Many Portlanders pride themselves on keeping Portland weird. After our visit on Saturday, October 24, I’d say they’re doing a pretty good job. What we learned fell into three main categories: wicked, weird, or wonderful.

Our last name may be Vice but Portland’s wicked history has us beat. Quoting Weird Oregon authors Eufrasio and Davis, “Portland has been known as a hotbed of vice.” In the 1940’s pinball machines were the big concern. Mayor Dorothy Lee’s efforts to crack down on illegal gambling were thwarted by underworld leaders and dishonest policemen until the 70’s.

That’s nothing, however, compared to the cruelty of the Shanghai Tunnels. Originally built to move products in and out of Portland, the five miles of underground passageways began to traffic in men as well. Crimps targeted transients and drunks. Those not already passed out were drugged and delivered to ship captains who bought them for $50 apiece. Most didn’t wake up until they were at sea. When the captains no longer needed them, they were let off the ship wherever they happened to be at the time. Many never made it home again. 1,500 to 3,000 men a year were kidnapped from 1870-1915. The tunnels, and a very dark period of Portland’s history, were sealed in 1941.

Kelly and I have often seen a line of people waiting to buy a raspberry jelly filled doughnut in the shape of a doll at Voodoo Donuts, complete with a pretzel for stabbing your victim. But in case you’re not into hexes and blood, they have a lot of other unusual flavors as well. Kelly and I decided to skip the line and went to a park instead.

We had hiked to the Witch’s Castle (or stone house) in Macleay Park before, but never knew its history. The land where it sits was originally owned by the Balch family, whose daughter fell in love with the hired boy, Mortimer Stump. Dad was not happy when they asked to marry, so they eloped. Whether he intended to kill his daughter’s new husband or it happened by accident as he claimed, Stanford Balch’s double-barreled shotgun went off in Mortimer’s face. Balch ran, but was eventually caught, tried, and convicted for murder. We chose to cast all wickedness aside and be grateful for the well-kept trail and crisp fall day.

The next wicked destination was the Fulton House, Nancy Bogg’s former floating bordello (brothel). Apparently she managed to escape police raids by moving her house from shore to shore, doing big business in the 1880’s. After that, no one seemed to know what happened to her or the house until John and Wendy Fencsak bought it in 1990 to remodel for a bed and breakfast. A former owner and historical records described how the house had been moved by a team of horses from its location on the river bank and set on its current foundation and put to good use.

Beginning the Weird part of the day we traveled to Mills End, the World’s Smallest Park, on Naito Parkway and Taylor. A variety of plants have lived in this two foot circle of dirt in downtown Portland. On the day we visited, a dead branch stood bravely in place. Just before we crossed the street to take pictures, another couple did the same thing. We wondered if they were on a Weird Oregon trip of their own.   

Our next stop was Giants Gym on Sandy Blvd to find a twenty-two foot, one ton, fiberglass “hulk.” The gym is now Hollywood Fitness and the giant is gone. When we told the girl at the desk about our quest she discovered a picture of the statue on the wall. It was fun to find it together.  

We read about other weird places and people on our way to our next photo shoot with a twenty-six foot tall fiberglass rabbit named Harvey, at Harvey Marine in Aloha. COVID, time, and distance prevented us from visiting the Rimsky-Korsakoffee House, Pioneer Courthouse Square, Chinatown, the Willamette Meteorite (now on display in NY), Mondo Extremo the Clown, some unusual tombstones in the area, and the source of Portland’s water supply—Bull Run Reservoir.

Even rain is strange sometimes in Portland. On June 4, 1894 it rained ice fragments three to four inches square and one inch thick. Dark rubbery objects fell from the sky in June of 1911 and turned out to be salamanders. And in 1920 another storm brought a downpour of “glistening, white fragments” like china. So the next time you’re in Portland and it starts to rain, you might want to run for cover!

Our day in Portland ended with some wonderful stories. We read about Bobbie the Wonder Dog who traveled across seven states to get back to his family after they were separated while on vacation. Six months and 2,551 miles later, he came home. A little white house with red trim marks his final resting place in the Oregon Humane Society Pet Cemetery. 

Kelly and I pass the Burger Family in front of the Shute Park Aquatic & Recreation Center in Hillsboro all the time, but never knew their story. In the 1950’s and 60’s chain mascots became popular and the Burger Family represented A&W. When the Hillsboro restaurant closed in 1984 the community couldn’t bear to part with their Family. They did a brief stint at Papa Aldo’s, but Teen disappeared, and Baby suffered a broken arm from an overly zealous admirer. The remaining three members were donated to the city. After Hillsboro art students repaired Baby, an orphan Teen came from Longview, Washington, and the Burger Family was again complete. The heartwarming story of a family overcoming adversity, even if they’re burger mascots, is enough to make you smile as you drive past.  

Kelly couldn’t resist giving Baby a hug!

Our last stop on Saturday was the World’s Tallest Barber Pole at Pacific University in Forest Grove. Chuck Olsen’s idea to build the biggest and best for the 1973 barber shop convention in Portland involved painting a seventy foot tall pole with red, white, and blue stripes. It made a hit and when his quartet arrived home the town put it on permanent display on the University football field.

On our way north to Astoria, Kelly spotted a herd of elk grazing just off the main highway. We drove in slowly but they didn’t seem to be worried. I’m sure hunters would have drooled over this opportunity, but we just admired these majestic creatures. The setting sun created a dramatic backdrop. 

I couldn’t get over the beauty of the evening as we passed over the Columbia River into Astoria and amazing view from our hotel room.

Wicked, Weird, and Wonderful not only describes our day, but is an apt description of mankind in general. We have all heard about evil deeds and cruelty beyond imagining. If we’re honest, we see our own propensity for wickedness and our desperate need for God’s power to change.

We’re all a little weird too. Some in adorable, quirky ways, others so far off center you wonder how they keep from falling over. But God loves each one of us just the same.

And wonderful—on this day of Thanksgiving I am grateful for all the wonderful people who have touched my life. I’m thankful for their kind words, smiles, hugs, music, presence, prayers, and godly counsel.

I hope you’ll join us for one last day of Weird Oregon. In the meantime Happy Thanksgiving! Speaking of which, Thanksgiving may be weird this year, yet we still have much to celebrate for which we can be thankful. Weird can still be good because God is good.