Interview with Finn J.D. John, Author of Wicked Portland

In its early days, Portland, Oregon, was home to a colorful cadre of shore bound sailors, rich ruffians, corrupt politicians, sketchy footpads, and pitch-stained loggers. In this interview with History Press West, Finn J.D. John discusses the rowdy characters from Portland’s past and shares some of the stories that didn’t quite make it to the pages of Wicked Portland: The Wild and Lusty Underworld of a Frontier Seaport Town.

AK: What inspired your interest in Oregon history? Do you credit that interest to a particular event or individual?

FJ: Actually, I got started on this when I was on a weekend trip to the beach, the summer before I started grad school. I’d been 20 years in newspapers and now I was looking at getting out of it. And I was feeling kind of sad about the whole thing. Anyway, I was strolling along the old 804 trail in Yachats, the old smelt road, when it occurred to me that this could be a way to take it with me, if you will. I’d hold myself to a weekly deadline, researching and writing an article each week and in the process developing a solid body of expertise on Oregon history, especially the zestier parts. Pirates! Robbers! Haunted hotels and buried treasure!

AK: How does today’s Portland compare to the opportunistic, lawless frontier described in the book? What remnants of Portland’s wicked past are still evident?

FJ: Wow. Well, the big difference is the seawall. When that went in, in the late 1920s, it wiped out all those little ramshackle wharfs that lined the waterfront on the west side, which was kind of the heart of darkness there. It also stopped the floods from coming into town–those had been an issue from time to time.

Skid Road was still Skid Road for years afterward–that was Burnside. I remember that from when I was a kid; I was always a little afraid of that part of town right at the Burnside Bridge, where the Saturday Market is now. Guys from the Rescue Mission were all over the place, sometimes sipping from paper sacks, and it was the same all the way up to Powell’s Bookstore.

When I grew up in Southeast Portland, I really had no idea that the place used to be so wild and exciting. I thought of it more or less as a gray, dreary, mostly concrete city. It was a working city back then, it seemed to me. People drank black coffee and drove Ford pickups. The mayor was a boring guy in a gray suit named Ivancie–actually a pretty interesting guy, but boring if you were in high school.

So I got to watch its transformation from that into what it is today.

I think–this is just me talking, I haven’t studied this or anything–but I think it started when an old Beatnik named Bud Clark beat Ivancie in the race for Mayor.

The really cool part is, the city is now looking back on some of its more colorful history and saying, “Wow, that’s really interesting.”

It’s a little like having a famous outlaw in the family, like, say, Jesse James. A few years after Jesse died, nobody was going to admit to being related to him, because it was all so fresh and recent and people would wonder how far the apple could have fallen from that tree. But now, 150 years later, Jesse’s distant relatives just think it’s cool and interesting. Portland is at that stage with its ribald and tawdry past.

AK: If you could invite some of the wicked characters from Portland’s past to a cocktail party, who would you gather together?

FJ: What a great question. I would absolutely love to buy Jonathan Bourne Jr. a drink, for one. He mended his evil ways later in life, you know, but as a young man he was such a terror. And it would be sort of fun to get John Mitchell, the guy who helped the timber and grazing outfits steal half the public and school-grant lands in the state, just to watch him and Bourne square off. And no party would be complete without Bunco Kelly and Larry Sullivan, but we’d have to search those two at the door, to make sure they weren’t packing any knockout drops.

Oh, one more. Nat Blum, the dumbest and most flamboyant drug smuggler in the history of the universe.

AK: Wicked Portland is peppered with QR codes. What can the reader expect from this bonus content?

FJ: Well, Wicked Portland is actually designed to be read with a smartphone in one hand and the book in the other. (If you don’t like to use a smartphone, you can access all the same stuff with a regular computer by typing in the shortened URL under each one of those codes.) You just scan the code at the beginning of each chapter with your phone (or keyboard it on your computer) and it basically opens up a second channel, on which you can view larger, more detailed and sometimes full-color versions of the pics in the book, plus additional things that aren’t in the book: things like short videos, audio podcast episodes, and additional pictures.

One unexpected benefit of the QR code channel (I call it “the side channel”) became clear to me a few days ago when I found, in the library, a more detailed version of the shanghaiing story that begins Chapter 5, in a four-part series of newspaper articles. Those articles, and the pictures that accompanied them, are now posted on the side-channel site, even though they didn’t make it into the book.

Basically, if you have a smartphone with a code reader like Google Goggles, the QR codes turn a book into a multimedia storytelling experience. I expect there will be many more like this in the future.

AK: What stories did you leave on the cutting room floor?

