The short, tragic history of whaling in Portland city limits
“Ethelbert” the orca somehow ended up stranded miles from the ocean in the Columbia Slough, much to the delight of most Portland residents. But it wasn't long before the city's would-be Nimrods came out and spoiled everything.
By Finn J.D. John — November 2, 2014
In August 1949, some residents in the small town of St. Helens started noticing a very unpleasant smell coming from a neighbor’s orchard.
Upon investigation, police easily found the source: a large, oddly-shaped, obviously home-built galvanized steel tank, about 13 feet long and six feet wide, with great marks of rust and corrosion all over it.
Inside it, they found a dead whale.
The tank had originally been full of embalming fluid, which had preserved the whale from decomposition for nearly two decades. But the rust had eaten through the side of the tank, and the embalming fluid had leaked out, and after that a few hot summer afternoons had been sufficient to get the 1,500-pound carcass started “giving off aromas not at all like Chanel No. 5,” as John Myers wrote in the Oregonian story about it (under the headline, “Whale of a Smell”).
The story of this whale started several dozen miles away from St. Helens — in Portland. It’s a tragic story, and one that, most Portlanders at the time agreed, represented an infuriating miscarriage of justice that resulted in the bad guys more or less getting away with it. It also involved Portland celebrity Mel Blanc, later famous as the voice of Bugs Bunny.
It all started in mid-October of 1931, when somebody — probably a boy out fishing — saw something big swimming around in the Columbia Slough.
Soon there was a crowd there gazing out at the water, where a big black-and-white sea monster was swimming and cavorting like a Sea World exhibit — leaping out of the water, splashing around and apparently having a great time.
“It’s a baby humpback whale,” said one onlooker. “No, that’s a sturgeon,” said another.
“It’s a blackfish,” proclaimed an old deepwater sailor, who was promptly contradicted by another old mariner who said it was a porpoise.
It wouldn’t be until much later that the creature was identified as an orca — a killer whale.
Meanwhile, huge crowds of spectators — men, women and especially children — were coming to see it. The Oregonian tried diligently to christen it “Jimmy McCool’s Whale,” after the newspaper’s wildlife writer, but among Portlanders the name “Ethelbert” won out.
But Ethelbert was getting another kind of interest, too. Within less than 48 hours, men were out on the slough with rifles trying to bag themselves a whale. And no one could figure out how to make them stop.
The law seemed powerless. It specified times and seasons and bag limits for all the usual things people shot at — deer, elk, antelope, etc. — but anything it didn’t specifically limit was considered OK to kill at any time. It forbade using firearms to take fish, but the whale was pretty clearly not a fish.
On the governor’s orders, the police arrested the men anyway, more to inconvenience them than with any hope of making charges stick. But it didn’t seem much to matter. The whale ignored the gunfire, and the wounds that were inflicted didn’t seem to bother it much.
As the week went on, it became clear that Ethelbert was stuck. The mood of the crowd toward the men with rifles — the two in jail had been quickly replaced with others of their ilk — was also getting increasingly hostile, to the point that mob violence was starting to look like a possibility. The whale continued to play and splash in the slough, and thousands kept coming to watch.
Meanwhile, two different parties were making plans to do something about the whale.
The first of these consisted of the management at nearby Jantzen Beach, working with the Humane Society. They were seeking permission to catch the whale with a big gill-net and transfer it to a big tank of saltwater which was being hastily prepared at the park. The management hoped the saltwater would clear up the fungal infections which were starting to be visible around the gunshot wounds on Ethelbert’s back. They also hoped Ethelbert, plopped down in their park in a big glass tank, would be a fabulous attraction for Jantzen Beach.
The other party was an old ex-whaler named Edward Lessard and his son, Joseph.
The two of them seem to have taken their inspiration from a comic routine by future cartoon-voice wizard Mel Blanc, who at the time was a young comedian on “The Hoot Owls” radio show on KGW. Mel hatched the idea of getting Jimmy McCool to pretend to give him lessons in harpooning. It was played for big laughs live on the air. But it appears to have given Lessard an idea, because the next day he commissioned a blacksmith to forge for him a pair of special barbed harpoon heads, based on the designs of the weapons he’d helped use as a youth on sperm whales on deep-sea whaling cruises.
And on October 24, at 7:30 a.m., just as the pieces were about to fall into place for the Humane Society and Jantzen Beach to effect a rescue, Lessard and his son beat them to it. In a chartered motorboat, they approached the whale — and skewered it.
“It was the quickest killing I ever made,” the elder Lessard boasted to the Oregonian’s reporter, who described his demeanor as “apparently thrilled.” “Usually it takes half a day or a day to kill a whale. This one was dead as a doornail in less than five minutes.”
The problem was, he couldn’t find his prize. It had sunk to the bottom of the slough.
While Lessard was waiting for the men he’d hired to search for the carcass, a representative of the Portland Chemical Company offered to pay to have the whale embalmed and put on display if the proceeds would be sent to the Community Chest. Lessard “shifted uneasily on his wet perch on the dock,” the Oregonian reports. “’Nix,’ he said glumly. ‘It’s my dead whale.’”
But before he could collect his prize, the cops showed up. The Humane Society had sworn out a warrant for the arrest of both Lessards. Despite Edward’s protests that his cousin, an attorney, had assured him there was no law against inland whaling, the two of them were trucked off to the hoosegow. And while they were so occupied, a crew of interlopers slipped in, located the carcass, and took possession of it. They got hold of it just in time to put it on display during the Pacific Livestock Exhibition and charge admission to see it.
By the time the Lessards were out of jail, the exhibition was over, and all the locals who’d wanted to see the whale had done so. The Oregonian joined virtually the entire city in celebrating the “poetic justice” of this development: The Lessards had spent hundreds of dollars on their whale hunt, and someone else had reaped the reward they’d hoped to gain.
It was at some point after this that the Lessards apparently moved to St. Helens. It’s at least possible that they did so because of how unpopular and unwelcome the whale incident had made them in Portland. But all attempts to prosecute the Lessards failed. There just weren’t any laws on the books governing inland whaling, and so by engaging in it, they hadn’t broken any.
But that didn’t mean they could keep their prize, and the state of Oregon moved immediately to seize the whale — kicking off an eight-year legal squabble over Ethelbert’s mortal remains. Finally the Oregon Supreme Court decided in favor of the state. But then, having realized what limited utility there is in a dead whale pickled in embalming fluid, the state offered to let the Lessards have it if they’d pay court costs. They did, and so for $103, the Lessards finally got clear title to Portland’s whale.
And that’s how the unfortunate long-dead sea creature ended up in a rusty tank full of embalming fluid at the Lessard house, where it sat forgotten for ten years before its mounting aroma brought it back to official attention.
This time, though, the proceedings were far less dramatic, and by the end of the week, the poor whale’s long-suffering bones were resting peacefully six feet below.
(Sources: Portland Morning Oregonian archives, 14 Oct 1931 to 19 Aug 1949; correspondence from Leofric Hylton)
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