115 years.

Other big events

In the category of non-weather-related natural disasters, Oregon also has a few tricks to play. For instance, it was only a little over 100 years ago that big, snowy, mild-mannered Mount Hood was an active volcano, periodically shooting fire into the sky and sprinkling the area with ash.

And, of course, we can’t forget about the Cascadia Earthquake, a magnitude-nine monster that brought a giant tsunami ashore all along the Northwest coast 312 years ago, and which scientists say is due to repeat itself sometime in the next century or two.

So yes, in general, Oregon weather is nice and mild, if a bit damp and sometimes a little gusty. But don’t be fooled … it can get ugly. And when it does, it usually catches us with our guard down.

(Sources: National Weather Service reports; The Daily Astorian, May 1880 issues; DenOuden, Bob. “The Heppner Flood of 1903,” Oregon Historical Quarterly, spring 2004)

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