Party Like It's 1934

A look back at the other ill-fated experiment in prohibition.

People like to get high. Almost all humans seek to alter their reality in some way, be it with a few beers, a bong rip, or good, old-fashioned OxyContin overprescribed by a doctor.

And yet, some people don't like other people getting high. In America, various intoxicants have been deemed illegal over the years, succeeding only in changing the list of who gets to make money off the substance.

As of today, cannabis is officially legal in Oregon. And so WW turns its gaze back to another long battle for legalization.

Hard as it may be to believe today, Beervana was an early adopter of Prohibition. Oregon banned the cause of and solution to all of life's problems in 1914, a full five years before the Volstead Act ushered in Prohibition nationally.

In Oregon, the ban on booze led to smuggling, poisonous white lightning, rampant police corruption and a hell of a lot of drinking.

Suffragettes and liquor men.

Weird as it sounds, women couldn't vote in Oregon until 103 years ago. The women's suffrage movement mounted several valiant efforts to allow half the population the right to participate in the government that governed them. All told, it was on the ballot six times before it was passed. Most efforts fell short because of opposition from a cabal referred to as the "liquor men."

"It will take 50,000 votes to defeat woman suffrage," reads a memo from the Brewers & Wholesale Liquor Dealers Association of Oregon that was published in The Oregonian in May 1906. "Every retailer can get 25 votes. Besides his employes [sic], he has his grocer, his landlord, his laundryman, and every person he does business with. If every man in the business will do this we will win."

The suffrage movement's close ties to the temperance movement were the source of this fear. While not entirely unfounded, there is little to suggest this opposition was worth the effort. Suffragette Lucia Ames Mead stated in an op-ed piece that members of the liquor dealers association donated a quarter of a million dollars to defeat the bill in 1906.

“[Saloon men] recently remarked that if they let the suffragists alone and attended strictly to their own affairs, they would be so much better [off]” argued The Oregonian

In a strange twist, some argued against women's suffrage on the grounds there was no proof they would help pass Prohibition. (The turn of the 20th century was a weird time. See also: Oregon gubernatorial candidate George C. Brownell's platform of prohibiting alcohol, letting women vote, excluding "Asiatic workers, particularly Hindus," and freedom of speech and expression, presumably for non-Asians.)

Oregon ratified women's suffrage in 1912. Two years later, it was a dry state, though drinkers could still bring in liquor purchased outside the state and consume it in the privacy of their homes until 1916.

Rumrunning—except with whiskey.

As a port town with well-developed connections to the opium trade, Portland was an ideal place for liquor smugglers. Canadian ships loaded with hooch would come down the coast, anchor safely in international waters, and sneak bottles into the city. According to the blog, Sauvie Island was often used as a landing spot. Police knew what was happening but were powerless to do anything while boats were in international waters.

That led to some odd situations, such as the capture of Canadian schooner The Pescawah in 1925, which proved to be one of the most successful and controversial liquor busts in state history.

The Pescawah sat in international waters when a storm broke out. A nearby schooner, The Caoba, was caught in the storm in the mouth of the Columbia River and wrecked. The crew of The Pescawah hurried over to help save The Caoba's 11 sailors. The feds arrested these "six merry rum-runners and 1,100 cases of Scotch, gin and Champagne" after The Pescawah crossed into Oregon waters.

"If I was off the coast with a cargo of liquor, and the whole Yankee fleet was in your waters, and I saw that I could save the life of one poor fisherman, I'd sail in and do it again," Capt. Robert Pamphlet of The Pescawah said at the trial a year later. "That's the training of the sea, my boy."

The entire crew went to prison.

DIY (drink it yourself).

With the feds watching the coast, many industrious Oregonians decided to make their own liquor. While there are a wealth of entertaining stories about moonshiners in Portland—like Jim Carroll and "Jingling" Johnson, their breaths reeking of whiskey, shouting at a police chief who accused them of moonshining—the real white lightning mecca was to the east.

"During Prohibition, the Oregon outback became the principal [source] of bootleg whiskey on the West Coast," wrote historian David Braly in Tales From the Oregon Outback. "At a certain late hour of the night, the sky around Prineville would suddenly light up because of hundreds of stills being fired up at the same time."

