Thursday, April 21, 2016

Joy Ride

          I'm happy to announce that JB Fisher (my co-author of Portland on the Take) and I are working on a new project together.  It will be a look at the impact of the automobile on Portland especially in terms of taxicabs and the Traffic Division of the Police Bureau.  Here is a post about a fatal auto accident that made the city start taking traffic laws seriously for the first time. Hope you like it.
            It was shortly before midnight on Saturday September 18, 1909 when a Cadillac touring car pulled up at the corner of Northwest Ninth and Everett to pick up a party of young women.  The Cadillac belonged to William M. Ladd, the wealthy son of the late banker, real estate developer and city founder William S. Ladd.  At the wheel was Harry Holland, Ladd’s nineteen-year-old chauffeur and John Robertson, 24, a car washer from Covey Garage and self-described “professional joy rider.”  The party of young women included 29-year-old Dolly Ferrara-Martini, the ex-wife of a prominent attorney, and three young factory worker sisters recently arrived in Portland from Minnesota: Anna, Eva and Rosa Meyer.
The 1908 Touring car was  the largest model Cadillac had built up to that time and had no safety features. Picture courtesy of Passion For the Past Blog 
            Rosa and Eva, both still teenagers, said they were too tired to “go for a ride,” but their older sister’s friend, Dolly, was insistent.  Dolly, who was divorced from her husband, Albert B. Ferrara, five years before when her affair with another man became public, had been living a “fast life” for some time.  She convinced the three young women that a fast ride in the cool early morning air would be exhilarating.  The four women climbed into the Cadillac’s tonneau (rumble seat) and Harry Holland drove across the Burnside Bridge and headed east on the Baseline Road (Stark Street).  The younger girls didn’t know it, but Dolly had planned the drive with John Robertson and their destination was Fred Merill’s Twelve Mile House on the road to Gresham. 
            Fred T. Merrill, the Northwest Bicycle King, sportsman, cinema impresario and City Council member had withdrawn outside Portland city limits after his failed campaign for mayor in 1905.  He bought a horse ranch twelve miles from Portland on the Baseline Road and opened Portland’s first road house in 1906.  By 1909 Twelve Mile House was a popular destination for “joy riders,” people who were out for a good time with their automobiles.  The first Portland Auto Show, which had been held in March, increased the number of cars in Portland to over 3,000 and by that summer it seemed like everyone was enjoying “pleasure excursions” or joy rides.  Being outside the city limits allowed Merrill to skirt liquor control laws and keep his business open long after city drinking establishments had to close.  Merrill also consistently broke the laws against selling liquor on Sunday and serving alcohol to minors.  At a time when the Portland police and the Multnomah County sheriff had no automobiles the long trip to Twelve Mile House, combined with Merrill’s connections among the city’s powerful, protected him from law enforcement.
            It was well after midnight when Dolly Ferrara and her party saw the lights of Twelve Mile House.  As she had planned, Dolly suggested they stop for “something hot to drink.”  After the long brisk ride everyone agreed and Holland pulled the Cadillac into the roadhouse’s busy parking lot.  The witnesses’ stories varied, but Rosa Meyer probably told the truth when she said that she and her sister Anna had beer and Eva ordered lemonade.  Dolly and the two men ordered hot whiskey toddies and drank several of them as the party danced and enjoyed themselves until nearly three a.m.  According to all three Meyer sisters, Dolly and both of the men were visibly drunk as they walked out to the car.  Dolly insisted on driving and Robertson told Holland to sit in the back.  “Dolly and I will do the driving,” he said.
The accident that killed Dolly Ferrara, coming at the end of a summer notable for traffic fatalities, gained a lot of publicity and turned the public against the roadhouses.
            According to the Meyer girls Richardson was doing the driving, but Ferrara had her hands on the wheel and was doing some of the steering from the passenger seat as the Cadillac headed east on the Gresham Road.  Richardson insisted that the car was going no more than twenty-five miles per hour, the legal speed limit, as they approached a stretch of the road that came to be known as “the loop of death.”  At the bottom of a hill the road took a sharp turn to the left as it approached a gravel quarry.  The sisters said that Richardson was not as good a driver, or as confidant in his driving, as Harry Holland who was passed out in the tonneau with them.  Dolly Ferrara may have grabbed the steering wheel as the Cadillac sped down the hill, but whatever happened the car didn’t make the turn.
            The 1908 Cadillac Touring Car was the first large model that the two-year-old car company produced, and it included all of the latest technical advances in its design.  In the pre-product liability age Cadillac, like all car makers, gave no thought at all to safety.  Not only were there no seatbelts, there was not even a top to keep the passengers inside the car.  One of the most dangerous features of cars in this era were the open-flame headlights, which very often ignited a vehicle even in a minor collision.  The car carrying Dolly Ferrara didn’t have a minor collision.  It flew off the road into the gravel quarry and overturned as it landed.  Most of the people in the car were thrown clear of the wreck before it landed and escaped with only minor bruises, but Dolly Ferrara somehow got her feet tangled in the steering wheel and Anna Meyer stayed in the tonneau as the Cadillac crashed.
