Heroes and rascals, shipwrecks and lost gold: Strange but true stories and secrets of Oregon's wild past | Offbeat Oregon History 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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The owners of rival papers escalated their war of words when they went for pistols on a downtown street one morning in 1871.

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D.B. Cooper:
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The man calling himself Dan Cooper parachuted into legend, and 40 years later the case remains unsolved ... but there are plenty of theories.

The burning steamer S.S. Congress, as seen from the deck of the dredge Colonel P.S. Michie, with lifeboats in the water.

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The burning steamer S.S. Congress, as seen from the deck of the dredge Colonel P.S. Michie, with lifeboats in the water.

The Rise and Fall of the House of Klux in Oregon

A slick marketing campaign and a taste for political power marked the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, which spread through Oregon like a racist virus — and then collapsed.

The burning steamer S.S. Congress, as seen from the deck of the dredge Colonel P.S. Michie, with lifeboats in the water.

Massive ocean liner won its race with fiery death

Calm seas, a cool-headed skipper and a hard-working crew brought the burning S.S. Congress to safety just in time. All 428 aboard made it.

This cover illustration from "Masked Rider Western," published in 1950, bears an uncanny resemblance to the events that kicked off Vigilante rule in Crook County.

"I can make a
six-shooter sing 'come to jesus'!"

Meet Robert Gordon Duncan, the pioneering Portland shock-jock who was the first person ever sent to prison for cursing on the air, in 1930.

This cover illustration from "Masked Rider Western," published in 1950, bears an uncanny resemblance to the events that kicked off Vigilante rule in Crook County.

When prineville was ruled by masked vigilante riders

In Crook County, the early 1880s were like a Louis L'Amour novel. And it all started with the lynching of an innocent man.

The classic melodrama villain, with sleek silk hat and waxed handlebar mustache, in the act of evicting the poor widow and children from their freshly foreclosed family homestead. Except for the mustache, Oregon's longest-serving 19th-century senator fit the trope with remarkable precision.

Senator John H. Mitchell: Oregon's own real-life Snidely Whiplash

He abandoned his family, changed his name, moved to Oregon, bilked widows and orphans in two big real-estate swindles ... and was promptly elected to Congress.

The skull of the skeleton found in the Odd Fellows hall in Scio, which is now at Oregon State University. The skeleton was that of a hard-working man who died sometime between 1860 and 1890.

Mysterious skeletons of Oregon: If these bones could talk ...

A long-dead dry-land homesteader ... a medical specimen in an Odd Fellows lodge ... what are their stories? We'll never know.

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.

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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.

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During a conjugal visit at a cheap motel, the prisoner escaped

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.

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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.

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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? . 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

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


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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.

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Vaudeville's famous Klondike Kate became a Central Oregon legend

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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.

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).

Florence's famous exploding whale: A highway engineer didn't know how much dynamite to use, so he guessed ... and guessed wrong.

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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.

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.

Offbeat Oregon History: Album cover art

When steamboats exploded on the upper Willamette

When the steamboat Gazelle reached the dock, the man in charge of its steam boilers leaped ashore and ran like a man being chased by demons. A few seconds later, the Gazelle exploded, killing 20 people.

This is a newspaper illustration of the explosion of the steamer Moselle
in 1838, which led to a push for regulation of steam engines to prevent
similar disasters. More than four times as many people died in the
Moselle explosion as that of the Gazelle — which was, itself, the single
worst catastrophe in Willamette River history. (Image: Kentucky
Historical Society)

It was a peaceful, happy spring morning in the little river town of Canemah, situated just above Willamette Falls — or, rather, it started out that way.

It was April 8, 1854 —  the very dawn of the steamboat era on the upper Willamette. Steamboats had been working the lower Willamette and Columbia for some time, but they’d only come to the upper Willamette three years before. The result, for Canemah, had been an explosion of growth. In those pre-railroad days, the rivers were the only way to get crops to market. The Willamette Valley was already producing a lot of crops, and all of it had to come downstream to Canemah — there to be unloaded, portaged around the falls and loaded aboard another riverboat in Oregon City.

On this particular morning, though, that bucolic routine would be shattered with an event that historians are still not sure how to explain.

It was on this morning that the brand-new steamboat Gazelle, just a month old and built right there in Canemah, was to make its first regular voyage upstream to Corvallis. The riverboat was drawn up at the portage road, where goods that had been trucked by wagons around the falls were loaded aboard. Several dozen passengers climbed its gangplank and settled in for their journey. Then the captain rang for steam, pulled out into the river and brought the big sidewheeler around to the passenger dock, next to the slightly older sidewheeler Wallamet, to load the freight that hadn’t come upriver from Oregon City.

