Deleted Scenes from The Lost Subways: The Time the KKK Almost Took Over Portland

The Portland chapter was cut for length, so I'm posting it here.


Portland straddles both sides of the 800-foot-wide Willamette River, and the 1920s were a golden age for bridgebuilding.  Between 1900 and 1920, the city’s population had nearly tripled, and its inadequate transit infrastructure was creaking under the load. (A map of the streetcar system at the time is here.) The bridges over the Willamette were no exception.  The old wrought-iron Burnside Bridge used by Portland Railway Light & Power’s streetcars was the worst of the lot and was in dire need of replacement.      

The 1920s were also a golden age for the Ku Klux Klan in Oregon. The Klan, at the time, was a political behemoth. Klan votes swept Democrat Walter Pierce – a Klan fellow traveler – into the governor’s office in 1922, and Klan members were everywhere within Portland’s political arena.  

Thus, when it came time for the Multnomah County Commission to replace the Burnside Bridge, it should come as shocking but not surprising that the Klan was also involved.  The three Klan-allied members of the Multnomah County Commission tried to rig the bidding process in favor of a Klan-connected contractor. These men, named Charles Rudeen, J. Howard Rankin, and Dow Walker, failed miserably at fixing the bids.  And not only did they get caught red-handed – the political fallout from the ensuing scandal was so bad that it helped bring down the entire Oregon Klan.

1. 100 Percent Americanism

The idea of Portland (and Oregon more generally) as a Ku Klux Klan stronghold is an odd thought to ponder, at first glance.  21st-century Portland is a bastion of liberal politics, after all.  But before we get to all that, it’s necessary to distinguish which Klan we’re talking about.

Three unrelated groups of white supremacists have used the Ku Klux Klan name.  The original Klan (1865-71) was an anti-black terrorist organization in the southern states.  It was made up of ex-Confederates and led by ex-Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest. This first Klan was destroyed by federal prosecutors during the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant.   The second Klan (1915-1944) was a nationwide, anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic anti-black fraternal organization that doubled as a multilevel marketing scheme. To put it into a modern context, the second Klan was one part racist Lions Club, and one part Herbalife.  The third Klan (ca. 1955-present) is a motley collection of small, independent white supremacist groups, all of which claim to be the true heirs to the legacies of Klans I and II. The first Klan and the third Klan had little or no support in Oregon.  But the second Klan did.

At the time, Catholics and Jews from Southern and Eastern Europe were immigrating to America in enormous numbers, changing the face of America and setting off a nativist backlash.  The nativist reactionaries drew their core support from white, middle-class Protestants of Northern European descent.  And Oregon of the 1920s was a deeply conservative, conformist place dominated by an old boy’s club of white Protestants.  It was fertile terrain for the Klan, which positioned itself as the defender of Anglo-Saxon Protestant values and traditions against Catholics, Jews and blacks. The Klan, famously, said that its platform was, simply, “100 Percent Americanism.”

2. Movies Are a Bad Influence

It’s not an exaggeration to say that the second Klan came into being because grown adults took a Hollywood blockbuster way too seriously.  D. W. Griffith’s 1915 movie Birth of a Nation was the year’s biggest hit, and the highest-grossing film in history until it was passed by Gone With the Wind.  Birth of a Nation was as technically brilliant as it was reprehensibly racist.  (In the film, Ku Klux Klan members are the heroes who defend womanly virtue, white supremacy, and the American way from rapacious black ex-slaves and Northern carpetbaggers.)  Birth of a Nation’s success led an ambitious Atlanta preacher named William J. Simmons to re-establish the Klan as a nativist organization for white Protestant men.  Simmons consciously modeled the Klan’s structure after other fraternal organizations, like the Oddfellows, the Shriners, and the Rotary Club.  Simmons cribbed the new Klan’s symbols and pageantry – burning crosses, pointy white hoods, horses wearing bedsheets – from Birth of a Nation.

