Opium part of Oregon’s underworld

Opium denBy Finn J.D. John

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

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.

Smuggling opium

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.

The unwinding

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: finn@offbeatoregon.com 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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