Portland Waterfront 1870 through 1899

Nina Crow
Written by Nina Crow

A Metropolis Rises on Sacks of Grain, Cans of Salmon, and the Backs of Indentured Sailors

Coastwise and Transoceanic Trade in the 1870s and 1880s

In 1870 Portland entered an era of international grain trading that would bring such fortunes as would cause the “golden years” of shipping the treasures of the mines to recede into a faded memory. The farsighted merchants Corbett and McCleay took a bit of a gamble and exported a shipment of wheat and canned salmon to Liverpool, England, aboard the schooner Adeline Elwood. When this effort prospered, they chartered more vessels and sent them to Europe filled with wheat and salmon, returning with such necessary heavy industrial items as railroad iron. By 1871 there were five vessels devoted to this trade, and by 1872 the number had grown to ten. The increase in international trade necessitated that a Customs District of the Willamette be created and a customs house established. Overseas trade from Portland was mainly with England, British Columbia, the Sandwich (Hawaiian) Islands, and Hong Kong, both in imports and in exports, while coastwise trade, of course, was mainly with San Francisco.

In 1873 a large part of downtown Portland burned to the ground. It was a disaster of gigantic proportions, which was reported in headlines around the world, incurring much sympathy and support for the battered frontier city. It would be expected that such a disaster could greatly impede the growth of such budding new businesses as Portland supported, even to the ruin of many, but in spite of these setbacks shipping continued far better than was expected and the city was soon back on its feet. The export of wheat for that year was valued at $1,055,000 and flour at $159,000.

By 1876 Oregon exports had grown to 193,778,700 pounds of wheat, valued at $3,138,294 (in 1876 dollars), as well as large amounts of canned salmon and wool. By the end of this decade there were 60 steam vessels registered in the Willamette District, whereas the export of wheat alone required the services of some 70 vessels. The export of flour required the use of an extra 19 vessels. Of course a city the size of Portland could not begin to import enough goods to equal the number of vessels required for its cereal exports, so it was during this period that ships coming to Portland brought with them ballasts of bricks and paving stones. Prior to this, the city’s main method for paving what boulevards it didn’t leave as a muddy quagmire was “Nicholson pavement” or short sawed logs set on end and placed side by side in the same manner as cobble stones. It worked to get the wagon wheels out of the muck, but it was a short lived solution in rain-soaked Portland.

Boneyard Mary and Other Bawdies

During most of the later part of the nineteenth century the O.S.N. Co. kept a salvage yard of partially wrecked and unused steamboats either at dock or resting on the river’s edge northwest of downtown, opposite Albina. This area was called the “boneyard” and is referenced by many a newspaper article as being the abode of hobos, homeless families, and others who had fallen through the cracks of polite society. Several articles mention a notorious prostitute named “Boneyard Mary” as standing in court as a witness to murder and mayhem. Other madams with enough of this world’s goods to appear somewhat more respectable kept houses of prostitution which were actually houseboats that could be moved from Portland across to East Portland, depending on which side of the river was more amiable to their profession at that moment. A proliferation of saloons and bawdy houses mixed with a steady and transient clientele of seafarers gave Portland the opportunity to rise in the annals of vice along with other such metropolises, such as, Gomorrah, San Francisco, and Sodom.
In looking at my Portland Waterfront History website for the first time in ages I am filled with remorse for not updating it as I discovered new things. I sat down this morning and quickly dashed off a new version of the chapter on the period from 1870 to 1900. I have discovered so much about this period that each subject that I mention is a subject that I would gladly write pages, chapters, even whole books on if I had the time.

I am going to publish that new material here as well. I plan to turn it into an entirely new site using some of the images I have collected in the six or eight years since I first put the site online. Here is the chapter, a brief overview of Portland’s shanghai masters, and their environment:

 The Years of the Sailor’s Boarding House Masters

The thirteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution had outlawed slavery in 1865, but in a nation whose beginnings had been staffed by indentured servants from the home countries and captured slaves from Africa, the idea of slavery was not so abhorrent that the very lowest class of laborer, the seaman, could not be subjected to such abuses. Sailors were a pariah class in those days. This gave rise to many opportunities to defraud and abuse them. There were strict laws against desertion, and once an individual had signed onto a ship all the force of the law would come to bear to make sure that person remained to fulfill their obligation. Without such laws the entire maritime machine would be disrupted.

But by the eighteen seventies in the United States desertion from vessels coming from foreign ports was almost a standard mode of operation. After a long sea voyage the sailors would want to enjoy themselves to the fullest, but they would not be paid until they returned to the home port. The sailor’s boarding house owners, and “runners” would offer the sailors room, board, and the pleasures of vice if the sailor would desert. The crimp would also nearly always tell of another ship that paid higher wages. The sailors would desert and as soon as the boarding house master was able he or she would ship the sailor off on another vessel, thereby making a substantial profit by receiving the sailor’s advance pay for the expenses the sailor had incurred on his tab. The sailors were cheated mercilessly, and the crimps grew wealthy and powerful.

