John Terry: Vice Shaped Part Of Early Portland (OR) History

Roundup: Talking About History

Portland traditionally fancies itself a city unencumbered by corruption, a municipal mirror of Boston, its famously blue-nosed near-namesake.

(Remember the founding fathers' decisive 1845 coin toss in which Portland triumphed over Beantown.)

But early history shows such was never the case, and profits from dirty dealings worked their way into the pockets of the city's most socially righteous.

"Where do the leading businessmen, entrepreneurs, and real estate developers --many whose names today appear on street signs and monuments --fit into the generation of dirty politics?" pondered historian Dean Collins in the 1940s.

"Just about everywhere. Portland was no different from other American cities when it came to shady businessmen and respected financiers running, and often nearly ruining, a city through their hand-picked political servants. Portland only pretended it was different."

Joseph Gaston's 1911 city history says that in 1868-70 Portland "had for two years a city council of nine members, six of whom were saloonkeepers; and the mayor himself, Hamilton Boyd, was a patron of saloons; and the marshal (later chief of police), James H. Lappeus, was also the proprietor of a saloon."

Still, Gaston says, "The saloon was not then used as an aid to gambling, robbery or the debauchery of women."

That assertion raised the eyebrows of former city and Multnomah County auditor Jewell Lansing in her "Portland People, Politics, and Power 1951-2001."

"The autobiography of Edward Chambreau gives a different picture," Lansing says. "Chambreau says one of the first things he did when he opened his Portland saloon was to 'fix the Policeman' on his beat. . . . the officer would take the money back to split with the marshal."

Populist, squeaky-clean Gov. Oswald West (1911-1915) once wryly observed: "The prevailing prices (for bribing politicians) were four thousand (dollars) for Republicans and three thousand for Democrats. . . . As a Democrat I always resented this unjust discrimination and when once I asked a political kale purveyor how they justified the discrimination he said, 'As a rule the Republicans occupied a higher social scale.' "

In August 1912, in the wake of a vice investigation, West declared, "I will clean up the city (Portland) or quit my job."

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