Wednesday, January 23, 2013

We Just Passed Twenty-Two: The 23 Hoodoo

Well, it seems my old buddy Barney Blalock of the Portland Waterfront has been bitten by the Weird Portland bug. Here is another post from Barney on a strange superstition that infected our great grandparents and influenced the weird development of Portland. Don't forget to read his latest book from the History Press -- Portland's Lost Waterfront.

In 1910 you could hop on board the East Ankeny and Rose City Park car as it stopped in front of the St. Charles Hotel on 2nd and Morrison. That was the last stop before the car rattled over the Morrison Bridge and off into the eastern wilds. The conductor, Harry Franks, would call out the stops, "East Watta, East Second, Grand Avenoo!" Then the car turned north on Grand and east again on Ankeny where the numbered streets began. It was the conductor's habit to call out the street numbers using the form, "nineteen," "twenty," "twenty-one," "twenty-two"—but when the car reached East 23rd, Franks would cry out, "We just passed twenty-two!" When a reporter questioned Franks about this little quirk, he replied:
It's an unimportant street, and I never like to announce it because some of my women passengers might think the number offensive.
This might seem an almost unfathonable line of reasoning to an observer from the present century, but I suggest that, reading between the lines, what the women passengers would find offensive would be the cat calls and cries of, "Skidoo!" from impudent young boys following the announced number. This number, 23, along with its fellow ominous interger, 13, combined with the words "hoodoo" and "skidoo" were quite the thing in the late 19th and early 20th century. Nearly everyone has heard the phrase, "23 skidoo," but very few 21st centuryites can fathom the meaning thereof. As a kid I had seen the phrase in old comic books and heard it in old movies. In later years I even looked it up and found some implausable story about the wind blowing up skirts on 23rd street in New York. The answer, however, like many things in this world, is not simple—and it is multi-faceted.
Hoodoo and skidoo, for instance, were sometimes used interchangeably in that blissful period before the Great War, when Bertie Wooster tossed rolls at the waiters in the Drones Club on the Pall Mall, and Tom Word busted opium smoking, West Hills dandies down in Chinatown, in Portland. These were overly used slang words of the period. Hoodoo, when refering to a sports team meant the same as the word mojo (or, magic) today, and it was usually good hoodoo, but sometimes it was bad. A headline might declare: "The Beavers Hoodo Broken," which meant that the Beavers had finally lost, blowing a winning streak. Skidoo, on the other hand, refered to the end, and was never a good thing. Skidoo often had some connection with the slang term, skedaddle, and many puns were penned by hack newsmen playing on the two meanings.
An example of this would be when, on August 23, 1906, some Columbia University (now University of Portland) students organized an unofficial and macabre "skidoo party" on the bluff of Mock's Crest. It was later declared by the Oregonian to have been the "very first on the Pacific coast, perhaps the whole world." (This was most likely cynical humor since skidoo parties were a nationwide craze.) They charged 23 cents admission and large crowds of young people arrived by streetcar. The puns in the news report were nonstop:
But the "skidoo" part of the programme came when the party undertook to "skidoo" into the Columbia University building, where there is a fine, large hall. They wanted to dance in that hall, but those in charge of the building said "skidoo." The young people insisted, but still the authorities remarked to them "23" and "skidoo."
And so the article continues, groaner after groaner.
There is a lot of hoodoo connected to the number 23, not the least being the "23 enigma" attributed in later years to William S. Burroughs ( In the late 19th century superstition about the number was rampant. The expression, "Twenty-three for you!" carried with it something of the meaning of today's, "Sucks to be you!" But it could also mean something akin to, "Buzz off sucker!" When a gambler threw down a losing card an onlooker might comment, "23 for you!" Then again, a spurned suitor might hear these same words from his would-be-beloved. Suicides would sometimes leave no note, other than the number 23 scrawled onto a page that lay on the floor, next to the kicked over chair, beneath where they hung.
From the viewpoint of the roulette tables the number was seen as a constant loser. A gambler who had a bad string of sour bets would put his last money on the number 23 as a way of signaling his defeat Someone whose luck had run dry would murmur, "23 for me." Someone who had passed out drunk would have been described as having "23ed," and the mentally disturbed were called "23s." It was said to have originated with telegraph operators who used the number as a means of clearing the line for an important call.
Another, less plausible story, has to do with Sing Sing prison's 23 steps from the main corridor to the workshops. Whether or not this is true, the expression did enter into the lexicon of rogues and criminals as a spiced up version of "Cheese it, the cops!" "Twenty-three skidoo!" was shouted by miscreants in the Bowery in New York City to alert their co-conspirators to the presence of the gendarmes. The expression then passed into common usage in much the same way that words from gangsta rap, such as "bling" and "dis" have entered common usage today.
For reasons not known to me (or anyone else this side of omniscience), the whole 23 skidoo mojo took off and became a nationwide rage. The entrepreneurs hopped on the skidoo wagon and sold every conceivable manner of gadget and garment emblazoned with the phrase. Like so many other overly hyped fads, it soon disappeared, becoming an archaic symbol of the "good old days," like raccoon coats, chicken inspector badges, and straw boater hats. When Americans found themselves in the great and terrible First World War, they lay aside many frivolous things. The term was over-hyped, and yesterday's news, which may explain why the superstition towards the number 23 is gone, but 13 remains.
Oh, how strongly that hoodoo of mysterious and powerful numbers held some folks in its grasp! In October 1911 the Oregonian reported how a man named J. A. Crawley was to be released from the state pen in Salem, but balked at the gate. It was Friday the 13th and he had 23 dollars in his pocket. He pleaded with the guards not to force him out on that ominous day with that ominous number in his pocket. (He could have just given one of the guards one of his dollars.) The story tells how prison officials found an uncle in New Orleans who would take the boy in. New Orleans being the very epicenter of hoodoo, I fear that he passed from the prison built of stones into a new prison of superstition built with bricks of ignorance.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Bicycle King