The words, “crimp” and “sailor’s boarding house master” are interchangeable. In writings of the day they would also use the word “runner.” That meant specifically, a person engaged in drumming up business for the boarding house. Passenger ships were met by “hotel runners,” and in Portland both the sailor’s boarding house runners, and the hotel runners were supposed to be licensed by the city and issued official badges.

When tugs pushed a vessel up to one of the wharves along the Willamette, the crimps were there waiting. Sometimes they would use a hook and ropes to board the vessel from rowboats before it even came along dockside. The crimps would accost the crew with tales of their fine boarding house and all the pleasures it afforded, and stories of better pay on a different vessel. When the crew members deserted the captains were glad to see them go because they were then able to keep the wages owed to them while obtaining fresh crewmen from the same crimps when the ship was ready to sail some weeks (or even months) later.

The boarding house masters were not just interested in sailors. In a city where (as in most cities of the day) vagrants were taken to the city jail the boarding houses offered the passing hobo a room on credit. The “landlubber” would then be shipped off to pay the bill with the advance. Often times ship captains had so many hobos on board they were afraid to sail as this news article shows. This trick was played year in and year out on many a wandering fortune seeker, would be gold miner, fun seeking cowboy, plow boy, logger, fisherman–anyone without any particular place to go wandering the streets of Portland, or looking for a good time in any number of establishments near the waterfront. If there was a large number of vessels in port needing fresh crews, the crimps were not above slipping someone a Mickey Finn, or going down to the “shape up,” where longshoremen were being hired, with a sap (blackjack) in one hand and a canvas tarp in the other to pick off some unwilling seamen from among the no-hires for that day. Ship captains not averse to having new crew members delivered dead drunk and wrapped in a canvas tarp.

The first of the boarding house masters was a cruel and powerful man named Jim Turk. He and his wife were also drunken brawlers whose names were always in the papers for some assault or another. In a city with a corrupt civil society and police force Jim Turk rose to be practically untouchable. An example being the time he beat a man almost to death in the very offices of the British Vice Consul. For this act he had to pay a small fine. Early on Turk thought he could be a respectable hotel manager and business man, but it was not in his nature to do so.

Other boarding houses were soon established both in Portland and Astoria. The geographic location made it impossible for ship’s captains to obtain seamen through any other source, and should they try on their own, they would be punished by the crimps in numerous ways until they conceded. Portland and Astoria became world famous, debated in the British Parliament and other European capitals. This nasty business had a negative effect on shipping, and yet it was allowed to continue from the early 1870s into the first part of the 20th century.

Another famous crimp was a low life named Bunko Kelly. Many outrageous stories about his supposed exploits have become a part of Portland’s imaginary history. An old salt named Spider Johnson spent long hours in Erickson’s saloon getting free booze for telling the writer Stewart Holbrook tall tales of Bunko Kelly. I have read enough of the old reports and seen documents enough to lead me to the conclusion that Bunko well deserved his nickname, he was a compulsive liar of the very highest order. He was eventually framed for murder, most likely by another shanghaier, and sent to the penitentiary.

There was also Larry Sullivan, an ex-boxer, who rose to become a big politician in the so called “Whitechapel,” or north end, where many of the palaces of vice existed unmolested by the law. Sullivan is famous for having the ballot box for elections located in his boarding house. He oversaw his own election to city government holding a shotgun to make sure the police didn’t interfere with the winos, foreign sailors, and women prostitutes that were voting. This sounds like myth, but it can be substantiated by numerous newspaper reports. Sullivan was in business with the Grant brothers, the sons of Bridget Grant, an Astoria sailor’s boarding house keeper. She was thought to be above shanghaiing, but I have found strong evidence that she was too subtle for the news reporters of the day, and shanghaied unsuspecting souls in a very sneaky manner.

One of the latter day shanghaiers was another boxer, the welter weight champion of the world, a man with the mysterious name, “Mysterious” Billy Smith. He was in business with some brothers named White, and they operated from Albina. They had some serious run ins with Sullivan and the Grant Brothers over the years. Mysterious Billy Smith quit being in the crimping business around 1906. He opened a tavern in Albina and lived to a fairly ripe old age.

