A Pacific paradise for bootleggers and moonshiners
Late in 1912, for the sixth and final time, the topic of voting rights for women was on Oregonians’ ballot. And when the votes were counted, it was a win: A fifty-two percent majority had voted for women’s suffrage.
Among those who’d voted against it, there were many motivations — some far sillier than others, but all of them pretty goofy in the light of history.
But there was a certain cadre of anti-suffrage men who, if you got them to speak frankly and off the record, would tell you, straight out, the real reason they didn’t want to give women the right to vote: Prohibition.
For decades, the temperance and women’s suffrage movements had been to one degree or another associated with each other. Every woman knew a friend who was helplessly saddled with a hard-drinking husband who couldn’t keep a job, trying desperately to keep the family together despite having no control.
By 1912 it was almost a cliché that when women’s suffrage initiatives were defeated, suffrage activists would blame the setback on “the liquor men.” They were right. Most bar owners, brewers and distillers pulled every string they could reach to stop women from getting the vote. They knew that the instant women had electoral clout, they would use it to eliminate what many of them saw as the great social evil of their day: The bottle.
And the liquor men, in turn, were also right — in Oregon, at least. Because as soon as women got the vote, in 1912, preparations were under way for a prohibition initiative, slated to hit the books in 1914. And it passed with flying colors.
Oregon was now a “dry state.” You could still bring liquor in from out of state and consume it in the privacy of your own home, but you couldn’t buy it and you couldn’t sell it and you sure couldn’t blow your entire paycheck on it while playing faro in the corner bar before staggering home with empty pockets to your long-suffering wife.
In the next election cycle — just two years later, in 1916 — even that loophole was closed. Oregon was now “bone dry,” and the era of bootleggers and moonshiners, of blind pigs and speakeasies, had begun.
The primary effect of early Prohibition in Oregon seems to have been to enable Oregon bootleggers to get some practice in before the federal government got involved and consequences became serious.
So when the Volstead Act passed in 1919, inaugurating nationwide Prohibition, Oregon’s midnight entrepreneurs were ready to go.
Portland had always had a special mercantile relationship with Vancouver and Victoria, up in British Columbia. These two cities had, for most of the 1890s, partnered with Portland to bring most of the opium into the country to supply Chinese communities in various West Coast cities. The smuggling routes were time-tested and the smugglers were well-trained; it was just a case of bringing in a different cargo.
The usual routine was that a small Canadian ship crammed with distilled spirits would sail south along the coastline and heave to 12 miles off the mouth of the Columbia River. From there, safely in international waters, she would rendezvous with several small, powerful launches, which would transfer as much booze as they could safely carry, cross the bar and race upriver. Once they reached a prearranged remote spot, often on Sauvie Island, they’d pull in, unload, and head back out to do it again — until the rumrunner was empty. Then the ship would head back to B.C. to do it all over again.
This made for some frustrating times for Prohibition agents, because they couldn’t touch the big ship in international waters and the individual launches were small potatoes — and usually too fast to catch.
By the way, it’s almost certain that the Pescawah, the Canadian rumrunner caught in 1926 after it left the safety of international waters to rescue a lifeboat full of shipwrecked sailors off the mouth of the Columbia, was participating in this smuggling operation.
Another very popular way to get booze in the Beaver State was by distilling it. Portland itself had some vast expanses of forested areas right inside city limits — notably Forest Park — and once one got over the Cascade Mountains into Eastern Oregon, there were all kinds of opportunities to be alone with a giant vat of pulped-up pears and some yeast. While the Appalachians have an enduring reputation as a bootlegger’s paradise, the region had absolutely nothing on the state of Oregon.
But all that booze, whether made or imported, had to be poured into a glass someplace ... and that’s where Portland came in.
The ink was no sooner dry on the 1916 legislation than the Portland Police Department started mounting liquor raids. Nearly every day there would be a headline in the Morning Oregonian announcing some fresh arrest: a store caught with a whiskey barrel labeled “Heinz Pickles,” a restaurant caught serving cups of “very special” coffee, a still spotted in someone’s back yard.
The cops would eagerly sally forth, collect the goods and arrest the perps. Then there might be a photo-op involving a representative of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union as a case or two of bottles was smashed or poured into the gutter. And then the rest of the booze would go into a special storeroom in the basement of the police station, there to await later disposal ... or so they claimed.
Graft, corruption and Cutty Sark
An old Portland vice squad member, Floyd Marsh, blew the whistle on the whole thing many years later, in 1976.
What really happened was, the booze was disposed of through City Hall. Marsh himself was tasked with hauling case after case of fine Canadian hooch down the street for Mayor George Baker and his cronies to lap up — or, for those with commercial establishments, to serve up.
By a few years into Prohibition, the police department had enough seized booze stashed in the basement to control prices on the streets of Portland. And it moved some of its inventory out through particularly favored speakeasies — the ones that ponied up for the monthly payoff.
“At least $100,000 a month was paid out in protection money to authorities of Multnomah County and the City of Portland,” Marsh wrote.
Marsh particularly remembered being ordered to haul several cases of Scotch up to Mount Hood, where a City Councilor had a summer home. He was rather nervous about this assignment, because he was pretty sure if a county sheriff’s deputy or federal agent caught him with a carful of booze, claiming he was transporting it on city business might not fly, and he could end up in prison.
Marsh didn’t seem to have much of a problem with flouting the laws of prohibition in general. What drove him to finally quit the department was the unfairness he saw. While the well-connected, wealthy outfits downtown could pony up protection money and operate with impunity, private citizens were getting sent up the river. The one that finally did it for him was an Italian widow caught with a small keg of homemade wine that she’d made from her own grapes, Old Country-style. When she was vigorously prosecuted for it, he decided he was done.
(Sources: Lansing, Jewel. Portland: People, politics and power. Corvallis: OSU Press, 2002; MacColl, E. Kimbark. The Growth of a City. Portland: Georgian Press, 1979; Donnelly, Robert C. Dark Rose: Organized Crime and Corruption in Portland. Seattle: UW Press, 2011.)
Finn J.D. John is an instructor at Oregon State University and the author of “Wicked Portland,” a book about the dark side of Oregon’s metropolis in the 1890s. He produces a daily podcast, reading archives from this column, at ofor.us/p . To contact him or suggest a topic: firstname.lastname@example.org, @OffbeatOregon (on Twitter), or 541-357-2222.
Library of Congress. A fashionable young woman at a soda fountain looks playfully at the camera as she pours moonshine from her cane-flask into her drink, in defiance of Prohibition.
Wasco County Historical Society. After Prohibition went into effect, some drugstores managed to get around it for a little while by selling “medical” booze. This loophole was quickly closed, but not before it generated some amusing advertising campaigns, like this one from a drugstore in The Dalles.
McKenzie River Reflections