White Eagle Lore, Reexamined

Hello from the History Department.

Full disclosure: This is a reboot from an eBlast about the White Eagle originally published in 2013 – but it still holds true because history. Whether or not ghosts roam the hallways is undocumented; who’s to say if there are or aren’t spirits who remain in residence? (I say yes.) Here are a few other legends at this historic watering hole in NE Portland, some of which were dispelled and one of which is just incredible and also true! – have a look.

P.S. If you’re interested in ghosts, local historian and paranormal investigator Rocky Smith hosts “Spirits of Stumptown,” an evening of history, folklore and a peek at Portland’s paranormal past at the White Eagle on the 3rd Monday of the month – he’ll share some unbelievable ghost stories, accumulated from his years of experience with the paranormal and knowledge of Oregon history. The next event is July 15.

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There was once a brothel on the 2nd floor.
FALSE.

We’ve found no documentation to support this. According to the 1920 Census, no women lived upstairs at the White Eagle; the rooms were occupied by nine Polish men who worked in the area. In fact, Portland Police arrest records of 1906–1916 show little indication that prostitution had much of a presence at all in the Lower Albina neighborhood.

There was an opium den or brothel in the basement.
FALSE.

Wild tales are told of the White Eagle’s basement. It’s alternately said an opium den and a brothel operated below stairs. To serve in these capacities, according to one story, the basement was divided into multiple rooms or cribs, similar to the second story.
Today, the basement is largely open space, and no evidence exists of partitions. In fact, the only furnishing that offers any suggestion of illicit activities is the bank vault door at the top of the cellar stairway. Newspapers in the ‘20s and ‘30s that reported raids of opium dens in the Old Town area consistently mention the presence of vault-like doors that secure the entrances of these places – however, the vault door at the White Eagle turns out to have been a modern addition from the 1970s, perhaps put there in an effort to suggest that illicit activities once took place?

The original owners were embroiled in a supposed assassination plot against a U.S. president.
TRUE!

In June 1906, five years after the assassination of President William McKinley by a Polish immigrant and anarchist in Buffalo, NY, and just days after the May 31 assassination attempt against the newly married King and Queen of Spain, there was talk of a dangerous band of Polish Anarchists meeting secretly at the White Eagle to plot the assassination of President Theodore Roosevelt.
The story, fueled by a local media frenzy that approached hysteria (left), was picked up by the national press, which declared in mid-June 1906 that Portland “is becoming one of the worst centers of Anarchy of Russian origin.” On June 18, 1906, officers raided the White Eagle. Though neither co-owners Hryszko or Sobolewski were arrested, Sobolewski was misidentified in newspapers as a leader of the radical group.
Authorities were poised to revoke the White Eagle’s liquor license, and even more drastic, deport any immigrants found to be members of the anarchist group. The situation seemed hopeless, until help came from an unlikely source — the news media. The Oregonian and The Evening Telegram each sent a reporter into Lower Albina to interview Sobolewski and other leaders of the alleged Anarchist group. The result, the first rational and objective reporting done on the subject, effectively calmed the public’s fears and probably prevented a grave miscarriage of justice against innocent persons.

Where did the back bar originate?
NOT SURE.

Stories about the origins of the beautiful oak bar and back bar (still in place today) are plentiful. Most state that the ornately carved and decorated pieces were built in the late 1800s in England and shipped around Cape Horn in time to be exhibited at the 1905 Lewis & Clark Exposition in Portland. Following the closing of the World’s Fair, the bar and back bar were purchased and installed in the newly built White Eagle. However, as of the original 2013 post, we’ve found no documentation to support or refute this lore.

And some quick facts:

  • The White Eagle opened in 1905 to aid and serve Polish immigrants coming into the city. The White Eagle was granted the first license from the new state liquor control agency, the OLCC.
  • Co-owner Barney Sobolewski immigrated to the U.S. in 1890 at the age of 19 from Polish-speaking Russia. His occupation in 1910 is listed as “liquor dealer.” Co-owner Joe Hryszko immigrated to U.S. in 1904 at the age of 18 from Polish-speaking Russia. His occupation is listed as a “liquor dealer.”
  • On June 4, 1907, Daniel H. Harnett of Portland sold the land (on which Sobolewski and Hryszko’s White Eagle stood) to the bar owners for $2,600. Financing for the purchase came partly from the Weinhard Brewing Company. It was common for large breweries in the day to offer loans like this to small tavern owners so they could furnish their bars and, one would assume, also serve that brewery’s products at the bar. Due to a brisk business at the Eagle, the mortgage was released less than eight months later on January 30, 1908.

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