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Oregon Experience

Portland Noir

Portland’s illicit past is filled with tales of shanghaied sailors, opium dens, and open vice. The city’s underground activities began early in it’s history. 

In the 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: politicians, votes and police were all for sale; 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 famous 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.

Through expert interviews, first-hand accounts, and hundreds of rarely seen images, Portland Noir uncovers the true story of the early city’s illicit history.



Murder & Mayhem in Portland, Oregon, J.D. Chandler

Portland’s Lost Waterfront: Tall Ships, Steam Mills and Sailors’ Boardinghouses, Barney Blalock

Sweet Cakes, Long Journey: The Chinatowns of Portland, Oregon, Marie Rose Wong

Wildmen, Wobblies & Whistle Punks: Stewart Holbrook’s Lowbrow Northwest, Brian Booth

The War on the Webfoot Saloon and Other Tales of Feminine Adventure, Malcolm Clark

Shanghaiing Days: The Thrilling Account of 19th Century Hell-Ships, Bucko Mates and Masters, and Dangerous Ports-Of-Call from San Francisco, Richard Dillon

Shanghaied in San Francisco, Bill Pickelhaupt

Portland: People, Politics, and Power, 1851 – 2001, Jewel Lansing

Merchants, Money, and Power: The Portland Establishment, 1843 – 1913, E. Kimbark MacColl

Wicked Portland: The Wild and Lusty Underworld of a Frontier Seaport Town, Finn J.D. John



Portland Waterfront History

Slabtown Chronicle

Kick Ass Oregon History

Vintage Portland

Cafe Unknown

Off Beat Oregon History


Funding Provided By:

Robert D. and Marcia H. Randall Charitable Trust

James F. and Marion L. Miller Foundation

Oregon Cultural Trust

Clark Foundation

Roundhouse Foundation

Fran and John von Schlegell

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From Stumptown to Downtown

Portland was incorporated in 1851, with just over 800 residents. The town grew steadily, both in geographic size and population. By 1900, the city was home to more than 90,000 people. These images, taken from the West hills over a period of 40 years, show the city’s development.  

Floods and Fire

Portland’s waterfront area was susceptible to seasonal flooding, as well as fire danger due to the number of makeshift wooden buildings. In December 1872, a fire started in a Chinese laundry and spread several block. Just eight months later, in August 1873, another fire damaged twenty-two blocks.  As a result, the city began requiring new buildings to be constructed with brick. Meanwhile, floods were a regular occurrence along Portland’s waterfront as the Willamette River swelled over its banks during spring runoffs. One of the worst floods happened in late May and early June of 1894. The river rose more than 30 feet, and flooded the downtown business district, covering over 250 square blocks.