It’s a hot summer night downtown, and I’m tucked away inside a hidden jazz club …
Back in 1905, the South Waterfront was a rough and tumble neighborhood within our bustling port city. The streets were full of sailors and men who came from all over the world to work the railroads, mills and factories. When night fell they sought drink and diversion within one of the many local establishments.
This included The White Eagle, a saloon owned by two Polish immigrants, Barney Soboleski and William Hryszko, the white eagle being symbolic of their national flag. Their immigration papers are still intact and framed upstairs at the bar today. They were miners in their home country, but in Portland they were entrepreneurs.
These days The White Eagle is a café, saloon, and “rock ‘n’ roll hotel.” There is a beautiful and spacious patio outside, with a bar and cozy corner stage within it. An outdoor entrance opens up to a grand, steep, staircase that leads to the hotel’s 11 guest rooms. The heritage still shines through on a menu of Polish sausages and fine Polish vodka. (The rest of the menu, particularly Neon’s List, is also superb.)
The building is rich in history, which includes exaggerated legends and ghostly yarns. It’s not just that the entertainment at The White Eagle was raucous way back when; there was a rumored brothel upstairs and an opium den in the basement. The basement also supposedly included a tunnel that connected to an underground network used to “shanghai” inebriated or unconscious patrons to waiting ships. Upstairs in those days, the drinks led to the brutal exchange of fists. So much so that the saloon was nicknamed “The Bucket Of Blood.”
Later, Prohibition calmed the neighborhood (although that kept the alleged tunnels in use), and when the alcohol laws were lifted it remained a tamer version of itself for the working class nightlife. That included many workers of the Fremont Bridge that was taking shape overhead in the late ’60s. The nightlife energy ramped up again in the ’70s, but this time because The White Eagle was beginning to build its live music tradition. Today, a walk through the property tells a story through old show posters and black and white photographs of crowds enjoying bands like The Holy Modal Rounders. This is how the McMenamin brothers came to find the property, as a lot of the locations they’ve acquired are places where they went to enjoy music.
The calendar is always full of diversity. There is a weekly open bluegrass jam. October brings acts such as Yonatan Gat, The Lovely Lost and Alejandro Escovedo (who just recorded a new album in Portland with Scott McCaughey of Minus 5 and Peter Buck of R.E.M.)
October also marks the venue’s 111th birthday with The Reverb Brothers and Garcia Birthday Band playing the party. And, of course, it’s Halloween. That’s a fitting time to visit The White Eagle and its reputation for being one of the most haunted places in Portland. Flying objects, strange noises, and a mysterious apparition named Rose could be part of the show.»