Offbeat Oregon: by Finn JD John

To the average Oregon City resident, there wasn’t much to celebrate in the vacant, dilapidated old house by the foot of Willamette Falls.
The house had, until a few years before, been known as the Phoenix Hotel, and it had been a very flagrant bordello. Conveniently located right in the heart of what was then Oregon City’s industrial core, it had been a handy place for workers in the woolen mills, paper manufacturies, sawmills, and other operations that took advantage of the plentiful water power of the falls. No doubt it did an especially brisk business every payday.
It can’t have been brisk enough, though, because in 1906 the owners offered to sell the building and land to the city of Oregon City. There was a brief flurry of interest, and mayor E.G. Caufield got very excited about it.
But when the proposal was put to a referendum, the voters quashed the deal, and the old brothel was instead sold to the Hawley Pulp and Paper Co., which wanted the land to expand some of its adjacent facilities.
When that happened, the new mayor, W.E. Carll, dropped by to talk to Mr. Hawley. He was hoping to arrange some kind of deal to save the house. Hawley was willing to help; he said he’d gladly donate the building to the city if they could move it off the property. Carll agreed to see what he could do.
NOW, THIS MAY seem like an awful lot of trouble for people to be going through to save an old whorehouse from the wrecking ball. The thing was, though, the Phoenix Hotel had been no ordinary whorehouse. It had been built in 1846, before Oregon was a state or even officially an American territory, by the “Father of Oregon” himself: Dr. John McLoughlin, the head of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Northwest operations.
McLoughlin had been posted as Chief Factor for the company in Fort Vancouver in 1825, when the Oregon territory was under joint occupancy and it wasn’t clear whether it would end up being part of Canada or the U.S. Later in the 1820s, McLoughlin had staked a land claim at Willamette Falls and platted Oregon City.
As the Oregon Trail opened up, it started becoming obvious that the huge influx of American settlers was messing up the U.S.-Britain joint occupancy treaty, pushing the territory toward full U.S. control by sheer numbers. McLoughlin, of course, was on the British side of things; but when, in the mid-1840s, American emigrants started staggering into Fort Vancouver sick and exhausted and starving from the rigors of the Oregon Trail, he took them in and gave them shelter and supplies on credit. This made him increasingly unpopular with his bosses back east, who would have preferred a more hard-nosed attitude toward the emigrants.
So, to get rid of him, they “promoted” McLoughlin to another post east of the Rocky Mountains.
This was checkmate for McLoughlin. If he accepted the promotion, he’d have to abandon his land claim at Willamette Falls, which was already very valuable and only getting more so. But the only way to decline the promotion was to retire from HBC. Which, as they had expected, was the option he took. He settled down at the falls and applied for American citizenship, which he received in 1851.
Continued Sept. 13, 2022