Fred T. Merrill on his nickel plated high wheeler

            “You’ve got to give the public what it wants.” That was Fred T. Merrill’s motto and for sixty two years he lived by that creed and brought a little excitement to Portland while he was doing it.  Merrill was born in Maine on December 26, 1858. His father, a Civil War veteran, imported the first English velocipedes to Boston in the 1870s. The velocipede was a dangerous two wheeled contraption, the immediate ancestor of the bicycle, with pedals on the front wheel. Merrill mastered riding one when he was a young man and by the time his family moved to San Francisco in 1873 he began to give exhibitions of trick riding. When the first high-wheelers, with a front wheel that was five feet high, came out Merrill started to do trick riding on one.
            In 1882 Merrill, who considered himself to be the greatest bicycle trick rider in the world heard that Charles C. Booth, an Australian trick rider, had arrived in Portland and was taking on all comers to challenge him for the title of the world’s greatest bicycle rider. Merrill soon arrived in town to challenge the title. Booth accepted his challenge; but skipped town before they could compete. Merrill decided he liked the Rose City, which he considered livelier than San Francisco. Merrill soon became partners in an engraving company, but bicycles were his passion and he never gave them up. Another passion of Merrill’s was publicity and he played that for all it was worth.
            Soon Merrill opened a bicycle shop in a tent on Morrison Street between Second and Third, but there were few people brave enough to try riding the expensive, dangerous velocipedes. Merrill didn’t let the unpopularity of bicycles bother him and soon he had installed a roller skating rink in his tent. When the Willamette River froze over during the cold winter of 1885 he opened an ice skating rink near where the Hawthorne Bridge now stands. He was also doing exhibitions of trick riding, including riding a wagon wheel down a fire ladder and into the fire station at SW 4th and Morrison. In 1890 when the first Rambler “safety bicycle” was introduced Fred Merrill took a hand in starting a bicycle craze in Portland.
            When a new shipment of bicycles arrived Merrill would stage a parade down Second Avenue to his shop. He made a deal with the Columbia Telephone Company and soon 1800 telephone poles around the city were painted with red “Ride a Rambler” slogans. At Multnomah Field he erected the famous “Dip of Death,” a fifty foot ramp that a rider rode a Rambler down and plunged into a tank of water. Merrill was so dedicated to publicity that he ran for city council as a publicity stunt in 1889. His campaign, allied with Republican machine boss, Joe Simon was violently opposed by Larry Sullivan and his gang. Merrill was surprised to be elected, but he took the job seriously and was reelected in 1903.

