Opium part of Oregon’s underworld
Most people think of opium today with a certain kind of mild romantic nostalgia. We know it was bad, and people got hurt, but opium and the demi-monde that developed around it had a certain dark allure with its fragrant, smoky fumes and its elegant, exotic smoking rituals.
A hundred years ago, though, attitudes were different. In 1914, opium had only just been outlawed in the United States. Dark, secret, candlelit dens in the basements of Chinatowns all over the West – if you could find them, and if they would let you in – would still sell you the drug and give you a pipe and a bunk in which to smoke it. And the newspapers were still full of stories of opium joints raided and opium smugglers busted. In Portland, at the drug’s peak in the 1890s, there was at least one such story every week.
Opium was the bête noir of turn-of-the-century Oregon, particularly in Portland. It seemed to be everywhere.
And, actually, it was. Portland – or, rather, the wild and woodsy riverside area just downstream from the city – was one of the key access points for opium being smuggled into the West Coast, almost from the start.
Opium on the frontier
In 1851, when Portland was founded, almost nobody knew or cared about opium. But they’d soon learn. Gold had just been discovered in California, and torrents of people from all over the world were coming in to hunt for it. Some of those people were coming in from China, and some of those people smoked opium.
As the Chinese community grew in Portland, awareness of the drug began to grow and its reputation started to darken. Still, most mainstream Oregonians didn’t care. It was a free country, and people could smoke what they wanted. There were no restrictions or special taxes on the stuff, and merchants cheerfully advertised it in the newspapers.
“JUST OPENED! Chinese tea and provision store!” one such ad shouts happily from the pages of the Morning Oregonian on Aug. 22, 1864. “YE LOUNG takes this method of informing his friends and the public that he has just opened the above store with an entire stock of Chinese merchandise, consisting of a large assortment of the best qualities of teas, sugar, rice, coffee, syrup, preserves, silks and other articles usually found in a Chinese provision store, together with a good assortment of Chinese medicines and opium. All of which will be sold very cheap for cash at wholesale or retail.”
Other ads, though, showed the growing association of opium with crime.
Throughout the 1860s, the U.S. Marshal’s office kept up a steady patter of auction sales of cases of opium seized from criminals.
Slowly, the non-Chinese community started to notice.
Smoking opium was, as Mark Twain wrote, “a comfortless operation, and requires constant attention.” A customer would enter the opium den and be given a long bamboo pipe with a small metal bowl in one end along with a little lamp and a thin skewer. He would collect a small wad of opium – a substance like thick molasses – on the end of the skewer, pay for it (usually 25 cents) and go lay down on one of the hard wooden smoking bunks. There, with the lamp arranged at just the right distance, he would meticulously work the little wad of opium into the shape of a small cylinder. This he then would vaporize in the heat of the lamp and use the pipe to capture the stream of vapor as it rose – “chasing the dragon,” as it was called.
As you can imagine, this elaborate ritual and romantic sense of secrecy had its appeal for the “fast” young men and women of the day.
Opium dens started attracting a more diverse crowd as the sons and daughters of the “respectable” people of Portland came for the thrill of the dark, fragrant, secret underworld of Chinatown. Their parents, of course, were horrified.
By the 1870s, the Victorian-era middle- and upper-class residents of Portland had developed a healthy dread of the drug, and states had started taking action. California banned opium outright in 1881, and all seaports started taxing imports of the stuff heavily. And that’s when the smuggling began.
By the late 1880s the import duties were as high as 100 percent, and the vast majority of opium being smoked in Oregon dens was smuggled in. Opium-joint operators would steam the tax stamps off legally-bought tins of the drug after they were empty, and stick them on smuggled ones.
Most opium came from the Chinese communities in Vancouver and Victoria, up in British Columbia, where they had several processing facilities that took raw dope and refined it and packed it in one-, three- and five-tael cans (one tael was about 1.3 ounces) and sent it off through channels legal and illegal to the United States. A pound of opium was worth about $12 at the time, and the import duty was $10 (raised in 1890 to $12) – so there was a powerful incentive to smuggle it.
The operators of opium dens quickly learned not to keep too much smuggled stock in inventory. They never knew when the city cops might stage a raid, and because they were usually Chinese, the American civil protections that should have applied were ignored.
Opium’s golden age
In Portland particularly, opium culture reached its zenith between 1890 and 1893. Opium poured into the city at such an astonishing rate that even the newspaper reporters started wondering what was going on.
“The strangest thing is what becomes of all (the opium) that is brought into this country,” remarked the Morning Oregonian in 1893.
“The number of Chinese here is growing smaller, and only a small proportion of them use the drug, and a little of it goes a long ways … the question is, what becomes of it.”
It turned out that, at that time, Portland was basically supplying the entire West Coast with smoking-opium, with the help of a smuggling ring that probably included James Lotan, the top U.S. customs official at the Port of Portland – who happened to also be a member of the
Arlington Club, a personal friend of the Oregonian’s publisher, and the head of the Oregon Republican Party.
That all unraveled in late 1893 in a spectacular trial in which 15 people – including some highly respected members of the Portland establishment – were indicted on smuggling charges. The case dragged on for several years through a series of appeals before being dropped as it became increasingly clear that the government’s star witness, smuggling-ring kingpin Nat Blum, was an easy and imaginative liar and was completely untrustworthy.
Smuggling continued in the Portland area, but by the end of the century, opium smoking was fading out anyway. Locals of all nationalities by then had had 25 years in which to observe what happened to “opium fiends,” and what they saw was not pretty or romantic or charming in any way. As would happen 100 years later with the methamphetamine craze, the drug’s dark allure couldn’t compete with the ugly, squalid reality people saw in its victims, and by the time the federal government got around to outlawing the drug in 1909, the shadow opium cast in Portland was a fraction of what it had once been.
(Sources: Portland Morning Oregonian, 1864-1894; Ahmad, Diana L. The Opium Debate and Chinese Exclusion Laws. Reno: Univ. of NV Press, 2007)
Finn J.D. John teaches New Media at Oregon State University and is the author of “Wicked Portland,” a book about the dark side of Oregon’s metropolis in the 1890s. He produces a daily podcast at ofor.us/p . To contact him or suggest a topic: firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-357-2222.
Image above: Stanford Libraries. The illustration on the cover of the pulp magazine “Secret Service,” published in May 1899, shows the interior of an opium den. Real opium dens did not have fluffy pillows, though, and real opium smokers always lay on their sides to smoke it.
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