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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Vance "Pinto" Colvig, from Jacksonville, was a pioneer in animated cartoons and a gifted show-biz man.

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When the 'Dark Strangler' preyed on Portland landladies

His M.O. was simple: While a woman was showing him a room or house for rent, he'd strangle her, take her jewelry and flee.

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The tawdriest love triangle in the history of the universe.

Lulu Reynolds was having a torrid affair with her music teacher. Her husband carried a .38 in his jacket pocket. It wasn't the kind of thing that ends well. It didn't.

A screen capture from an episode of ABC's legendary 1970s show "Happy Days." Because the show is set in 1950s Milwaukee, Wisc., "The Fonz" is actually breaking the law in this scene; pinball was outlawed in Milwaukee at the time.

Graft, corruption, racketeering, and ... uh, pinball?

Until just a few dozen years ago, pinball was illegal, and the mobbed-up characters who supplied the games played for keeps.

The front cover of the May 1946 issue of 44 Western Magazine shows a scene vaguely reminiscent of the downtown gunfight between feuding newspaper editors in 1871 Roseburg.

The Roseburg "newspaper war" that was settled with a gunfight

The owners of rival papers escalated their war of words when they went for pistols on a downtown street one morning in 1871.

An artist's sketch of what D.B. Cooper may have looked like, from an FBI bulletin sent out shortly after the skyjacking.

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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 front cover art of "For Men Only" Magazine showed a scene that bore some resemblance to the scene on the day Dave Tucker robbed the bank of which  he would, 32 years later, be named Vice-President.

The bank robber who became vice-president of the bank he robbed

After he got out of prison, Dave Tucker spent 30 years rebuilding his reputation in his hometown of Joseph, and it seems he succeeded.

A detail from the movie poster for the 1915 racist move 'Birth of a Nation,' which inspired and propelled the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in the years just after the Great War.

The Rise and Fall of the House of Klux in Oregon

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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.

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

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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.

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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

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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.

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.

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.

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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.

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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? . 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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Palatial riverboat was caught in a hurricane on the open sea

Designed for calm inland waterways, the sidewheel steamboat Alaskan was no match for the massive late-spring gale that pounced on it off Cape Blanco one fateful night in 1889.

A painting depicting the sinking of the Alaskan, from Lewis & Dryden’s
Marine History of the Pacific Northwest, 1895.

Paddlewheel riverboats are, of course, not designed to be used on the open sea. Their scant freeboard, so convenient for passengers clambering aboard for a trip down the river or across Puget Sound, becomes a major liability in a storm at sea; their ornate deck covers and big-windowed deckhouses, so nice for watching the scenery gliding by, take the full force of boarding seas when things get rough.

And yet riverboats did, in the late 1800s, have to venture out into the open sea from time to time, either for an overhaul or for a transfer to a different inland route. When they did, everyone tried to move them at calm times of year, and hoped for good weather. But once in a while, the plan didn’t work out.

Case in point: Railroad mogul Henry Villard’s sidewheel steamboat Alaskan, in late spring of 1889.

The “White Elephants”

The Alaskan was one of two massive 260-foot-long sidewheel steamboats commissioned by railroad mogul Henry Villard in the early 1880s. The big riverboat, along with its sister ship, the Olympian, came “around the horn” in 1884 and got right to work losing money for Villard on the Portland-Astoria run.

The Alaskan docked in Seattle a few months before its final fateful
journey. (Image: Superior Publishing)

Villard, at the time, was a newcomer to the steamboat trade. He’d acquired a big, sleepy riverboat monopoly – the Oregon Steam Navigation Company – that was in the process of having its markets disrupted by a smart, scrappy upstart named Uriah B. Scott. Scott, who was one of the best naval architects in the history of steamboating, had virtually taken over the Portland-Astoria service with his fast, luxurious riverboat, the Fleetwood (here's a link to that story). Naturally, Villard had cast his eye around for something that would one-up the upstart, and these two enormous floating palaces were it.

The problem was, the two vessels had been built to the specifications of successful Chesapeake Bay steamboats. In Northwest waters, they were a terrible fit. Most obviously, they were sidewheelers; sidewheels, as the greenest rookie riverboat man in the company would have told Villard if asked, did not work well on the Columbia. The boats were also huge, with hulls that drew 8 to 10 feet – so they could only make runs in which they could stay in deep water. On those runs, their coal-fired power plants, built for speed rather than efficiency, gobbled coal at a rate that ticket prices just wouldn’t support.

