|Waiting for the gold ship PORTLAND to arrive in Seattle.|
1897 photograph by O. T. Frasch (1882-1958)
Original from the archives of the S.P.H.S.©
|S.S. PORTLAND |
Inscribed as Neg. 1967-1 from the Williamson Collection, Seattle.
Original photo from the archives of the S.P.H.S.©
Not so well known is the old ship's even earlier history; a history of smuggling, graft, and corruption that rocked the nation. Under another name, the famous PORTLAND carried on one of the greatest smuggling operations ever engineered, operating for a ring that included government customs officers, political and financial leaders and even a special agent of the US Secret Service. So powerful was the gang of smugglers that its members seemed beyond the reach of the law––until a reporter from The Tacoma Ledger stepped into the picture. His one-man crusade smashed the mighty criminal syndicate in a ruin of prison sentences and lost fortunes.
The PORTLAND was built at Bath, ME, in 1885, serving as an Atlantic coastal liner for several years under the name HAYTIAN REPUBLIC. She retained that name when, in the early 1890s, she was transferred to the west coast, operating between San Fran, Portland, and Tacoma for a firm known as Merchants Steamship Co. The firms legitimate shipping activities were largely a front for the smuggling of opium and alien Chinese from Canada into the US.
Money in Chinese (click on "read more" for continuing story and a report from the wreck site.)
At that time it was perfectly legal to import opium, providing the duty of $12 a pound was paid, but by evading this payment smugglers could make vast profits on the drug. Sums ranging from $100 to $150 a head were being paid for the delivery of 'contraband' Chinese from Canada to the US. The HAYTIAN REPUBLIC, along with the MICHIGAN and WILMINGTON of the same firm, were the carriers of this lucrative freight.
Small boats met the incoming liners in the Straits of Juan de Fuca; coolies and dope were quickly and efficiently transferred. Tacoma, the line's Puget Sound terminus, was the distribution point for the incoming cargoes. It was common knowledge that most of the trains leaving Tacoma carried from 10 to 100 pounds of undeclared opium for the firm's southern outlets and that Chinese by the hundreds were being moved out of town by night.
Everyone seemed to know about it, but no one did anything about it; no one except Nelson A. Bennett, who was then owner and publisher of The Tacoma Ledger.
Bennett called in assistant editor and special writer Stephen W. De Lacy. De Lacy was just back from covering the 1893 session of the legislature at Olympia, where he had done an outstanding job. Bennett felt he was just the man for another important assignment. The conference ended in a well simulated quarrel, and De Lacy stamped out of the publisher's office, loudly announcing that he was 'through working for The Ledger.'
From then on he was on his own, picking up his pay and expenses through a bank rather than at the newspaper office. His special assignment was known only to himself and Bennett.
Beginning at Victoria
Going first to Victoria, where he felt most of the illegal shipments originated, DeLacy conferred with an old newspaper friend, Martin Egan at the office of the Victoria Times. Egan, who later became a noted Associated Press war correspondent in the Russo-Japanese war, agreed to help him.
Working together, the newsmen made several discoveries, among them the fact that a special secret service agent, assigned to break up the smuggling ring, appeared to be one of its leading members. Almost all the customs personnel were either in the deal or going around with their eyes shut. The one exception was an inspector named Coblentz, who met De Lacy secretly, confirmed what was going on, and agreed to keep him supplied with information. But even Coblentz, an honest cop, was afraid to openly testify against the powerful combine.
Things were stalemated when De Lacy got his big break. The smuggling steamers MICHIGAN and WILMINGTON were wrecked. The WILMINGTON losing a valuable shipment of both Chinese immigrants and opium. The syndicate refused to make good the costs of the lost shipment, and a Victoria wholesaler was left holding the bag to the tune of some $15,000, a sizable loss in the 1890s.
Canadian newsman Egan saw his opportunity. He convinced the unhappy Canadian exporter that De Lacy was a US government agent who could probably get back at least a part of his lost fortune for him if he cooperated in exposing the syndicate.
Exporter Tells All
The Canadian jumped at the bait. When De Lacy denied having any connection with the government, the smuggler merely attributed it to the natural reticence of an authentic secret service operative. He was thoroughly disgusted with smuggling as a profession, desired to clear his conscience, and he wouldn't take no for an answer.
Trying not to show his elation, De Lacy saw the case breaking wide open. The Canadian furnished him with a stack of letters, telegrams, and receipts from the smuggling syndicate, along with a copy of the key by which all of them could be deciphered.
It was all the proof he needed. Special officers were dispatched from WA, D.C. and when the HAYTIAN REPBULIC next entered port she was searched by inspectors who didn't have their eyes shut. Five hundred ounces of opium were found behind the canned foods stacked on the galley shelves.
Then the coded papers unearthed by De Lacy were published in The Ledger with the key by which they could be translated from the language of legitimate business to the parlance of thieves. Ledger readers had a wonderful time working out the smugglers code for themselves, the greatest scoop in West Coast journalistic history, and the criminal syndicate was finished.
Some Fled the Country
The crooked secret service agent got a year in prison and a $5,000 fine, as did a number of ex-customs agents. Others arrested included the US collector of customs at Portland, along with 11 of his staff, the president of the Merchants' Steamship Co, and many of its stockholders. Others, tipped off in advance, boarded Orient-bound ships before warrants could be served on them. Nearly all of those arrested were convicted and sent to prison, while the US Customs Service underwent the greatest shake-up in its history.
Ironically, the honest cop, Coblentz, met as tragic a fate as any of the guilty. Appointed warden of the State prison at Walla Walla, he committed suicide when minor irregularities were found in the prison accounts. A man who had turned down dishonest thousands, becoming the victim of petty graft. The newsman, De Lacy, was appointed US deputy collector of customs at Tacoma, a position that he held for many years.
The old HAYTIAN REPUBLIC, seized and sold at auction by the government, became the famed Alaskan liner PORTLAND, bringing a ton of gold and a whole new era to the Puget Sound country. Years later her amazing past almost forgotten, she was carrying ore between Alaska and the Tacoma smelter until her final stranding at the Kalalla River mouth in 1910. So ended the adventurous career of a ship that proved again the truth of the ancient adage: Truth is stranger than fiction!
Above text by Gordon R. Newell. Smuggling Once a Big Business in Tacoma, published by Sunday Ledger-News Tribune. 21 Nov. 1954.
Part II with an update of wreck site field research submitted by Michael Burwell, 5 Mar. 2016, can be viewed here