A Rambler parade in front of Merrill´s Cycle shop

            The bicycle craze hit Portland in 1890 and the first bicycle club was founded that year. That was also the year that Portland built its first paved bicycle paths. Merrill profited greatly from the craze, selling more than 52,000 bicycles in the Pacific Northwest and earning the title “The Bicycle King.” 1898 was the big year for the bicycle fad in Portland; Merrill sold more than 8,000 bicycles that year. They cost about $100 [$2660 in 2011], but everyone had to have one. That year Bicycle Parks became a fad and several were opened around town. These were large parks with paved paths and saloons and theaters in the center. When bicycling became popular with Liverpool Liz and her working girls in the North End the fad started to pass.
            As part of his publicity campaign Merrill promoted bicycle races of all kinds, including the first six-day races in which the riders covered over 1700 miles on the big track laid out in the Mechanic’s Pavilion, where Keller Auditorium now stands. In 1892 he challenged local stable owner Joseph Cook to a race between his bicycle and a group of sixteen horses. The race lasted 48 hours, six 8 hour days. The horses would run for three minutes at a time in relays, Merrill would just ride. The competition was for distance and speed and in the end Merrill was declared the winner, by 200 feet.
            By the time Merrill was elected to his second term on the city council the bicycle craze was passing, helped along by  the introduction of the automobile. Merrill opened the first Portland auto dealership and he claimed that he sold the first 90 cars in the state. In 1905 he ran for mayor on a campaign to “Keep Portland Wide Open.” Portland had long had a reputation as a wide open town where you could always get a drink, a game or a woman. Merrill, following his creed of giving the public what it wants, believed that trying to control gambling, prostitution and drinking by making them illegal was a fool’s game. He thought the activities should be segregated to specific areas of town, taxed and regulated. A lot of Portlanders agreed with him, but he was narrowly defeated in the election.
            In 1906 Merrill bought a large tract of land twelve miles out Stark Street, then known as Base Line Road. He started breeding race horses on the land and opened Oregon’s first “Road House,” which he called Twelve Mile House. The road house was an invention of the automobile age, where people could drive to a place for drinking and dancing. After a series of drunk driving accidents involving patrons of Merrill’s Twelve Mile House and Mysterious Billy Smith’s rival Seven Mile House the county started bringing pressure on Merrill to close his place. In 1916 when Prohibition went into effect in Oregon the end was in sight. Merrill kept the place open for a few years, but after a couple of arrests for illegal liquor sales he closed it down.
            He was also a pioneer in the new business of movie theaters, opening the first Nickelodeon at his old bicycle shop in 1905. Soon he had a chain of movie theaters that stretched from Eugene to Spokane, Wa. In 1906 he opened the Rose City Speedway and began to promote automobile and motorcycle races. Promoting boxing and wrestling matches as well as races of all kinds, by World War I Merrill was considered the leading sportsman in the state. When his son, Fred T. Merrill Jr., was killed at Chateau-Thierry during the Marne Offensive in 1918 Merrill fell into depression that was only aggravated by his legal troubles.
            Even in retirement Fred Merrill continued to race horses and train boxers. He hadn’t lost his flair for publicity either. In 1936 he told his story to Portland’s famous low-brow historian Stewart Holbrook and it ran in big spreads over three Sundays in the Oregonian. Merrill, irrepressible as ever, claimed that he had earned $1,500,000 and spent every penny of it in Portland. He passed away in 1944 at the age of 84.

Fred T. Merrill in retirement

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Shanghai Dock: A Portland Mystery Solved

I promised that I would have Guest Bloggers to post here at Weird Portland and here is the first. I would like to introduce you to my friend Barney Blalock. Barney is as obsessed with Portland's history as I am, if you need proof you should check out his website. He has also just published a book at History Press 
 I suggest you all go buy it right away. You won't be sorry.

Barney has a very personal style of writing about history that I enjoy a lot. In this post he writes with tongue firmly in cheek and he pokes one of Portland's most persistent, and silly, myths firmly in the eye. I think you will enjoy it.

When I was a lad, way back in the 1960s, Portland had the best surplus store on the face of the earth. It was located below the Ross Island Bridge on the west side in an enormous steel and sheet metal structure belonging to a place with the evocative name, Zidells Alaska Explorations. It was where all the salvageable material from the dismantling of liberty ships was sold to the Public—kitchen items, hatch covers, nautical charts, uniforms, fire fighting asbestos suits, brass port holes, you name it—all the cool stuff a high school sophomore could desire. My friend and I even tried to buy a life boat for $50, but they refused to put it in the river for us. God knows what we would have done had they fulfilled our request.  

In aerial photos of Portland from the late 1930s to the early 1970s you can see the operation along the riverbank, just south of the Ross Island Bridge. In some of these photos there are half a dozen vessels being dismantled at one time. It was an awesome, post World War II industrial atmosphere. I can recall the smell of bunker oil, the sound of heavy steel sheets crashing, and the shafts of light streaming down from the high clerestory windows of this sheet metal cathedral. I knew at the time that I was experiencing a fascinating chapter in the transitory history of the Portland waterfront, but what I didn't know was that this very place was the source of one of Portland's great mysteries.

This same piece of real estate plays an important role in Portland's underground history—the history of shanghaiing, and the too well-known "shanghai tunnels," a feature that has come to symbolize Portland as much as Voo Doo Donuts. To trace the history of this mysterious dock we need to step back in time to 2001 and then work our way backwards in our quest for the true story. 