FJ: There were a few stories that I had to leave out, yeah … One of them, though, I posted on the website, accessible through a half-hidden link. You can pull it up if you like, at–I’m calling it “The Lost Chapter.” It tells the very entertaining story of Portland’s “Temperance Riots” in 1874, when the ladies from a number of local churches started going from saloon to saloon praying and singing hymns and urging all the drunks to dry up and repent. One particular saloon keeper decided he’d rather fight than switch, and the result was something closely resembling a riot. The ladies got arrested and sent to jail for a day, but their hymns and prayers seem to have annoyed the police chief so badly that he kicked them out before they could serve their sentence.

“I’m the boss here,” he hollered, when they protested that they were supposed to be serving a jail sentence. “You leave.”

AK: What surprised you in the course of your research?

FJ: Most of this information I already knew at least the basics of, from having spent the last four years writing the columns. But a few things came as a surprise. First, I think I had Jonathan Bourne all wrong.

I’d always thought of him as a young reprobate who matured into a sort of political freebooter. After digging into his story, I found some powerful depth and drama in his story. It’s a story of redemption, of political courage, and of straight-out self-sacrificing heroism. It’s also a story of graft, vote-buying, whoremongering and debauchery. In other words, it’s just a great story, and one that not a lot of people know.

I was also kind of surprised at just how dumb the Blum-Dunbar gang of opium smugglers was.

AK: What other projects are you working on?

FJ: Well, since grad school I’ve had a project sort of simmering on the back burner. It’s a book about Herbert Hoover–yes, that Herbert Hoover–and what he got up to during World War I. You see, he was the man who engineered an organization that kept the entire nation of Belgium alive during the war, when it otherwise would have starved to death. Then he went on to do the same thing with the conquered peoples of Eastern Europe, and Russia, and to help out after World War II as well. In the end, Hoover actually saved between 300 million and 1.4 billion people from starving to death. And because he was such an unpopular and unsuccessful president, nobody remembers this.

AK:  Jonathan Bourne, Jr., one of the recurring characters in Wicked Portland, has a truly marvelous soup catcher. Do you have a top five bearded or mustachioed characters from Northwest history?

FJ: Lots of men had facial hair back then, probably something to do with not wanting to spend any more time being intimate with a straight razor than they absolutely had to. A few of them, though, really managed to excel. Here are my top five:

5: Harvey Scott. Scott was the editor of the Portland Oregonian, and by all accounts rather an unpleasant man. He didn’t sport much facial hair, but he got a lot of mileage out of what he had, which was a mustache that appears to have been trimmed carefully in just such a way as to make him look as stern and forbidding as possible. I’ve heard it said that a mustache forms a natural frown; Scott’s is trimmed in the frowniest possible manner.

4: Edward D. Baker. This was another Oregon notable with not much facial hair; just a pair of modest sideburns. The reason he makes my top-5 list is, again, how he uses them. They seem to spike forward away from his face, like fixed-forward-firing machine guns, and in tandem with those piercing eyes would make for a real formidable opponent in a debate. This man, by the way, would probably have been elected President had he survived the Civil War. He was the only sitting U.S. Senator to have ever died in battle. He doesn’t appear in my book at all, but details of his story are in Randol B. Fletcher’s book, Hidden History of Civil War Oregon.

3: Dr. John McLoughlin. The Native Americans called him the “Great White Eagle,” a nod to his snow-white hair and stern face. McLoughlin is known as the “Father of Oregon,” and he was for a long time the chief factor of the British Hudson’s Bay Company up in Vancouver. McLoughlin is another sideburn sporter, and he was absolutely in a class of his own.

2: John H. Mitchell. Mitchell was the political nemesis of our No. 1 beard-rocker, and the two of them must have been slightly hilarious when interacting with each other. Mitchell had a ZZ Top-Santa Claus job that was really something to see. I included a photo of him in the book with exactly that in mind. Mitchell, by the way, was the most important person in the conspiracy of plutocrats that stole probably half of Oregon’s public lands and school lands for the benefit of certain crooked businessmen. He’s the guy who’s primarily responsible for the fact that Oregon schools are usually strapped for cash; he helped auction off their endowment.

1: Jonathan Bourne, Jr. What can I say? That huge, fluffy moustache-pork-chop combo was a real distinguishing feature. Why he kept it I’m not sure, because it made his chin look weak and dimply poking out from under all that fluff, but it remains the most amazing mustache I’ve ever seen.

Finn J.D. John teaches new media communications at Oregon State University and writes Offbeat Oregon History, a weekly syndicated column published in a number of Oregon newspapers. Since the early 1990s Finn has served as a reporter or editor at several community papers, including the Silverton Appeal-Tribune, The Springfield News and the Corvallis Gazette-Times, and as an occasional correspondent for the New York Post. Finn has twenty-six state and regional awards for journalistic work to his credit. A native Oregonian, Finn grew up in rural Clackamas County and urban Southeast Portland; he now lives by the ruins of the historic Pirtle Station on the Oregon Electric railroad line, a mile or two from Albany.

Wicked Portland: The Wild and Lusty Underworld of a Frontier Seaport Town by Finn J.D. John is available from The History Press and Portland bookstores.

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