This review was written by our Embedded (and imbibed) Guest Correspondent, Joe Streckert.
Portland’s always been a city that’s loved bars. It stands to reason- this was a place initially filled with lumberjacks, sailors, and various working men with exciting mustaches. Booze was in demand, and if you wanted to get rich in Portland opening a saloon was a good way to do that. William Ladd, an early mayor, owned a saloon. James Lappeus, Portland’s first chief of police, owned a saloon. It was essentially a no-fail business strategy, and on the night of November 24th Kick-Ass Oregon History’s resident historian Doug Kenck-Crispin took me and a busload of other drunken nerds on a tour of Portland’s old-timey bars. Some were still around and some were gone, but the tour made one thing abundantly clear: Portland’s always been a town where you can get utterly plastered.
Our ride for the evening was the Cascadia Cruiser, an old bus with a paint job that would have made Ken Kesey smile in recognition. The interior was filled with lasers, sparkly lights, and plenty of beer from Laurelwood Brewing. The lasers and beer made it probably the trippiest, booziest history classroom ever.
Our first stop was not at any bar or tavern that still existed, but at an innocuous downtown street corner that housed a bustling saloon prior to Prohibition, Kunkle & Hoch. According to Kenck-Crispin, Portland got around 25% of its revenue from alcohol-related licenses prior to booze being banned. The end of (legal) alcohol in America meant that city, states and even the federal government had to look for new sources of revenue (like, you know, income taxes) if they wanted to stay afloat. It also meant that landmarks and local would get wiped off the face of the Earth. Places that had once been hives of activity were left deserted, and today nothing of the old saloons remain.
Speaking of which, no tour of Portland’s Old Timey Bars would be complete without a stop at Erickson’s, which used to be the largest bar in the entire town. The palatial saloon was run by August Erickson, a Scandinavian immigrant who presided over an empire of food, drink, and spectacle. The gigantic establishment (said to have a bar that measured well over 600 feet) featured huge lunches, plenty of beer, and more than a few working girls.
All that’s left today is a brick wall with the tomb like inscription “ERICKSON SALOON 1895” emblazoned upon it. The bustling space is empty now, and it’s very much what Kenck-Crispin calls a “ghost bar.” You can see what the location held, but only a shell is left.
The first real stop of the tour was Eastside Distilling, whose Burnside Bourbon features probably the most history-tacular of all facial hair. Ambrose Burnside’s sideburns were so adventurous and robust that people actually stopped calling them “mutton chops” and started calling them “sideburns.” Yes, the man whose name adorns Portland’s North/South divide changed the English language with his facial hair. He also has a pretty damn good bourbon named after him. Not a bad legacy, all things considered.
From Eastside we wound up at the Slammer, a bar in Southeast that’s apparently seen more than its share of booze-inspired altercations. For my own part, I mostly noticed that it had four player Pac-Man. You know. The kind where you can eat other Pac-Men. That one. You should try it if you haven’t already. That’s not historical, but whatever. I Pac-ed people while drinking. Fun!
The next stop was somewhat surprising. When I think of old things in Portland, I generally imagine places in Old Town and Downtown, but the Cascadia Cruiser stayed on the East Side and would its way up to North Portland to the Alibi, Portland’s own classic Tiki bar. The venue is well known for black lights, fake thatch, hula girls, and other bits of kitschy flair, all of which was preserved when the bar changed ownership decades ago. The original owners were happy to sell the place off but, as part of the deal, demanded that the new management keep the Island décor.
Kenck-Crispin handed out coupons from the 1960s, advertising steaks at the Alibi for less than two dollars. The coupons didn’t have an expiration date, and he dared the tour goers to attempt to redeem them. A few tried to. They were unsuccessful, but mostly because the Alibi doesn’t serve steaks anymore.
(Personal and unimportant side note: I used to live in North Portland, and have spent a good deal of time and dollars at the Alibi. They have karaoke seven nights a week, and if you go there on a Tuesday or something you and your friends can probably get a whole lot of chances to belt out Cheap Trick while drinking very strong Mai Tais. It’s great. Just don’t tell anyone about it.)
I don’t remember much of the end of the tour, as I probably had way too much of Laurelwood and East Side Distilling’s malty and boozy products. There were lasers. We were still on the Cascadian Cruiser. I think I tweeted at Kenck-Crispin about various heavy metal bands. The long and the short of it, though, is that we ended up at Mary’s Club, the oldest strip joint in Stumptown. We disembarked. I was kind of blitzed and decided not to take part in the gyrating naked women. I shook Doug’s hand and headed out. Based on everything that I learned that evening, I knew I was by no means the first Portlander to stumble home drunk and (if history is any indicator) not the last.
Dave and Heather enjoy some fruity fuckin’ drinks at the Alibi!