Sunday, March 18, 2018

John Kelly and His Iconic Portland Bar

Kelly’s Olympian, the Portland, Oregon, bar shown above, regularly is featured in local media that trumpet its more than a century in existence.   Nothing, however, is revealed about John E. Kelly, the man who gave his name to the establishment during a lengthy career running Portland saloons and selling whiskey.  This vignette is aimed at remedying that omission by telling Kelly’s story.

John Kelly was born in New York in December of 1865 of immigrant Irish parentage.  While in his late teens, he migrated to Portland, Oregon, possibly because of promised employment with relatives running saloons in the city. He first surfaced in Portland business directories in 1888, at the age of 23 as the co-owner of a saloon located at 147 1/2 Third Street.  His partner was a fellow Irishman, James R. Foley.

By this time Kelly was married and had started a family.  At the age of 21 in 1886 he wed a young woman named Mary Emma, born in Washington State, the daughter of parents originally from the Midwest.  A year later they had an infant son, Francis, called “Frank.”  The 1890 census found the family living in Portland’s Fourth Ward.

Kelly’s partnership with Foley was relatively short-lived.  By 1891, Foley had departed and Kelly had renamed his Third Street drinking establishment the “Elite Saloon.”  About 1900 he had relocated his drinking establishment to 341 Morrison Street and had taken a new partner, a former bartender named D. John Caswell.  Caswell & Kelly became a popular Portland watering hole but by 1909 Kelly had decided that selling liquor as package goods was more lucrative than just by the drink over the bar.

In 1909, without Caswell, he moved down the street to 354 Morrison Street and opened “The Family Liquor Store.”  The establishment also included a bar.  One of his first hires was a Matthew Kelly, a relative and bartender.  Several years later his son, Frank, was hired, initially working as a clerk.  The proprietor issued etched shot glasses, given to favored customers.

Meanwhile, at 127 Sixth Street, another liquor purveyor named Morris Nelson was running The Lotus Buffet and Billiard Parlor, a step up from the usual Portland saloon as indicated by its exterior and internal bar, both shown here. Nelson became known for his giveaway items, that included ceramic “nip” bottles in the shape of an elk’s tooth that celebrating the Benevolent & Protective Order of Elks fraternity.  He also offered carnival glass pin trays, as well as less costly items like matches and bar tokens, shown here.

Whether it was Nelson’s generosity or the advent of a statewide ban on making or selling alcohol, the Lotus was thrust into bankruptcy with the Scandinavian Bank of Portland as the principal debt holder.  Having been forced to shut down his Family Liquor Store as a result of Oregon’s ban on alcohol sales, Kelly saw an opportunity.  Working with the bank he became the manager of the Lotus.  Both Matthew and Frank were employed there.  Although he could not sell booze at the Lotus, Kelly apparently found he liked the restaurant business.  When an opportunity came to own one himself, he took it.

The Olympian had been founded in 1902 as a saloon “tied” to the newly founded Olympia Brewing Company, a practice common in pre-Prohibition days.  The only brews served there were Olympia beers.  Hired by the brewery to manage the establishment was Albert H. Greenberg who made a success of the saloon. It has been described this way:  “It is truly a colorful part of Portland’s history.  In the early days it was a popular gathering spot for locals as well as visiting timber men, sailors, shipyard workers, longshoremen and others passing through.”

In 1916, however, both Olympia Brewery and the Olympian were forced to shut down by the state law.  Anxious to unload the property, the owners were happy to sell it to Kelly.  He incorporated, naming himself as president.  Matthew became vice-president and Frank, secretary-treasurer.   The Olympian Company, as it was now designated, advertised its cigars and tobacco, soft drinks and restaurant food.  Before long, the name was altered to Kelly’s Olympian.

Some speculate that Kelly was not just purveying soft drinks.  The Olympian sits above the Old Portland Underground, better known locally as the “Shanghai Tunnels,” a complex of passages that connected the basements of saloons and hotels to the waterfront.   One tunnel is said to have had an outlet in Kelly’s basement.  More recently it has been discovered that one section of that basement contains a peculiar patching of a wall and remnants of an old tile floor, possibly the remains of a speakasy that existed during the “dry” years.”

Was John Kelly involved?  Both his moves to the Lotus and then to the Olympian suggest to me that he had not given up the liquor trade just because it had been outlawed by Oregon lawmakers.  Having spent much of his life purveying alcolhol, Kelly — I believe — likely had something in mind outside the law.  The answer is unknown as Kelly went to his grave in 1925, age seventy, without an arrest or public confession.  He was buried in Section A, Lot 61, Space 2 of Portland’s Calvary Cemetery.  His wife, Mary Emma, later would join him in Space 1.  His grave is shown here.

About a century after Kelly owned and re-named the saloon, the establishment is still extant, offering whiskey and other liquor as he might have, reckoned the third oldest watering hole in Portland.  Shown above, the place definitely is worth a visit when in the city.  If you go, be sure to lift a glass to John Kelly, a whiskey man worth remembering.  

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