Saturday, April 22, 2006

Why Slabtown?

Portland, Oregon is fairly young as cities go. The city was born February 8, 1851 when Territorial Governor John Gaines signed an Act to Incorporate that had been passed by the Territorial House three weeks before. At that time Portland was derisively known as Stumptown and consisted of a steam saw mill, a log cabin hotel, the weekly Oregonian, and about 800 residents. The town already had several nicknames. First it was known as “The Clearing” and later Middletown, because it is located halfway between Ft. Vancouver on the Columbia and Oregon City on the Willamette Falls. Occasionally it was called Puddletown, for obvious reasons.

The nickname Slabtown was first used in the 1880s for the “tenderloin” district just behind the Port of Portland in what is now called Oldtown and stretching westward from the river to today’s Pearl District. This was an area of Sailor’s boardinghouses, saloons and brothels. In fact there was a solid block known as Whitechapel (from NW Couch to Davis between NW 3rd and 4th Aves) made up of tiny prostitute cribs, little stalls just big enough for a bed where women lived and worked. Erickson’s Saloon, with the longest bar in the west, was in this area. This was the time of Bunco Kelly, king of the Crimps (a Crimp kidnapped sailors for service on a ship) and the Three Sirens of Portland, Liverpool Liz, Mary Cook and Nancy Boggs. I intend to tell you about the careers of these people and many more over the coming days.

This rough part of town was known as Slabtown, because it was said if you went there it was likely you’d end up on a slab, if not on a China-bound ship. I like to use the nickname for Portland in general, especially when I am talking about the history of violent crime in this area. Portland is an orderly and pretty quiet town, but there is a wide streak of violence that has existed here since the earliest times.

I have spent endless hours pouring over microfilms of The Oregonian dating back to 1850 with one goal in mind; to collect a detailed chronological history of murder in Portland. This was a project I called the Slabtown Chronology. Although it is not complete it is a very extensive history from 1850 to 1999, the Chronology and the research notes I made during that project will be the source material for my new blog.

The Slabtown Chronology was a bare-bones, “just the facts” chronological history. Now it has evolved into the Slabtown Chronicle where I can explore the crimes I have documented in a more creative way. I hope you like it.


Blogger Jessica said...


As a history buff and native Oregonian, I find your project very interesting! I am currently majoring in psychology and looking into criminal and forensic psychology as well. This is the kind of research I've always been interested in, keep it up!

Best Wishes,

4:17 AM  
Blogger galxzdfndr said...

Hello JD,

I've read that the nickname "slabtown" originated from the circular offcuts of logs that were often used as firewood by impoverished residents of the city's early industrial neighborhoods, particularly the area in the Northwest Plan District. (see, for example: Just curious where you came across references to it in the more sinister context as a reference to tombstones (if I'm interpreting your meaning correctly)?

Very interesting blog! Hope to have time to read more,

(from Portland)

7:48 AM  
Blogger jd chandler said...


It is true that Slabtown is literally the name of a neighborhood in NW Portland where the poor residents burned the cast off slabs from the lumber mills -- sometimes they made their homes out of them too.
As I explain in this post my use of it is more metaphorical. It was fairly common in the 1970s to refer to the North End as Slabtown in this metaphorical sense. As you might be able to tell from this post I wrote it before I had looked into the facts of Portland history as it was known at that time and Stewart Holbrook was a main source. If you read the chapter on Holbrook in my book Hidden History of Portland you will see what further research exposed. Holbrook often used Slabtown the way I do in the name of this blog. Although it is not historically correct to use Slabtown this way -- and it has got me into trouble with other historians -- I still like it as a metaphor for the work I do and I continue to use it this way.
Thanks for reading.

4:39 PM  
Blogger PlaygroundGirl said...

Matt: Yes, it is true that Slabtown is the (unofficial) name of a neighborhood in NW Portland. It lies between Nob Hill and the Pearl. See, e.g.,

1:11 AM  

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