Monday, August 21, 2006

Hatchet Job Part Two

The Port Investigation

1933 was a watershed year. Nationally the Republican Party, which had dominated government for more than a decade, was being replaced in power by Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. In Oregon the Republican Party did not intend to give up power so easily.

For most of its history Oregon has been known as a “Rock-Ribbed” Republican state. This was never truer than in the 1920s. With strong support from the Ku Klux Klan, which was enjoying wide popularity throughout the country, a group of unscrupulous Republicans had kept a hammerlock on the state for years. The election of 1932 started the process of their collapse.

Oregon has always had a liking for progressive Republicanism embodied by such figures as Senator Mark Hatfield. In 1930 the progressive wing of the Republican Party got ahead of the New Deal band wagon by advocating publicly owned hydroelectric dams on the Columbia River. George W. Joseph, a prominent Portland attorney was nominated for Governor.

Shortly after his nomination Joseph died and the conservative wing, which controlled the Republican State Central Committee, passed over the primary candidates and nominated Phil Metschan Jr.

Metschan was the son of a Canyon City merchant, from the gold country of Eastern Oregon, who served as Oregon State Treasurer in the 1890s. He was brother in law of Representative K.K. Kubli, who relied on the KKK for his politics as well as his initials, and he was against publicly owned power. Metschan was also a long time Portland Port Commissioner.

Julius Meier, son of the founder of Portland’s most famous department store Meier and Frank and the law partner of George Joseph, took up the mantel of his fallen friend and offered himself as an independent candidate for Governor. Meier was elected by a landslide.

Julius Meier was an energetic and somewhat ruthless leader. His personality seems to have fit the rough and tumble world of the 1930s. He made it a priority of his administration to clean up corruption in government, wherever he found it, as long as it was being practiced by his political enemies.

Portland had plenty of corruption. Portland’s city government has usually been dominated by business owners, but never more than during the 1920s. The national economic policy was laissez faire and in Portland that was taken to extremes. The Port of Portland Commission was a perfect example of the cozy relationship that can develop between business and a government body managing publically owned property. It is also a good example of the casual corruption that can ensue.

Portland is a transportation city. The Columbia River drains one of the richest mining regions in the country. The Willamette waters one of the most fertile agricultural valleys in the world. The products of these two areas are poured through Portland as if through a funnel. By the time of World War I, Portland geographically dominated shipping on these two rivers, but there was no locally owned shipping company.

A group of business men and Portland boosters, led by John C. Ainsworth, the founder of U.S. Bank, organized to promote locally owned shipping. When the war ended in 1918, the Liberty Fleet of quickly made transport ships was the largest merchant fleet on earth. The U.S. government decided to sell these ships off to private owners.

Ainsworth and his partners first leased and then purchased these ships as the States Steamship Company. Soon Portland was once-again a bustling Port giving strong competition to both San Francisco and Seattle. Management of the docks and dry-docks, as well as dredging of the river channels became a pressing need.

The Port Commission of Portland was created to fill this need. The State was responsible for dredging the river channels, so the governor made appointments to the Commission. These positions were usually reserved for members of prominent Portland families and executives of the shipping companies that used the Port facilities. In 1925, the Legislature took over the appointments.

Frank Warren, president of the Port Commission, Phil Metschan and James Polhemus, the manager of the Port saw it as their duty to provide special treatment for their “preferred” customers, especially the States Steamship Company. Kenneth Dawson, Vice President of States, actually served as a Port Commissioner for several years.

States was given special rates on dock usage. States also managed to pull off several purchases of newly purchased dredging equipment at sharply depreciated prices. Coincidentally States then often leased the equipment back to the Port at inflated prices.

The Depression hit Portland hard, but the States Steamship Company came through in good shape and kept business going as much as possible. The Port, on the other hand found itself deeply in debt and heading for serious financial problems. In 1932 the Commission charter was changed to allow Commissioners to be publicly elected. Governor Meier saw his chance to take on the Port.

Bert Haney, a Portland attorney and long time Portland Port booster, ran for president of the Port Commission. Strongly backed by Governor Meier, Haney ran a “Clean up the Port” campaign. Haney won handily and created a subcommittee, consisting of himself, Frank Warren and newly elected Commissioner Paul Bates, to investigate charges of mismanagement.

Frank Akin, an accountant who specialized in auditing, was appointed by Meier to investigate the committee and present his findings to Haney’s subcommittee. Akin had been handed the hottest potato in town and many believed that his real mission was to do a “hatchet job” on the Port. Akin began to receive death threats before he even started investigating.

In March 1933 Akin was assaulted in his southwest Portland apartment. Akin was nothing if not a fighter; he knocked his attacker to the ground and chased him from the room. He would have pressed charges, but he was not able to identify the right man. After the assault, Aiken began to carry a loaded revolver in his pocket. He also kept at least two other handguns and two rifles in his apartment.

Akin’s wife, Imo E. Akin a teacher at Shattuck School, was not surprised to hear of her husband’s death. When told of his murder on November 20, 1933 she said, “Oh Frank, why did you let them do it?” She was convinced from the start that it was her husband’s political enemies that had killed him.

Coming Soon: My new book:
Murder and Scandal in Prohibition Portland

Part One: Akin's Murder Was Never Solved

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Blogger Pete Forsyth said...

This is great stuff. Do you know of any books, articles etc. available online or at the library, that tell more of Joseph, Meier and company?

11:17 AM  
Blogger Tad said...

Coming soon?

2:34 PM  
Blogger jd chandler said...

It's still coming. I promise. Any day now

11:54 PM  
Blogger Clayton Kauzlaric said...

Great posts! Any chance you'll be following up on this story?

6:47 PM  
Blogger jd chandler said...

I do plan to finish telling this story. It will show up here on Slabtown and possibly in a new book.

6:15 PM  

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