Wednesday, July 11, 2012

An Old Character is Unearthed

Flavel House Museum
Way back in 1994, I wrote a book titled A Light For My Love. I spent months researching the topic of the book, the shanghaiing of men (kidnapping, really) to fill out crews on sailing vessels before the advent of steam-powered ships. It was a worldwide practice, but two of the worst cities in the US where this occurred were Portland and Astoria, Oregon. Men were drugged in saloons, barrooms, and boardinghouses, then often dropped through trap doors in the floors of these establishments and taken to ship captains via a series of underground tunnels that led to the seawalls. By the time the victims sobered up or came to, they discovered themselves to be far out at sea with no way back, and no option but to work their way to another port and try to get home again. No one was exempt--plowboys and cowboys who found themselves in the wrong dockside bar were just as prone to the danger as anyone else. No sailing experience was necessary. There was good money in it for the procurers; even a cigar store Indian wrapped in a tarp was sold once, as were bodies stolen from a mortician's backroom. Since this activity occurred under cover of darkness, captains might not find out what they'd gotten until it was too late to do anything about it. Although there were a vocal few protesting the crime, the law tended to look the other way.

It's an obscure subject, but a fascinating one. Those tunnels still exist beneath the streets in both Portland and Astoria. Here in Portland, they have even been the subject of supernatural ghost hunts on TV shows, and tours are available.

In my book, the heroine, China Sullivan is working with Dalton Williams, a shanghai survivor himself and a radical reformer working to end this practice, when an old friend of her brother's returns to Astoria on his own merchant vessel. Jake Chastaine, who grew up wild in a poor section of town, is back to prove to those who had no faith in him (especially China) that he has succeeded far beyond all their predictions of his failure.

Flavel family mystery unsealed
The other Flavel house, built in 1901. Photo by Daily Astorian

(I'm getting to the point of this story, honest.) China's work with Dalton includes fund-raising to open a safe boarding house where sailors can stay when in port to avoid the dangers of being shanghaied. While I was in Astoria doing research, I came across a once-beautiful house that had fallen into dilapidation through neglect by the bizarre owners. I envisioned China living in what is The Flavel House Museum (see above). It has been lovingly restored to its past glory by the Clatsop County Historical Society. The other mansion, which in my book I called Harbor House, is owned--for the time being, anyway--by Flavel descendants, only one of whom might still be alive. No one is sure. This mess is what I pictured China and Dalton dealing with to create Harbor House. None of the owners have been near the place since 1990 as far as it is known. The first week of July, the City of Astoria invoked its derelict building ordinance, and the house was finally entered and inspected by city officials. According to The Daily Astorian, they found a hoarders paradise: stacks of newspapers going back 100 years, all kinds of assorted junk, a dead dog in the refrigerator, and beneath it all, what was once beautiful architecture. The details are truly amazing, and even though I've tried to keep up with that house's events over the years, I learned things I didn't know about. If you're curious, take a look. There's also a slide show of the house's interior, plus a chronology of the peculiar family's life on the lam with their 90-year-old mother and two dogs.

1 comment:

  1. What a fascinating post! I had no idea that boarding houses (in Astoria) had trap doors where drugged men were dropped and shanghaied onto ships. I knew about the underground tunnels below the barrooms and saloons but I didn't know there was danger lurking in boarding houses. I'm going to have to rethink the use and abuse of historical boarding houses....