Oregon Experience: Beervana

Erickson's Saloon

One of Erickson's many entrances.
Photo: Courtesy of the Oregon Historical Society

For sheer color, no saloon in the West could compare to an establishment in Portland’s North End --- Erickson's Workingman’s Club.

Founded by August "Gus" Erickson, a Russian Finn and one time logger in the early 1880s, the saloon was monstrously large occupying almost an entire city block at Third and Second on Burnside.

Erickson's advertising boasted that the saloon had been equipped at a cost of $130,000. It had five elegant entrances, a $5000 Grand Pipe Organ, 50 bartenders and a 684 foot bar billed as the world’s longest.

Erickson's was the home of the "free lunch" – a smorgasbord of sliced sausages, Scandinavian cheeses, pickled herring and hardtack bread could be had for the price of a nickel beer.

Erickson's during the flood of 1894 at 2nd and Burnside.
Photo: Courtesy of the Oregon Historical Society

So beloved was the place that when the river rose in 1894 and flooded Portland’s downtown, serious patrons rowed boats to a makeshift barge Erickson had constructed so that no one would miss a moment of the Workingman’s Club experience.

In truth, among the working stiffs of the world, Erickson’s was legend. Author and historian Stewart Holbrook immortalized the place in an article called "Elbow Bending for Giants." In it he painted a picture of a classic encounter between the formidable Erickson’s bouncer, Jumbo Reilly and the rowdy Swedish logger, Halfpint Halverson.

"…on one occasion when Halfpint disregarded Jumbo’s warning, the bouncer plucked Halverson by the collar and pants and threw him bodily out the Second Avenue entrance. Halverson presently wandered in through one of the three Burnside Street doors. Out he went again in a heap. This continued until he had been ejected through four different doors. Working his way around to the Third Avenue side, Halverson made his entry through the fifth and last door. Just inside stood the mountainous Jumbo. Halverson stopped short. 'Yesus!' said he, 'vas yo bouncer en every goddam saloon en Portland?'"

-From Wildman, Wobblies and Whistle Punks, by Stewart Holbrook, edited by Brian Booth

Erickson's cardroom.
Photo: Courtesy of the Oregon Historical Society

But while an atmosphere of frivolity sometimes reigned on the first floor, a more serious, ancient and illegal trade was being practiced in small five by six compartments on the second floor.

Says historian Tim Hills, "Erickson's had a theater where dancing girls would provide the entertainment and then would try and drum up business among the customers for upstairs romps. There were literally cribs, these small rooms, where the ladies would take the customers upstairs. It was a big business and the police and the city government were getting kickbacks to overlook it."

The Staff of Erickson's saloon.
Photo: Courtesy of the Oregon Historical Society

Erickson's was not unique where prostitution and corruption were concerned. But these aspects of saloon culture were fueling a major movement that would help to bring about their demise. The corruption, prostitution and alcoholism that came with the saloon territory spurred on groups like the Anti-Saloon League and the Women's Christian Temperance Movement.

About the Program
Find out how Oregon became the beer capital of the world.
Gallery of Microbrew Revolutionaries
Meet some of the visionaries who started it all.
Erickson's Saloon
Visit Portland's most famous drinking establishment.
Benson Bubblers
Learn about the teetotaler roots of the famous Portland landmarks.
Further reading about about the microbrew movement in Oregon.
Program Credits

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