            Anna suffered a concussion and had to be extricated from under the car before it burst into flames, but she was not seriously injured.  Dolly Ferrara on the other hand took the full force of the car as it rolled over her body.  Her spine was broken in several places and it was clear that she was mortally injured as Holland pulled her from under the burning car.  John Robertson, suffering from shock as well as drunkenness, staggered around the burning car.  He eventually stumbled into a sand pit, where he had to be rescued when help finally arrived.  Holland kept his cool and after rescuing the two women under the car managed, with the help of Eva and Rose, to get the fire extinguished before he ran to the Twelve Mile House for help.  It took about twenty minutes for the first group of roadhouse customers to arrive at the accident scene and it was more than an hour before the sheriff and some deputies arrived.  Dolly Ferrara only survived about fifteen minutes before she died.  It was the sixteenth major traffic accident since June and the seventh fatality.
            The accident that killed Dolly Ferrara occurred the same week that Hazel Maddux and Frank Rodman were indicted in the death of May Real in an earlier fatal accident involving revelers at Larry Sullivan’s roadhouse, the Claremont Tavern, on the Linnton Road.  Two fatal accidents involving drivers who had been drinking at roadhouses within thirty days, just added to public sentiment against automobiles and their drivers that had seriously started with the death of 7-year-old Walter Reffling, who was run down as he stood on the sidewalk downtown on June 29, 1909.  Up until September the Portland Auto Club (PAC) had been responsible for enforcing traffic laws.  Auto Club members on the “speed committee” had the authority to arrest drivers exceeding the state imposed speed limit of 25 mph outside city limits and 8 mph within city limits.  The Club also investigated accidents and had the power to revoke driver’s license for drivers found to be unsafe.  Auto Club members preferred to reason with law violators and there were very few arrests or license revocations.  They were also volunteers and spent little time looking for moving violations, only intervening when they happened to witness them.
Merle Sims (right) became the first Portland motorcycle officer when he volunteered to use his own motorcycle.
            That all changed on September 1, 1909, when PAC president E. Henry Wemme declared “war to the end…against reckless automobile drivers and speed maniacs.”  Wemme pointed out that automobile owners were still a very small minority and if public sentiment turned against them they could see restrictive laws passed that would keep cars off the streets.  Claiming that ninety-five percent of automobile owners were responsible with the “highest regard for public welfare” and that cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco had more than ten times the traffic problems that Portland had, Wemme committed the Auto Club to work hard to stop reckless driving, “because it is in our interests to do so.”  With that in mind he announced the appointment of six reliable Auto Club members as “special police officers” who would receive pay for patrolling for traffic violations and who would “not hesitate to make an arrest.”  He also announced that the Auto Club was raising funds to pay the salaries of two regular police officers and equip them with motorcycles so they could chase and arrest speeders.  The new Police Chief, Arthur Cox, was glad for the support of the Auto Club and he pushed a bill through the City Council that made the registered owner of a vehicle legally liable for accidents it was involved in, regardless of who was driving.
            Just a couple of weeks later Dolly Ferrara was killed in a harrowing accident.  The city’s wrath turned against the roadhouse owners, most of whom were openly criminal.  Merrill, who was much more law abiding than most Portland businessmen, was charged with several crimes including selling alcohol to minors, a charge that could put him in jail for a year.  Holland and Richardson both faced auto theft charges, until W.M. Ladd finally decided not to press charges and Richardson faced a manslaughter charge.  Merrill, who not only owned the city’s first auto dealership, but also a successful chain of movie theaters was not convicted. He agreed not to renew his liquor license and devoted his time to raising horses and promoting sporting events.  Richardson was cleared of the manslaughter charge, because most of the witnesses agreed that Ferrara had grabbed the wheel just before the car went off the road.  It is difficult to track what became of John Richardson, but there is evidence that he served as part of Mayor Baker’s secret police in the 1920s.  Harry Holland joined the Police Bureau sometime before the Great War, but in 1917 he was implicated in a series of burglaries and was cashiered from the police force before serving time in the Oregon State Prison.
In 1911 the Police Bureau acquired its first automobile.  It was used mainly to transport investigators to crime scenes, rather than as a patrol vehicle.

            Patrolman Merle Sims, who joined the police force in February, 1909, volunteered his own motorcycle as a patrol vehicle and before the end of the year two more officers were equipped with motorcycles.  The “speed squad” was inaugurated in 1910 and Portland finally had a force that was dedicated to catching traffic violators.  The next year the Police Bureau acquired a Pope-Hartford touring car and the automobile patrol began, although the car was used to transport officers to crime scenes far more often than it was used on patrol.  The traffic fatalities of the summer of 1909 had forced the city to respond to the growing impact of cars on the city.  The Police Bureau and the City of Portland would never be the same.
          Future posts here and on Weird Portland will continue to chronicle the impact of cars on various aspects of Portland culture as we research and write the new book.  I hope you will stay tuned.  It takes a lot of work and effort to produce this stuff and it pays very little. That's why I rely on the support of my readers. Remember history isn't free. Support your local historian

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