Tag Archives: Simon Bensen

Portland – nearly Boston but for the toss of a coin!

It is said that Portland, Oregan’s largest city’s name may never have been given was it not for the toss of a coin.

The year is 1843 when the unlikely travel companions of a Tennessee drifter William Overton and Massachusetts lawyer Asa Lovejoy beached their canoe on the banks of the Willamette River, a contributory of the Colombia River. For Overton, this timber rich land was full of potential but there was one drawback – he did not have the 25 cents needed to file and land claim. Lovejoy struck a bargain with Oveton that in return for the quarter he would share his claim to the 640 acre site. In keeping with his previous ventures, Overton soon bored of the logging and timber business selling his share in the land to one Francis W. Pettygrove. On their land a growing township was in need of a name but neither partner could agree on something suitable. While Lovejoy wished to name it after his much loved home city of Boston, Pettygrove was equally passionate about naming it after his much loved home city of Portland, Maine. In time honoured custom a toss of a coin, best of three, would be the most democratic means to decide. So with the toss of the the ‘Portland Penny’ Pettygrove got his wish.

Of course Portland would not have been an American city at all if it was not for the endeavours of Captain Merriwether Lewis and his friend Second Lieutenant William Clark who in 1805 after two and a half years expedition arrived at what is now Astoria at the mouth of the Colombia River staking a claim for their country under a commission from President Thomas Jefferson.

Joseph ‘Bunco’ Kelly was a shady figure in the late 1800s when the city was growing. A hotelier, Kelly was notorious for his side business of providing ship captains with young sailors for monitory gain. He was not the only local hotelier involved in supplementing their income by duping  the unwary with intoxicating liquor but he was the best. One story goes that after another bragging session that he could gather a full crew in less than 12 hours he stumbled across some unfortunate men who, thinking they had found a free stash of alcohol, had been drinking embalming fluid. Claiming that the dead and dying men were merely unconscious Kelly sold all 22 to a captain who sailed before finding out that his crew were no more. Another story claimed that he had delivered a wooded Indian statue to a ship well wrapped in blankets and made a quick buck: by the time the captain realised what had happened he had set sail.

‘Sweet Mary’ was another well known, or perhaps infamous resident of those dark days of a growing Portland. She was a successful business woman who to avoid taxes and city laws took her brothel to the water opening on a barge which sailed up and down the Willamette River.

Things were changing in Portland with permanent jobs in the lumber mills and businesses supporting the gold rush prospectors and the economy stabilised which in turn brought in more laws and regulations putting an end to the more seedy aspects of the city business.

Simon Benson was one of the new Portland businessmen – a lumber baron, teetotaller and philanthropist. The story goes that he had been shocked at his workers propensity to drink beer in the middle of the day. His worker’s justification was that there was no safe drinking water to be found downtown hence their choice of beverage. Upon hearing this Benson gave a sizeable amount of money to the city for the installation of  20 safe, fresh water drinking fountains. It was said that the city’s beer consumption dropped by a quarter with the appearances of the Benson Bubblers. These water fountains are still to be found in downtown Portland.