Exploding stills and other problems were not uncommon in this rugged land, but they were a small price to pay for something that would get you drunk. And, just like today, Oregonians made liquor better than their counterparts in other states. In 1922, The Oregonian praised Oregon distillers for improving the product:

"Good news for the bibulous! The quality of moonshine is growing better and possibilities of paralysis, blindness or instant death from overindulgence are decreasing."

Police and thieves.

Gangsters in pinstriped suits and fur coats, speakeasies with passwords, Al Capone dancing the Charleston—these are the images that come to mind when we think of Prohibition. Making alcohol illegal mostly succeeded in making bootleggers and rumrunners a pretty penny. In Portland, the police wanted their cut. This isn't shocking. What is shocking as you skim through The Oregonian archives is how brazen the cops were about it.

On Sept. 2, 1917, "liquor importer" C. Lundstet was accosted by harbor police while his steamer was docked in Portland. By his account, three plainclothes officers and two uniformed officers arrested him, put 12 sacks of booze and five kegs into their automobile, then released him. He publicly accused the police of purloining his goods. Police Chief Nelson Johnson announced a thorough internal investigation. Lundstet had disappeared by Sept. 11.

In 1922, Portland junk dealer J. Leavitt bought a large number of empty liquor bottles from the police department. One bottle was filled with moonshine. "For once in his life he figured he had driven a genuine bargain," wrote The Oregonian. The police arrested Leavitt minutes after the sale and fined him $20. And the police got their moonshine back.

Throughout this period, Portland police became infamous for busting smuggling operations and confiscating liquor, which was taken to a storeroom never to be seen again.

Former gold dredger, mink farmer and Portland vice squad officer Floyd R. Marsh blew the whistle on the operation when he released his memoir, Twenty Years a Soldier of Fortune, in 1976.

"[Portland] was the central point for distribution of Canadian whiskey, and over $100,000 a month was paid out to officials of Multnomah County and the city of Portland," wrote J.D. Chandler and J.B. Fisher of Marsh's revelations in Portland on the Take. "Hundreds of speakeasies and beer or wine parlors were allowed to operate in the city, and the profits were funneled into gambling enterprises and prostitution. Business was good.

"The Portland police seized liquor from anyone who tried to compete."

Party like it's 1934.

Prohibition was repealed in 1933 as politicians began to realize that Americans were still getting drunk, gangsters were making bank, and mysterious liquor clouds were floating over previously quiet towns. Oregon created the Oregon Liquor Control Commission to help regulate the state's newly re-legalized spirits. The Oregonian, acting in its role as chief scold, believed that the cars and radios of the new mechanized age rendered the old saloon obsolete.

"The saloon cannot survive in its previous state today," the newspaper wrote. "It will appear in a new form. Doubtless the new form will be objectionable and anti-social, and if left unregulated it will be devastating, but not so devastating as its ancestor in ante-prohibition days."

Alcohol was finally fully legalized on Jan. 1, 1934. "Lusty Young 1934 Gets Hearty Toast," proclaimed The Oregonian.

"For countless numbers of persons, today will bring their first legal headache on New Year's in 16 years. Downtown streets were strewn with broken glass by those who played loose and fast with the new-found liberty. Arrests for drunkenness totaled 40 by midnight."

And so, Portland, time for a hearty toke to the end of another beloved intoxicant's inexplicable illegality. Let's give marijuana a fete worthy of the end of prohibition. Weed's legal now. Even if that never stopped us in the past.

If there are not at least 40 arrests for public intoxication tonight, we'll have let down our ancestors.

Oh, and you don't have to worry about a hangover.

 Party Like It's 1934 The Future of Drug Testing | Portland's Oldest Head Shop

The Triumph Return of the World Famous Cannabis Cafe 

Historic Cannabis Landmarks In Oregon | Weed War II: The Battles to Come

Blending Buds and Learning Terps | Pick Your Loose-Leaf Vaporizer 

What You Need to Know to Grow | A Directory of Dispensaries

High Cinema | Stoniest Portland Albums

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