In 2001 Jewel Lansing, one of Portland's foremost historians, summarized the shanghaiing legend in a brief scenario that ended:
[A]t a certain point in the evening Captain Jack would slip some knockout drops into their drinks, causing them to pass out. Then he would take them down through the basement, where there was a tunnel that led ... eventually to Shanghai Dock.

Please note, this is not Lansing's view, it is her summation of the urban legend. By 2001 the shanghaiing stories, long told in this city, had picked up a mysterious location, the nefarious Shanghai Dock. But where exactly was this dock? The answer to this question can be found laid out in black and white in a February 26, 1978 Sunday Oregonian article featuring Portland's chief archeologist of Chinatown basements, Mike Jones. (Jones, I am told, has gone on to make a career for himself giving tours of these basements to tourists.) In this article titled: Portland's Underground: Route of the Shanghai Express, Jones offers up this fascinating tidbit of information:
Jones surmises that the tunnels were built in the 1850s by Chinese laborers who had originally come to the area to help build the railroads. He says he's talked with a Portland woman whose father picked up lumber from a spot near the Ross Island Bridge called "Shanghai Dock" and delivered it by mule team to S.W. 1st Avenue and Yamhill Street, taking it underground. The woman says her father recalled that Chinese laborers were at the construction site.

I will constrain my comments and move further back in time to an Oregonian article of November 22, 1976 where we find Mr. Jones again digging in the basements of Chinatown.  In this article he is seen clutching a rumpled map that he had obtained from a recently deceased "old timer" by the name of George Montana. It is an actual map of the infamous "shanghai tunnels." (Since this post is dedicated to "Shanghai Dock" I will try to again constrain my comments. I have written a rather long article on the subject of the "tunnels" and once I get it published I will wash my hands of this nonsense for good.)  This 1976 article, titled: Old Portland Tunnels Explored to Pen History of Shanghaiing, is worth reading in its entirety, if only to marvel at the unsubstantiated horsefeathers newspapers will print. What is pertinent to this post is this section of preposterous  statements put forth by Mr. Jones which I quote here, retaining the original context:
He found out from an elderly woman missionary that the tunnels were used to keep extremely sick, or disfigured people from public view.
Jones said shanghaiing was not confined to the Burnside area but occurred all along the waterfront, even as far south as the Ross Island Bridge, a place known then as "Shanghai Dock"
"But no one really knows for sure now," he said, "although there are still a few guys who remember being hauled half-drunk through the passage-ways."

Once again the mysterious Shanghai Dock down by the Ross Island Bridge is mentioned.  Using this 1976 article as a starting point and gazing back through time, only a couple of tiny wisps mentioning shanghai tunnels can be found—but nothing earlier than 1964, an article concerning a tunnel in the basement of a Port Townsend hardware store. Knowing this, I am utterly convinced that the "shanghai tunnel" legend is of late 20th century origin.
But, Shanghai Dock is Real! 

The existence of Shanghai Dock is real and can be proven to the satisfaction of the most incredulous skeptic. 

It all began on November 29, 1923 when the multi-national, American-owned, Shanghai Building Company opened an office at 283 Stark Street under the direction of Mr. C. J. Pape. This company's business in Portland was to ship lumber and other building supplies to China. The company leased the former Columbia Shipbuilding shipyard in southwest Portland that had stood vacant since the end of WWI.  This dock was renamed "Shanghai Building Company Dock," a name which was shortened to "Shanghai Dock" by longshoremen, and others who did business there.  

It was an ill-fated business from the start. After the Portland branch had been going for less than a year Mr. Pape was first fired, and then arrested for embezzling large amounts of company funds.  The company would have easily survived this event, but then in the fall of 1924 civil unrest in China brought an end to orders for lumber. The Portland branch of the Shanghai Building Company was closed, but the name of the dock just south of the Ross Island Bridge stuck fast as "Shanghai Dock." This is no surprise to me. I worked for years at a place just north of the Steel Bridge that is still called "Globe Dock,” even though it hasn't been owned by Globe Milling since the 1930s.

The later businesses operating out of Shanghai Dock, such as the Pacific Bridge Company, retained the name until Zidell-Steinburg took over the area as a "bone yard" (a maritime name for a junk yard where ship breaking took place) sometime in the mid 1930s. After that the name, "Shanghai Dock" disappeared from reality only to reappear in the booze-addled minds of denizens who recall stories told by "old timers." The fact that there was indeed a dock named Shanghai Dock added fuel to the fire of many insistent and belligerent tale spinners who would die rather than admit to being… uh, what is the word I am searching for? Na├»ve? Mistaken? Ill-informed? Certainly not "stupid."

Hearing of the existence of a rumpled map of the "Shanghai Tunnels" inspired me, and even though my mind is no longer booze-addled, I was able to produce such a map myself. Here it is made available to the public with my permission to use as the viewer sees fit.