Thursday, April 18, 2013

Now You Look Out

This post is dedicated to Dana Beck and my friends at the Sellwood Moreland Improvement League (SMILE).

            Carl Abbott, in his very readable Portland in Three Centuries, gives a good account of the development of Portland on the east side of the Willamette, especially the “steamboat suburb” of Sellwood. In 1882 Henry Pittock, publisher of the Oregonian, and a small group of investors purchased land from the pioneer claims of John Sellwood and Henderson Leulling, and formed the Sellwood Real Estate Company. Within a few months the steamer Dolly began to make regular runs between the Sellwood dock, at the foot of Umatilla St. and downtown Portland. Pittock and his partners platted out streets and town lots and hired a crew to come in and begin clearing timber from the low flat plain, well drained by Crystal Springs Creek.
            Soon the Sellwood waterfront boasted a sawmill and a furniture factory that employeed thirteen fulltime workers. By the time the Morrison Bridge opened in 1887 Sellwood had incorporated as a town and had about 500 residents. The nascent city of Sellwood had an elected town marshal, but was always dependant on the county sheriff for any real law enforcement. Part of the town was in Clackamas County and the rest was in an unincorporated region, so the sheriff in Oregon City had jurisdiction, but in reality the Multnomah County sheriff in Portland was closer. Even though it could take half a day for the sheriff to arrive from Rivercity, this relationship was formalized when Multnomah County annexed Sellwood in 1893.
            Sellwood was seen as a rural retreat from the fast-paced urban life of Portland. On the river just south of town, near the waterworks that pumped water from the Willamette to supply East Portland was the Old Red House, an early version of the road house, or semi-rural drinking establishments. Across the river in bustling Fulton Park was the west side equivalent, The White House. In 1888 Charles Bellegarde, who had already been chased out of the mining fields of Sacramento for his gambling and pimping activities, decided that he wanted to get away from the hurly burly of Portland and opened the St. Charles Hotel in Sellwood.
            The St. Charles was located at the corner of Umatilla and 9th St. (new style 17th Ave) and Bellegarde spared no expense to bring a luxurious environment to the small town. On the northeast corner of the street Bellegard built a saloon with a residential apartment where he lived. Next door he built the two story hotel. Bellegarde, a gambler and rumored to be a French immigrant, was known as a macqueraeu who lived off the earnings of his courtesans. Prostitution was illegal in Oregon in the 19th century, but laws were very selectively enforced. For a couple of years Bellegarde was considered an asset to the community, so his prostitution, gambling and drug use were overlooked. The St. Charles prospered and soon became legendary up and down the Willamette for luxurious dining, gambling and women.
            Charles H. Hewitt, a native of New York, came to Oregon in the 1870s and studied law in the office of Judge Strahan in Albany. In 1883 when Willamette University Law School opened Hewitt joined the first class and then came to Portland to open his practice. Nineteenth century Portland was a land of opportunity for young lawyers. There was political opportunity in the chaotic in-fighting of the Republican Party and there was money to be made in land speculation. There were two areas of law that were especially lucrative: probate and divorce. A crafty lawyer handling these types of cases could often get his hands on pieces of property that could be turned into cash.
            Charles Hewitt was no John H. Mitchell, but he soon had a prosperous practice and his wife, a doctor had a good practice in Vancouver. Between the two of them there was money to invest and a city lot in Sellwood looked like a good investment. Hewitt and Bellegarde had done business together and were friendly. It may have been his friendship with Bellegarde that inspired Hewitt to buy the lot on the southeast corner of Umatilla and 9th in Sellwood, across the street from the St. Charles Hotel. In the spring of 1890 Hewitt began construction on a two story building on that corner.
Clayton's Saloon was on this spot in 1890. The old building was replaced in 1906 and became Gottschalk's Cafe. The building is still there at SE Umatilla and 17th Ave. Today it's known as the Sellwood Inn. Image courtesy of SMILE.