It took Portland a long time to overcome the bad name. Many of these tales died out with the eye witnesses, simply because the bad reputation was one that was not wanted by Portlanders, whether newspaper editors or anyone else. It was a long, terrible period of unholy cruelty and injustice, and one that was tolerated for over half a century by civil society. Add to this the fact that the city government of Portland was so notoriously corrupt that in 1912 Oswald West, the new prohibitionist governor of Oregon, stepped in and put his own man in as sheriff, a man named Tom Word. Word went at it with a vengeance and closed all the north end brothels, gambling dens, and whore houses. This is a very interesting year in Portland history. I have to say though, for all Sheriff Word’s efforts, a report two years later showed that these places had reestablished themselves like mushrooms.

There is much said on this subject about “shanghai tunnels” a supposed system of tunnels whereby the crimps could secretly move their victims to the docks. I wonder why they would need a tunnel for something they could do in broad daylight? I have found reports of U. S. Marshals being used as an armed guard to make sure all the unwilling sailors made it to the mouth of the Columbia and out to sea. Once the ship’s papers were signed, a man belonged to the ship and was no longer a free citizen.

In the 1970s the papers carried some stories about Portland’s “shanghai tunnels.” The excavating had turned up a tunnels in northwest Portland with much evidence of them being frequented by humans. There was even a cage found, large enough for a grown man. Tours of these places are now offered to tourists, and I am sure they are a lot of fun. The earliest mention of these tunnels I could find was 1976. Even Spider Johnson didn’t know about them. I am planning to research the subject further just to see if I can pinpoint a date that the rumor started.

The practice of crimping had be used for centuries by the British Navy to obtain men for its large fleets of ships covering the entire world. By the mid 19th century it had become fairly common practice on east coast cities and in New Orleans. In San Francisco the practice had become a necessity during the gold rush days with entire crews jumping ship to run off to the gold fields. By the 1870s in Portland it had become such a intrinsic practice in the port that the more successful crimps became men of substance who kept the police and the judges paid off. The new boom town port needed the practice just to keep booming, so as far as most people were concerned there was a “hands off” policy as far as crimps were concerned.

Some of the more respectable, and morally minded city fathers may have understood the necessity for such practices to keep their goods and cargoes flowing uninterrupted, but they did not just stand idly by. In the 1870s the Portland Seaman’s Friend Society was formed, a society which, using their own words, was formed:

…to promote the temporal, moral and spiritual welfare of the Seamen, Steamboatmen and Longshoremen, visiting or belonging to this port. The means employed are a Mariner’s Church, boarding house, library, reading room, visitation of ships including religious services on board, and the distribution of suitable literature.

On the board of directors of this new society were most of the prominent merchants and bankers of the time, H.W. Corbett, Geo. H. Chance. W.S. Ladd, E.B. Babbitt, etc.—the list read like a who’s who of who was making money off of the shipping industry in Portland. That being said, they were good and upright citizens who were appalled by the injustice and cruelty they observed on the waterfront that they themselves had created through their businesses. In spite of their good intentions to provide an alternative to the so-called “boarding houses” of the crimps, with the police and politicians on the side of the crimps, their efforts were fairly minimal. The society raised money and built the “Mariner’s Home,” a building that still stands at N.W. 3rd and Davis. This facility had rooms for sailors, a library, and a cafe. It was an upright place for sailors to board and ship from away from the treachery and vices of the crimps. The place operated for a few years, but finally closed for lack of business. The ship captains were unwilling to use seaman from that source for fear of being blackballed by the crimps.

Read more about the Seaman’s Friend Society at the Oregon Encyclopedia.

From the conservative point of view, it was a busy port with far more important things to attend to than the discomfort of sailors, or of the lowlifes being taken out of vagrancy and put to work on ships. By end of 1883 the Portland waterfront saw more vessels at one time than ever before in its history with up to 40 vessels at dock at one time. Keeping this commerce in motion was an enormous effort. That year the city had to start using its own dredges just to maintain the river channel for shipping. And that was the year that Portland was said to have displaced San Francisco as the main export center for inland commodities, due to its new railroad linkages.

Railroads and Celestials

As anyone knows who has glanced at the history of the American west, a railroad coming to town was anticipated only slightly less than the Second Coming of the Savior. Many would-be-metropolises and boom towns up and down the coast and scattered around the Puget Sound were turned into ghost towns overnight by decisions made in board rooms on the other side of the continent. In the case of Portland, once the city was established as the principle inland port between Victoria and San Francisco (in 1880 Seattle’s population was a mere 3,533), there was no question that Portland would become the terminal for multiple railroad systems.

During the 1870s a system of railroads had developed along the Columbia basin and down the Willamette valley for bringing the grain harvest to the warehouses and mills of Portland. A railroad ferry near the location of the present day Steel Bridge began its service in 1870 creating a vital link between the opposite shores. In 1880 the Oregon Steamship Navigation Company (O.S.N.) reincorporated under the name Oregon Railway & Navigation Company monopolizing the traffic in the Columbia basin and eastward. With railroads being built everywhere at once across the American West, there was an enormous need for hard working laborers.