This revived Klan grew like wildfire.  While its membership lists were officially secret, the Klan generally operated in the open, putting on parades, throwing parties, and hosting picnics.  Oregon was an ideal incubator for this incarnation of the Klan. Nearly 90% of the state’s population at the 1920 Census were native-born white Protestants.  The Klan entered Oregon in 1921.  The Klan rapidly made themselves a political force, running a popular “One Flag, One School” campaign to force the closure of all Catholic and Jewish schools within the state by banning private schools outright.   (At the time, ¾ of Oregon private school students attended Catholic schools.)  The Klan-backed candidate in the 1922 gubernatorial election, Walter M. Pierce, vowed to ban parochial schools, and cooperated with the KKK during the campaign.  Pierce, a Democrat, won a clear majority of 31,000 votes in a state where Republicans outnumbered Democrats 2.6:1. This victory was largely due to Klan support.

Portland’s mayor, police chief, district attorney, mayor, and chief federal prosecutor all openly met with Klan leadership in August of 1921, with reporters present.  By 1923, Oregon had the largest Klan membership west of the Mississippi, with over 35,000 members statewide and 15,000 in Portland alone.  That is, 16% of all Portland adult men – one in six – were Klan members.  Per capita, Oregon had the most Klan members of anywhere in the country.  

3. The Burnside Bridge

The same Klan leadership which had gotten Governor Pierce into office was also influential at the local level. Rudeen, Rankin, and Walker owed their positions on the Multnomah County Commission to Klan endorsements. At the time, the Commission was making major infrastructure improvements, as the public had approved a large bond to build two new road bridges south of downtown Portland and to replace the old Burnside Bridge.  Portland’s Klan members took advantage of this confluence of events, and conspired with the three Klan-allied Commissioners to line their pockets corruptly.

The plan was simple. The Commissioners would open the bidding period for the new bridges, and a consortium of Klan-connected contractors would submit a bid for the bridges.  After the Klan bid was received, the Commissioners would immediately close the bidding.  At first, the plot went well. At the appointed time, April Fool’s Day 1924, the awaited bid came in.  The Klan-connected consortium proposed to build all three bridges for $5 million ($80m in 2022 dollars), take it or leave it.  The Commissioners immediately accepted the bid and awarded the contract to the Klansmen.  Shortly thereafter, the plot went off the rails.  An honest bidder named C. F. Swigert also managed to submit a bid before the deadline.  And Swigert’s bid for the Burnside Bridge was lower than the Klan bid by $500,000 ($8 million in 2022 dollars).  The furious Swigert immediately went to the newspapers, and filed a lawsuit alleging fraud.  The ensuing brouhaha was all over the papers for weeks.

4. End of the Line

Governor Pierce was forced to order an investigation. The investigation found out that the situation was even worse than it initially appeared.  The corrupt Commissioners hadn’t just picked the overpriced Klan bid – they had also received $50,000 ($800,000 in 2022 dollars) from mysterious sources. Rudeen and Walker weren’t just taking bribes.  Rudeen and Walker had also bought land in the path of one of the new bridges before the bridge route had become public.  It was rumored, but never proven, that Walker’s insurance company had sold insurance policies to the Klan-affiliated contractors.

Portland voters were furious. A recall vote followed shortly thereafter and all three were run out of town on a rail.  65% of the electorate voted to recall Rankin; 85% voted to recall Rudeen and Walker.  This shameless corruption led rank-and-file Klan members to quit the organization en masse.  Thus, in short order, the Klan’s leadership became persona non grata among Portland’s power brokers.  It was a crushing blow to the Oregon Klan.  This scandal, coupled with similar ones rocking the Klan across the state, would bring a swift end to the Klan’s reign in Oregon. By 1925, the Portland chapter had collapsed.  By 1930, every other chapter in the state had dissolved.

As for the Burnside Bridge, the replacement county commissioners chose a different contractor and froze out the Klan-connected ones.  The new Burnside Bridge would carry streetcar traffic until 1950, when Portland’s last local streetcar lines closed.  The Burnside Bridge still exists today, though it carries no train traffic. Portland’s modern MAX light rail system runs over the Steel Bridge, 1/3 mile (500m) to the north.

Older Post Newer Post

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published