Soon the two of them became known as “Villard’s White Elephants.”

The Alaskan’s sister ship, the Olympian, under way at Victoria, British
Columbia. This image shows the tiny amount of freeboard on the big
riverboats’ hulls; it wouldn’t take a very large wave to put water on
deck. (Image: British Columbia Digital Archives)

Still, Villard stuck it out, and when Scott put the legendary steamboat Telephone into service in 1884, there was no alternative. Coal-guzzler though the Alaskan might have been, it had to take the Telephone on. Villard’s only alternative would be to hand over the Portand-Astoria run to his competitor. And so, as the 1880s wore on, the Alaskan and the Telephone developed one of the Northwest’s most well-known riverboat rivalries. Races between the two became common events, much relished by the passengers. The Alaskan occasionally won those races, although it’s not entirely clear how. Maybe, knowing what a draw the spectacle was, the Telephone was throwing a race or two here and there.

By 1889, though, all that hard use was taking a toll on the Alaskan, and the big vessel was too large to fit in any of the local dry docks. To perform the needed maintenance, it would have to be sailed to San Francisco.

Which is how the big steamboat came to be 18 miles off Cape Blanco on that fateful day in May, thrashing its way south in seas that were starting to look ominous.

Caught in the open sea

On the morning of the Alaskan’s last day, the Alaskan was pounced upon by an unexpected late-spring gale. Captain R.E. Howes ordered a small sail rigged to keep the bow pointing south and rang for the engine room to cut the power to “dead slow.” On a sidewheel steamer taking seas on a beam, the danger was that the ship would roll far enough to one side to lift the opposite wheel free of the water, and if that happened under full power, the wheel could be destroyed when it contacted the water again.

The Alaskan struggled on all day, making almost no headway. The seas got worse and worse. By midnight that night, ominous signs were beginning to appear. The aft deckhouse had started to rip free, which meant each time a wall of “green water” poured onto the deck, it was going straight down into the bilge. And the Alaskan, built for calm and protected rivers rather than the open sea, had only a few feet of freeboard; it was shipping a lot of green water.

Desperate to keep the boat afloat, crew members stuffed blankets into the gaps – $2,000 worth, according to the Daily Morning Astorian’s report afterward, or $50,300 in today’s dollars. But then, shortly after midnight, came the coup de grace: A massive comber swept across the Alaskan’s decks and tore the portside paddle box off the ship. The box took numerous strakes and planks away with it, leaving gaping holes through which thousands of gallons of seawater poured with every wave. The Alaskan was doomed. Captain Howes gave the order to abandon ship.

Somehow, in the pitch-dark storm, the crew managed to get three lifeboats launched and tethered in the lee of the ship. Crew members climbed down the ropes into the boats and cast off. Captain Howes stayed aboard, as per maritime custom; the aged steward refused to get in a boat, and so did the chief engineer. Perhaps they were hoping for a miracle.

Broken in two

The boats were barely away when the Alaskan’s iron hull, teetering in the crest of a huge wave, broke in half and sank out from under the feet of Captain Howe and the other men still standing on deck.

But unlike a regular oceangoing ship, the poor hard-used riverboat had left plenty of flotsam behind on the waves – bits of planking torn away by the sea, chunks of superstructure, bits of deckhouse. Struggling against time in the icy waters, Howes found the chief engineer and together they managed to cobble together enough wreckage to make a makeshift raft, big enough to get most of the way out of the water and let their wool clothing warm them a little. Nearby, three seamen were clinging to the top of the pilothouse.

The engineer didn’t make it – he tried to swim to the drier pilothouse roof and succumbed to hypothermia halfway to his goal and sank out of sight. The remaining four of them, shivering in the weather as dawn turned to day, waited 13 hours and were finally rescued by a tugboat that had seen their distress flares the night before.

Of the three lifeboats, two made it and the other vanished.  According to news reports at the time, a total of 21 people – plus any un-accounted-for stowaways – died in the wreck.

(Sources: Daily Morning Astorian, 17 May and 19 May 1889; Marshall, Don. Oregon Shipwrecks. Portland: Binford, 1984)

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