Chief engineer runs for his life

The steamboat Wallamet as it appeared in 1854, from an old daguerreotype.
The Wallamet was badly damaged when the Gazelle, drawn up next to it at
the dock, exploded on the morning of April 8 of that year. Whether this
image was made before the explosion, or after repairs had been made,
is unknown. (Image: Library of Congress)

As the big riverboat reached the dock, a man rushed up to the rail, vaulted over, lighted on the dock and sprinted inland. He ran like a man being chased by a devil, with desperate speed. He did not stop. He did not look back. Soon he was gone from view.

It was the Gazelle’s chief engineer, Moses Toner.

Now, the chief engineer is the man who’s responsible for a steamboat’s engines. It’s his job to keep the fires going and to adjust the amount of power in response to the captain’s orders.

But the engineer’s most vital job is to make sure there’s enough water in the boilers at all times. If the water level falls too low, the boiler explodes.

This image from The West Shore magazine in 1887 shows the docks at
Canemah after it had become part of Oregon City, after more buildings
had been constructed; it’s near the probable location of the portage road.
(Image: thisweekinoc.wordpress.com)

Less than sixty seconds later, it happened. The Gazelle had two boilers, one for each paddlewheel, and they both exploded at the same instant with a powerful roar, sending steel and wood and bodies and body parts flying in all directions. Pieces of shrapnel from the explosion badly damaged the dock and the neighboring Wallamet and killed the Wallamet’s pilot, J.M. Fudge.

The aftermath: Blood in the water

Canemah residents flocked to the docks and plunged into the water to help the scalded, wounded, mutilated passengers and crew members to shore. Many of them were already dead. Some of them were in pieces. The carnage was horrific.

The blast took the upper works off the ship, but left plenty of debris in the open hull. Beneath that debris were even more bodies.

All told, 20 people died in the blast. Another 27 more were injured, some of them very badly.

Willamette Falls as it appeared in 1867, with the town of Canemah in the
distance behind. This photograph was made from approximately where
the Portland General Electric power station is today. (Image: Univ. of

The subsequent investigation wasn’t particularly scientific — as would be expected for those pre-Civil-War frontier days. The circumstantial evidence of the engineer’s sudden flight, reinforced by the fact that he had never come to pick up his pay and had not been heard from since, was seen as a tacit admission of guilt. Clearly, the investigators concluded, Toner had made a technical mistake, and had only just realized it when the boilers started showing signs of imminent failure and, seized with terror, fled.

There were dissenting voices. Some steamboat men suggested that the boilers may have been defective — perhaps made of steel that was too brittle or thin.

Those doubters may have been right. Steam explosions were already all too familiar on American riverboats in the 1850s, which had led to the Steamboat Act of 1852 — requiring boilers to be tested and to be fitted with a pressure relief valve. But steam engines had to be purchased back East and shipped to the West Coast by sea, “around the horn” — so chances were very good that the Gazelle’s boilers pre-dated the law.

It’s also a bit suspicious that the only other boiler explosion in the history of the state at that time had also happened to an upper Willamette steamboat, named after the town of Canemah, at Champoeg the previous year. One person had died in that incident. And the upper Willamette was, in 1854, served by fewer than half a dozen riverboats, which represented a tiny fraction of steamboats in use in Oregon at that time. The sample size is too small to draw conclusions, but the statistic that 40 percent of boats on the upper Willamette had exploded was certainly a startling one.

The flying steamboat captain

The long-ago explosion of the Gazelle remains the worst disaster in Willamette River history as measured in casualty counts. But it wasn’t the last. Three years later, the little steamboat Elk exploded in mid-stream as it approached the Yamhill River.

The explosion lifted the wheelhouse and smokestack off the boat and sent the whole works flying through the air — intact, with the boat’s captain still inside. The wheelhouse miraculously landed in the top of a cottonwood tree, and the skipper was able to shinny down the tree to safety. While airborne and in free-fall (along with sextants, coffee cups and whatever else was in the wheelhouse at the time) he’d actually been able to look through the smokestack at his pilot, who’d been blown onto the bank by the blast and was sitting there, dazed but unhurt, trying to collect his wits.

On that occasion, the passengers were shielded from the shrapnel by a heavy woodstove. A few of them were hurt, but none badly, and not a single person was killed. And for twenty years after that, every time they passed the tree that had broken the captain’s fall and saved his life, riverboat pilots pointed it out and retold the story — something their passengers likely didn’t find particularly reassuring.

But by the time of the Elk’s disaster, new steamboat inspection laws were having their effect. Only one major boiler explosion happened on the Willamette after that, despite a massive increase in the number of ships on the river. That explosion was in 1875, when the steamboat Senator exploded while docking in Portland, killing seven people and injuring another eight.

(Sources: Mills, Randall V. Sternwheelers Up Columbia. Pacific Books: Palo Alto, 1947; Marshall, Don. Oregon Shipwrecks. Portland: Binford, 1984; oregonencyclopedia.org)

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