History Field Trip: Oregon Historical Society Museum Old Town Portland
By Ed Fryrear
On March 4th 2013 Professors Ron Palmer and Steve Goetz with Tim Bergquist took 15 students on a field trip to Portland to visit the Oregon Historical Society Museum and Old Town. The goal was to get a wide look into Oregon’s history; which included Civil Engineering Feats, African-American History, Settling the West through a Woman’s perspective and learning about Old Town Portland’s seedy and tragic past. We met outside the Mec around noon and tallied who all would be going. Some were just going to the Museum and the walking tour of Portland. The majority of people were going to both as well as the Portland Underground tour. The drive up was quite fun, both groups were split up into two vehicles.
We arrived close to 2 and we were greeted and then let loose in no particular direction. Upon entering the museum the exhibits were spaced out with no real continuity. There was a great deal of history from 50 to 100 years back. The first actual exhibit I noticed was on a logging company that had been influential in Portland over the last 80 years. There was a timeline showing all the advancements that the company had made along with their contributions. These exhibits were more geared toward the industrial side of Portland’s past, it wasn’t all blurbs however, and some interesting things were in display cases. One row was comprised of a vast array of tractor attachments, all with different functions and all from different periods of time.
Outside of the logging exhibit were some glimpses into old time entertainment and historic paper work. Two displays featured baseball related history. There was an old uniform propped up behind one case and a chunk of chain-linked fence that people would sit behind in another. Next to these was a case featuring a bunch of signed papers throughout various moments of significant Portland history. Other displays included some old timey outfits and uniforms and some safety goggles with a story about a man whose eye was saved while wearing them.
Downstairs from that were two separate rooms, one with naval history and the other displays of Black history from the late 1800s to the 1970s. On display in the naval room was an interesting piece on the U.S.S. Oregon, a Indiana-class battleship that was constructed during 1890, launched in 1893 but didn’t see any action until the summer of 1898 during the Battle of Santiago de Cuba. Unfortunately the U.S.S. Oregon never made it to battle in the Pacific Theater during WWII, it sold in 1941. However it wouldn’t completely be scrapped until 1956. Across from the naval display was room featuring Black History, which looked very large in comparison.
The first few exhibits on display when you walked into the room were the construction and setting of the railroad. There were a lot of really cool posters with Railroad lingo, a chance to take your picture in front of an old-time locomotive cut-out and even an interactive station where you could try to drive a miniature spike into a railroad tie. Although we swear it was rigged that lying of the tracks was only part of the full room’s exhibit. To the left of those displays were a couple uniforms of what the staff on a passenger train would be wearing. There was one chef outfit, one conductor outfit and even the clothing for the guy who works in the engine room. An interesting menu was set near the case full of clothes as well as a full diagram of what each cart would contain. As most people would suspect first class was the closest to the front, then it was a couple of coach cars, some stuff that would be shipped during the trip and in the back there was the rail car for African-American’s to ride in. It was expected that any person of color who made it past that car was probably working for the railroad. Even the workers had separate rooms.
Some of the other displays in the rooms showed off the exclusion clauses that people used to make sure African-American’s couldn’t vote in the elections. There were documents displaying in writing that if your grandfather didn’t own land, then you couldn’t vote. Some places established a poll tax, others a literacy test. While some may think these problems were exclusively to the southern states that is not the case, Oregon had some of the most rampant racial problems of any northern state. In fact at one time during our nation’s history Oregon had the largest Ku Klux Klan presence, with Mayors and Police Chief attending without even wearing any mask to conceal their identities. It was quite a startling and eye opening display.
Not all the displays were of the past, several showed key examples on how Oregon is looking to revitalize recycling, forestry and adding jobs back into the economy through new technologies. Many of the displays were based around a theme. One was a city bus, another looked like a roadside fruit stand, one looked like a slot machine and another was a nuclear reactor panel. The city bus display showed how much bus travel has changed within the last few years. The roadside fruit stand had information on some of the crops that bring in the most revenue for Oregon. The slot machine worked like a game, where you answered true and false questions about how Lottery funds are used to help the state and native tribes of Oregon. The reactor panel had information on the Trojan Nuclear Power Plant that was constructed in 1970; it only stayed up for about 6 years.
