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Portland, Oregon — History

Portland History

The Lewis and Clark Expedition. The arrival of the Hudson Bay Trading Company. The Oregon Trail migration. The Lovejoy-Pettygrove coin toss?

While the first three events are easily associated with Oregon’s early history, Asa Lovejoy and Francis Pettygrove’s momentous coin toss is a little less familiar. But without Lovejoy’s quarter and Pettygrove’s penny, Portland, Oregon’s largest city, might never have been born. It all began in 1843 when Tennessee drifter William Overton and Massachusetts lawyer Asa Lovejoy beached their canoe on the banks of the Willamette River. Overcome by the beauty of the area, Overton saw great potential for this mountain-ringed, timber-rich land. His only problem was that he lacked the 25 cents needed to file a land claim. So, he struck a bargain with Lovejoy: In return for a quarter, Overton would share his claim to the 640-acre site known as “The Clearing.”

Soon bored with clearing trees and building roads, Overton drifted on, selling his half of the claim to Francis W. Pettygrove. The new partners, Lovejoy and Pettygrove, however, couldn’t decide on a name for their budding township.
Lovejoy was determined to name the site after his hometown of Boston, while Pettygrove was equally adamant about his native Portland, Maine. They decided to flip a coin, now known as the “Portland Penny,” to settle the argument. Pettygrove won on two tosses out of three.
Lovejoy and Pettygrove were confident that Portland, with its deep water and abundant natural resources, would one day become a popular and prosperous port. They might have been shocked, however, to learn how popular it soon became and for what sorts of activities. Portland has a dark history that began in the late 1800s with Joseph “Bunco” Kelly, a hotelier notorious for kidnapping young men and selling them to ship captains.
Many bar owners and hotel operators relied on this shanghai trade to supplement their businesses, and Kelly was one of the best. Paid by unscrupulous captains to intoxicate potential crew members, Kelly would deliver his drunken quarry to waiting ships. The unfortunate men would wake up the next day – stranded at sea and forced to work for indefinite periods of time.

Kelly often bragged that he could gather a full crew in less than 12 hours. Inevitably a ship’s captain would challenge him. One evening, in his quest to fulfill a boast, Kelly ran across a group who had stumbled upon the open cellar of a mortuary. Thinking the cellar was a part of the Snug Harbor Pub, the men had each consumed cups of embalming fluid, which they had mistaken for liquor. When Kelly found them, several had died and others were dying. Claiming the dead were merely unconscious from too much drink, Kelly sold all 22 to a captain whose ship sailed before the truth was discovered.
In another attempt to make a quick buck, Kelly delivered a dime-store Indian heavily wrapped in blankets to a ship. When the captain learned the next morning that his new crew member was a wooden statue, he became so angry that he threw it overboard. It was recovered by two men operating a dredge nearly 60 years later. “Sweet Mary,” the proprietor of a brothel, is another interesting figure in Portland’s history of the late 1800s. In order to elude taxes and city laws, she operated her bordello on a barge that ran up and down the Willamette River. Technically, she was outside everyone’s jurisdiction.
The turn-of-the-century, however, seems to have brought a close to Portland’s colorful early years. Secure jobs in lumber mills and wealth from providing goods to the California Gold Rush helped stabilize the economy, giving the city’s population more time to regulate the seedy activities of its busy waterfront.
Personifying this shift in attitude was Simon Benson, a teetotalling lumber baron and philanthropist. While walking through his mill one day, Benson noticed the smell of alcohol on his workers’ breath. When Benson asked these men why they drank in the middle of the day, they replied there was no fresh drinking water to be found downtown. Upon hearing this, Benson proceeded to commission 20 elegant freshwater drinking fountains, now known as the Benson Bubblers. Beer consumption in the city reportedly decreased 25 percent after the fountains were installed.
Simon Benson’s water fountains still bubble invitingly on Portland’s downtown streets. And around the fountains has grown a city of parks, outdoor artwork, coffee carts, microbreweries, bridges and bookstores. Portland is a people town, whose pedestrian-friendly city blocks are half the size of those in other towns, where outdoor benches are crowded with readers enjoying good books and spring sunshine, and where limits on growth have kept the surrounding countryside within a 20-minute drive of the city’s core. To many, Portland is still the paradise that captured William Overton’s enthusiasm so many years ago. Not a bad investment for a quarter.

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