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Lauren Elkanich

Arts & Culture

New Oregon Experience Documentary "Portland Noir" Reveals True Story of City's Early Illicit History

OPB | Oct. 1, 2013 11 p.m. | Updated: Dec. 10, 2013 4:54 p.m.

 This month, OPB will premiere an all-new Oregon Experience special “Portland Noir” which examines the city’s early illicit past and underworld activities in the mid-to-late 1800s. Tales of shanghaied sailors, opium dens, and open vice are legendary, but are they real? “Portland Noir” unveils the true story of the city’s sordid history.

The half-hour special premieres Monday, October 21 at 9:00 p.m. on OPB TV.

In the late 1800s, Portland was a bustling port town and the second largest American harbor on the West Coast. Populated by mostly young male migratory workers, it gained an international reputation for violence and lawlessness.

Corruption was rampant. Money could buy city politicians, votes and police. Prostitutes plied their trade openly and vagrancy was illegal, forcing many men on the lowest rungs of society into a life of indentured servitude as sailors.

When the city was incorporated in 1851 there were 800 residents, more than 600 of them men. That year the city constructed its first municipal building—a jail.

By 1870, the population had jumped to 8,000. Families were settling in the area, but more than sixty percent of the population was male. Most of those were transient laborers working on ships, mines and nearby forests. For many, their main source of entertainment was cheap alcohol, gambling and prostitution. While in Chinatown, crime syndicates ran opium dens and other underworld activities.

Vice was so rampant throughout the waterfront district that the area earned the names “Court of Death” and “White Chapel,” after the infamous area in London stalked by Jack the Ripper. 

Over the years stories about the era have become legendary and treated as historical fact, even with little documentation. “Portland Noir” unveils the true story of the city’s illicit history through expert interviews with Author Barney Blalock, Criminal Historian JD Chandler, Portland Police Museum Director Jim Huff and many more. The program features firsthand personal accounts and hundreds of rarely seen images of the city.

Oregon Experience’s “Portland Noir” will air on Monday, October 21 at 9 p.m. on OPB TV. For more information, please visit http://www.opb.org/programs/oregonexperience.

OPB is hosting a special screening event for “Portland Noir” on Friday, October 11 at McMenamins Mission Theater. The event is free and open to the public. Doors will open at 6 p.m. and the screening will begin at 7 p.m. There will also be a Q&A with the program’s producer, Kami Horton, immediately following.

Press Note: Photos related to the “Portland Noir” special are available for download at the OPB Pressroom (user name: opbpressroom; password: photoop)

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About Oregon Experience

Oregon Experience is an exciting history series on OPB TV that brings to life stories that help us understand this place where we live and that reinforce our shared identity as Oregonians. Co-produced with the Oregon Historical Society, the series draws upon the Society’s skilled researchers and extensive photography and moving-image archives. The program also incorporates OPB’s own film and video resources and the expertise of some of Oregon’s finest historians. Each episode features captivating characters – both familiar and forgotten – who have played key roles in building our state into the unique place we call home. This program is supported in part by the Robert D. and Marcia H. Randall Charitable Trust, the James F. and Marion L. Miller Foundation, the Oregon Cultural Trust, and The Clark Foundation.


About OPB 
OPB is the largest cultural and education institution in the region, delivering excellence in public broadcasting to 1.5 million people each week through television, radio and the Internet. Widely recognized as a national leader in the public broadcasting arena, OPB is a major contributor to the program schedule that serves the entire country. OPB is one of the most-used and most-supported public broadcasting services in the country and is generously supported by members across Oregon and southern Washington. For more information, visit www.opb.org.

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