Not only did this labor shortage assure the necessity of such carrion as the shanghaiers, but it also brought shiploads of Chinese to these shores. The Chinese were referred to at that time in a derogatory manner as “Celestials” due, it is said, to the fact that they were subjects of the Chinese Emperor, called the “Son of Heaven.” The story of this influx and migration is an epic unto itself, and one in which the average, white American of the day comes out looking pretty bad. The blatant intolerance and racial hatred of the time led to entire cities banning Chinese who were driven from place to place, and sometimes forcibly returned to China. It is a period we can look back upon with great shame, especially in light of the century or more of richness and vitality the infusion of Chinese (and other Asian) people have brought to the City of Portland, and the nation.

During the 1880s as the movement of cargo (mostly wheat by this time) increased, bank and railroad corporations merged and went bust, and reorganized, and finally on August 22, 1883, Northern Pacific drove a golden spike at Gold Creek, Montana which, in conjunction with Oregon Railway & Navigation Co., formed a transcontinental link. Two years later the Union Pacific would reach Portland, followed the year after that by the Southern Pacific. Portland was hooked up and plugged in to the commerce of the nation and destined to take its place with New York and San Francisco as a major American seaport.

This was a period of constant construction activity with the approval of street railway routes, new railway stations, and with new wharves and warehouses being built along the wharfline and Front Street in the old downtown, the northern “Couch Addition,” as well as across the Willamette in Albina and East Portland. In the two decades between 1864 and 1884 the Portland City Council approved ordinances allowing the construction of 24 new wharves and warehouses on the west side of the river, and this figure does not include the wharves, warehouses, and coal docks being erected in Albina, and East Portland on the eastern bank of the Willamette. As an example, in 1887 in Albina, the Victoria dock (just north of the railway ferry) was enlarged from four to seven warehouses, making it the largest warehouse dock in Portland at the time.

Merging and Emerging Metropolis, Portland, East Portland, and Albina in the 1890s

The decade of the 1890s began with a great flood of the Willamette river in early February. The waters spilled up into First and Front streets causing business owners and inhabitants to navigate to and from the drier regions in skiffs and canoes. On February 4th as the waters grew higher, straining against the structures of the wharves and bridges, the Morrison bridge was closed to traffic and the business of the city came to a halt. This was not the first time the city was flooded by its own life’s blood, the Willamette, nor would it be the last.

H.W. Scott, the editor of the Oregonian describes the 1890 flood:

The main trouble came from logs and great drift shooting by, endangering bridges, ferries and their cables, and causing steamers to skip hither and yonder. But it was not a flooding river that caused Portland city fathers the biggest headache, but rather a shallow one. The river would naturally lose volume in the drier months of late summer and early fall. Much to the surprise of the non-resident, western Oregon can go for weeks, even months without rain in this season. It was for that reason, as well as the normal collection of silt in the river channel that in 1891 the Oregon Legislature declared the Port of Portland Oregon’s first formal public port authority, with the express mandate to keep the shipping channel deep and clear all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

A Union of Three Cities

The year 1891 was an important one for the east side of the river, being the year that the diverse cities—East Portland, Albina, and Portland—voted to combine into one metropolis, making it the largest city north of San Francisco. The vote was 10,126 for and 1,714 against.

The Morning Oregonian cheered:

Now, on July 1, 1891, We face a new future as the largest western city north of San Francisco. The old corrupt city administration has been usurped, and a new breath of responsible city government has been installed. The citizens of the city of Portland can look forward to the future with pride and a sense of accomplishment.

(It was a nice sentiment, but corruption in Portland politics was systemic. It would be the early 1960s before the entire mess was exposed in U.S. Congressional hearings.)

The addition of the city of Albina to Portland brought with it a lovely cliff top residential neighborhood adorned with elegant homes. But even more vital to the city the merger brought some very major waterfront industry. There was the Albina Engine and Machine Works, an advanced, large-scale shipbuilder who would come to supply Naval vessels and merchants for the upcoming world wars, when Portland’s reputation as a shipyard city would overshadow its importance as an exporter of agricultural commodities. Stretching out over dozens of acres and marked at a distance by a 130-foot chimney there was the O. R. and N. Company, with its machine shops, round house, and rail yards. And lined up, looming along the rivers edge was a total of eight large grain docks and warehouses (including the gigantic Pacific Coast Elevator’s Oceanic Dock, a multi-storied wooden structure that would go up in a spectacular blaze in 1914). This would bring to twelve the total number of Portland grain docks operating simultaneously, not including the four dockside cereal mills of varying sizes.

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Nina Crow

Nina Crow

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