            In 1890 Umatilla and 9th was the center of Sellwood, geographically and socially. Bellegarde’s saloon and brothel was the main attraction, but across the street was the more respectable Clayton Saloon and Livery Stable. A couple of blocks west on Umatilla was the steamer landing, where the new ferry to Fulton Park had been operating for more than a year and Dolly made regular visits. To the north 9th street turned into the long lonely road through the swamps and hills to the Red House and East Portland. Whatever Hewitt had planned for his corner, it would have been a money-maker.
            1890 had not been a good year for Charles Bellegarde. Records are scarce, so it is hard to know if murders or suicides actually occurred in the St. Charles Hotel, but in less than two years it had attained the standing of a “cursed” hotel. People in Sellwood whispered that anyone who slept in the St. Charles was doomed to commit suicide or be murdered. In January 1890 the authorities closed Bellegarde down and soon the abandoned hotel began to look cursed. Bellegarde might have begun to feel cursed too, because soon his wife left him and filed for divorce and his old friend Charlie Hewitt was representing her.
            Bellegarde’s wife, a mysterious French courtesan variously known as Blanche, Victoria or Webfoot Mary, had hired the aggressive attorney to get her share of Bellegarde’s fortune before he gambled or drank it away. To Hewitt the divorce was just business; but Bellegarde took it personally and their friendship had become strained. On July 7, 1890 Hewitt hired a one-horse livery rig in downtown Portland and drove south on the Macadam Road to Fulton Park where he could catch the ferry to Sellwood. He drove up Umatilla St., eyeing the partially erected building on his own lot and parked his horse and rig at Clayton’s Stable across the street.
            Fred Clayton and his wife Anne were running the saloon as usual, while Fred Jr. took care of the stable. Two generations of Claytons would keep the popular saloon and livery stable open until 1906, when George Gottschalk bought the place and put up a new building; still in business as the Sellwood Inn. In the summer of 1890 Charles Hewitt stopped to have a drink in Clayton’s and soon his old buddy Charles Bellegarde joined him. The bad blood between the two friends was well known and the Claytons were very curious. Fred tried to eavesdrop more than once, but Bellegarde was being very cagey. Once he gave Clayton a dime saying, “Get yourself a drink and keep away or it will be your turn.” Clayton didn’t know what he meant, but he got the drift and stayed away.
            Fred and Anne heard enough to know that the two men were talking about Webfoot Mary and Bellegarde seemed very upset. Bellegarde and Hewitt were drinking beer and with each round they loudly proclaimed their friendship and shook hands. It seemed a little stiff, though and soon the men were stiff too. At one point Bellegarde raised his glass and said, “Do you see that beer? My life has been pure as that beer. I have never hurt anyone. I have never killed anyone.” He lowered his beer and gazed into it, then he raised his eyes to his old friend. “I mean to kill you,” he said.
            “Mmph,” spluttered Hewitt, who was pretty drunk too and took the other man’s threat as a joke. Bellegarde drank his beer and soon the two men were staggering across the street toward Bellegarde’s place. As they crossed Bellegarde told Hewitt that he could sleep in the hotel. Hewitt said loudly, “I wouldn’t sleep in that cursed place for a thousand dollars. I’ll take my chances sleeping with you.”
            The next morning things seemed pretty normal, except for the amount of drinking that went on. Charles Bellegarde and Charles Hewitt came into Clayton’s for a couple of drinks before returning across the street for breakfast. Anne Clayton saw the two men arguing on the porch a little while later and Hewitt came across the street for his buggy and talked Fred into riding out to Crystal Springs Creek with him. The weather was nice and Hewitt didn’t say much on the short journey. The two men took the air and then returned to Clayton’s stable. Hewitt went back to Bellegarde’s place.
            About 11:30 men were starting to gather at Clayton’s for lunch when they heard three pistol shots from Bellegarde’s house. Suddenly Charles Hewitt burst through the door and ran into the vegetable garden at the side of the house. Bellegarde emerged in the doorway with a breech-loading shotgun. Hewitt fell to his knees in the garden and begged for his life. 

            “Don’t, Charlie, don’t,” he said.
            Fred Clayton and a few others stood in the street watching the scene and they added their voices to the plea, begging the Frenchman not to shoot. Bellegarde fired the shotgun and Hewitt fell dead in a potato patch. Bellegarde then turned to the on-lookers and brandished the double-barreled shotgun.
            “Now you look out,” he said.
            The witnesses, completely unnerved, scattered and found hiding places. Bellegarde went into his place and slammed the door. The town marshal made himself scarce and the frightened witnesses closed the street and kept everyone away from the death house, sure that to go near Bellegarde’s lair would mean instant death. It took several hours for Multnomah County Coroner George River to arrive and take charge of Hewitt’s body. Since witnesses said that Bellegarde was alive and threatening to kill anyone who came after him he stayed away. Finally Sheriff Penumbra Kelly arrived with two of his men and cautiously approached the house.
            Bellegarde had gone up to his bedroom right after the shooting and standing in front of a mirror slashed his own throat with two steady strokes of a Johnson pipe pattern straight razor. By the time Sheriff Kelly broke into the place Bellegarde had been dead for several hours and his body lay in a large pool of blood. According to the Oregonian, “As soon as the fact of Bellegarde’s death became known the courage of Sellwood’s inhabitants rose 30 degrees, and it was difficult to keep the crowd away from the house.”
            The sensational nature of the crime piqued public interest and Coroner River put the two bodies on display in his funeral parlor at 4th and Yamhill. Mrs. Dr. Hewitt had her husband’s remains taken to Vancouver for burial as soon as the inquest was over; but Charles Bellegarde, with his throat wounds artfully sewn closed, remained on display for a couple of days before being buried in Sellwood Cemetery. The attractive mustachioed macquereau drew quite a crowd, estimated up to 7000, many of them young ladies. The cursed St. Charles Hotel remained vacant for years before becoming the Portland Rug Co, which was operating on the site in 1927. The haunted old building was torn down in 1950 when the current structure replaced it.

Thanks to the Sellwood Moreland Improvement League (SMILE) History Committee for the photograph of Gottschalk’s and research on the neighborhood.

            If you enjoyed this story I hope you will read my book



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