All of these displays concluded with a gallery of paintings with some information on women settlers of the West. Women, who either inherited ranches through their spouses passing, were raised as only children to ranchers or were raised by tough women who had survived on their own by knowing how to tend to the land. These paintings ranged from the first people to leave for the other side of the country, to competitors who would ride bulls in rodeos in the last couple decades. There was a lot of history on display, even another exhibit on the top floor that I didn’t even know about. Once we all ended up close to the entrance again, we stopped to take a group photo. Our trip was only a third of the way over.
The second stop was a walking tour or Portland, showing the darker aspects of life in the city only a century ago. Our tour guide met us outside of Old Town Pizza and gave us run-down of where all we would be headed, then we would head back to the same pizza place and take the Underground tour. We started walking down the street, our tour guide told us about the many saloons that were present in the district of Old Town. Apparently it was quite common for bars about a century ago to be the size of modern hotels and much more went on than just casual drinking. But there were only about 3 in the city though and we were seeing the most notorious, Erickson’s.
We crossed a couple blocks and headed East towards the riverside, our tour guide was explaining the rampant problem Portland had with crimping. Crimping was the illegal but not strongly enforced process where people were kidnapped and forced into servitude on ships. Most of the people crimped were sailors that were looking to relax on shore leave. Crimps would see these men having a good time and offer them some free entertainment, when they would pass out they would be relocated without their knowledge. Most would wake up already at sea; with a contract saying they were willing to work for 3-months to 6 paying off whatever fun they had the night before. It was a huge problem for a good half a century.
We made our way to Chinatown and were told the tragic history of the Japanese American internment camps. Pre-World War II it was known as Japantown and it was a safe haven for Japanese citizens to express their culture and feel at home while still adjusting to life in North America. But once the war started and the U.S. government began detaining Japanese citizens, Japantown was just a large collective spot where everyone was able to be round up. There was a giant internment camp near the riverside where Japanese citizens were kept for most of the war. While the previous Japantown was left abandon, shops and houses left relatively untouched, Chinese American’s found a new home. When the war ended and the Japanese American’s returned to their homes, they noticed new occupants living where they had been only a little while ago. There were a great many monuments left by the people who were afflicted by this tragedy, including a bunch of stone tablets with poetry along a good portion of the riverside.
While making our way back, we stopped briefly at Dan and Louis Oyster Bar where they had a notorious Shanghai tunnel. The legend was that people were kidnaped and hoisted into the tunnels and out of the city without people knowing. It was an interesting prelude to the larger tunnel we would get to tour at Old Town pizza. When we made our back to Old Town Pizza we were brought into the cellar of the restaurant and given flash lights and a general description of what to expect. The place was rather cramped, mostly because of the ceiling height. Most of the place was unleveled, many pipes were hanging low, and it was a very cool place to be. We were brought back into an area with limited seating.
This is where our tour guide dispelled much of the great mystery behind the Shanghai tunnels and the Portland Underground. Although many people believed kidnappings had happened in them, our guide pointed out during their usage, shanghaiing and crimping already happened on the ground level and quite frequently, it didn’t need a secret tunnel system. The main usages for these tunnels were for drainage and cargo loading. A lot of the stores in the Old Town area would have floods in the storage rooms. Although that may not be the exciting story people want to hear, the overall history of Portland well makes up for it.
After the tour concluded we all sat down to enjoy some pizza. Our groups were divided into three in half tables and we had two kinds of pizza for dinner. We all talked about how nice it was to not be walking again, how crazy Portland had always seemed to be and how cool all the stuff we had seen during the day was. Overall I think the museum visit and walking tour was a great success. I would highly recommend it for anyone who is a history buff, interested in Oregon or Portland culture or just looking for something new to do this summer. I hope that Eta Theta Xi does another trip next year; I hope anyone who wanted to go but wasn’t sure will definitely consider giving it a shot.