“Thousands Witness Large Fish Cavort”, October 16th, 1931. Part of the sad tale of “McCool’s Whale”, a lone orca that swam up the Columbia to Portland. It entered the side channel between Hayden Island and the south bank of the river, sometimes called “Oregon Slough” or “North Portland Harbor”, and seemingly became scared of swimming under bridges and wouldn’t leave the area between the Highway 99 & railroad bridges.
This naturally attracted hordes of spectators, not all of them law-abiding. In 2011, this would mean a few people would try jumping in the river to commune with the orca, maybe learn some tales of Atlantis via telepathy or some crap like that. In 1931, however, it meant lots of people seeing dollar signs, taking potshots at the poor creature and trying various schemes to catch it.
It’s not unheard of for marine mammals to swim up rivers like this. There was the recent episode where a grey whale and its calf swam into the Klamath River, where the whale eventually died. In 1985 a humpback whale (dubbed “Humphrey”) spent close to a month in San Francisco Bay and the Sacramento River before volunteers led it back to the ocean. That episode gathered a great deal of national media attention, which led the Oregonian to recap the forgotten story of McCool’s Whale.
Unlike the Humphrey episode, there was no happy ending for McCool’s Whale. It swam around between the bridges for days as the authorities tried to figure out what to do with it. On October 24th a gentleman named Edward Lessard, along with his son Joe, harpooned the whale, allegedly for “scientific purposes”. The body was seized as evidence by the county sheriff’s office, and a long legal battle ensued. From the 1985 article:
The authorities wanted to prosecute the Lessards, but they had some trouble finding a charge in the law books. They settled on the accusation of unlawfully killing a fish within the boundaries of the state with a harpoon and spear. The Lessards’ lawyer offered the defense that a whale isn’t a fish, it’s a mammal.
That didn’t wash with District Judge John A. Mears. In his decision he quoted extensively from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” with its message about the bad things that can happen to a man who kills an animal. “He prayeth best who loveth best / All things both great and small,” and fined the Lessards $200 apiece.
But the Lessards appealed to circuit court and there Judge Hall S. Lusk, later a distinguished member of the Oregon Supreme Court and briefly United States senator from Oregon, accepted the biological fact that a whale is not a fish and dismissed the charges.
For the period of the trial in Lusk’s court, the whale hung by its tail, very much in evidence, in the interior light well of the Multnomah County Courthouse.
Having won their case, the Lessards then sued for possession of the whale, and Circuit Court Judge James Crawford awarded it to them. The state appealed, the Oregon Supreme Court ruled that the whale belonged to the state on the grounds that a whale is a “royal fish” — and the governor refused to accept the body.
After nearly a decade in court, the Lessards ended up with the whale’s remains, which they moved to an orchard they owned near St. Helens. It stayed there for another decade, until complaints about the odor forced them to bury it at the same location. As far as anyone knows, it’s still there. Although I can’t help but think this would be a great setup for a really gory monster movie.