The Spruce Goose

When we think of an eccentric billionaire we tend to think of Elon Musk, but for decades before, the poster child for the archetype was Howard Hughes.

Musk and Hughes both shared an interest in aviation and exploration, and both went big. Hughes went really big.

I deviated off Highway 5 to see one of Hughes’ biggest follies. I was traveling to the town of McMinnville, Oregon (pop. 34,000), while it is only about an hour from Portland, the town seemed to be in the middle of nowhere and an unlikely location for housing the largest seaplane in the world.

This seaplane, coined the “Spruce Goose” (a nickname that Hughes always hated), is now housed in the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum. It was nicknamed the Spruce Goose because it is the largest wooden airplane ever built. It also was given the moniker, The Flying Lumberyard, a name I think Hughes also hated.

The massive seaplane was designed during World War II as a cargo plane to ship goods across the Atlantic Ocean while avoiding the attention of German U-boats. The Spruce Goose only flew once, on November 2, 1947 in Long Beach, California. The plane was only airborne at a maximum height of 70 feet for 26 seconds. By the time of this test fight, the war was over and the plane was no longer needed.

The plane went into storage and was keep in pristine condition by a crew of 300 that were on Hughes’ payroll. They were sworn to secrecy and the aircraft was kept in flying condition but the Spruce Goose never flew again. In 1962, the crew was reduced to a fraction of it’s size and then was disbanded on Hughes death in 1976.

For many years the Spruce Goose (officially known as the Hughes H-4 Hercules) was displayed in a dome called the Spruce Goose Dome in Long Beach, California from 1980 to 1992. The new owners of the dome (a small company named Disney) felt that the oversized airplane was not making them enough money so a search was made for a new home for the massive airplane.

The new home was found in Oregon and the Spruce Goose was disassembled and shipped by barge, train, and truck and after a 138 day and 1,055 mile journey, the longest distance the H-4 ever travelled, the Goose arrived in McMinnville, Oregon.

The Spruce Goose is so massive that the museum was built around the plane and it upstages all the other aircraft on display beneath it’s massive wings. Sketching the H-4 proved to be a real challenge because you cannot get far enough away from the plane to capture it in it’s entirety. So I had to sketch it in pieces: the front (featured sketch) and the tail.

I could barely get three of the eight engines into one photo of the Spruce Goose. This airplane is massive!


The Exploding Whale of Florence

One place I wanted to visit on the Oregon Coast is Florence. Why? It’s the setting of the exploding whale.

In 1970, an eight ton, 45 foot long, sperm whale washed ashore on South Jetty Beach near Florence. While this must have been a local attraction for a short time, the dead whale began to smell. And the stench began to turn heads. The breeze off the Pacific Ocean was blowing the stench of the rotting whale right into downtown Florence.

How do you get rid of an eight ton whale? Well the Oregon State Highway Division had an idea, a very optimistic idea for a very large problem.

First they had to discount other ideas. Burying the whale meant the constant wave action would expose the copse before too long. To tow it out to sea by boat would be costly in diesel fuel because you would have to tow the whale far enough out so it would not be returned again by the tides to South Jetty Beach. The whale could be cut up and then buried but that would require a very large chain saw and a lot of labor. So of course they went with the cheaper solution: dynamite.

In fact, half a ton of dynamite.

So on November 12, 1970, dynamite was placed under the whale with the intention that it would be blown into smithereens and what was left of the sperm whale would be taken care of by gulls and other scavengers.

Locals came out as if they where going out on an afternoon picnic to watch the spectacle. The dunes to the east of the whale provided a natural sloped amphitheater. Some spectators were a little too close and they where moved a quarter of a mile away from the dynamited corpse.

Then the countdown began and the dynamite was detonated sending sand and fire and whale bits, 100 feet into the air. What blows up, must come down and flaming whale parts began raining down on the spectators who were now where running for their lives. One large piece of sperm whale landed on a parked Oldsmobile, crushing it.

What was left of the whale, once the sand cleared? Well a whole lotta whale.

The Exploding Whale of Florence, Oregon has now become part of folklore. It is the type of story, when retold, the listener grows incredulous, doubting that this could really ever happen. But it did.

The town of Florence has embraced it’s erupted cetacean past. In 2019, the Exploding Whale Memorial Park was established along the northern tidal banks of the Siuslaw River.

The setting of the scene of the exploding whale still exists and I headed out to South Jetty Beach with my sketching chair and started to sketch the beach facing north (featured sketch). And parts of the eight ton sperm whale still exists in the the Siuslaw Pioneer Museum. In the museum, in a glass case, are bones, including vertebrae, of the failed dynamiting of the sperm whale. Included in the sketch is the whale’s vertebrae in the left side of the featured sketch before I headed out on my South Jetty Beach sketching adventure.


Buster Keaton’s The General

For some time I wanted to visit the filming locations of Buster Keaton’s masterpiece The General, if any of locations still existed. (One location used in the film is now underwater!)

The film was made during the summer of 1926 in and near the town of Cottage Grove, Oregon. The forested backgrounds and the tracks of the Oregon, Pacific and Eastern Railroad made Cottage Grove an ideal filming location to fill in as Georgia during the Civil War.

But was there anything still recognizable? Probably not too much but with the help of the book Silent Echos: Early Hollywood Through the Films of Buster Keaton by John Bengston, I could find a few reminders of those days in the summer of 1926.

A pre-trip sketch of a scene filmed on the double tracks near downtown Cottage Grove. In the background of this shot is Hansen Butte, which is still very much recognizable today (see featured sketch).

The General has long been considered a masterpiece of the silent film era and one of Buster Keaton’s best. In the Sight And Sound list of The Greatest Movies of All Time, The General comes in at number 34, the highest ranked silent comedy on the list. Orson Welles (whose own masterpiece, Citizen Kane, comes in at Number 2) once described The General as, “the greatest comedy ever made, the greatest Civil War film ever made, and perhaps the greatest film ever made”. Now that’s saying something!

The film is loosely based on a real incident known as the Great Locomotive Chase which occurred during the Civil War on April 12, 1862 in northern Georgia. It involved the theft, by a northern raiding party, of the locomotive The General and the pursuit by the locomotive The Texas for about to 90 miles.

On Main Street is the Cottage Grove Hotel where Keaton and the crew stayed during the filming. This hotel can be seen from the filming location which is now the Row River Trail. The hotel now sports a mural.

Many of the train scenes were filmed on a pair of parallel double tracks that ran for about half a mile on the former Oregon, Pacific and Eastern Railroad. These tracks were appealing to the film crew because two trains could run parallel to each other, one train with the camera and crew, the other train, the subject of the shot and the actors (including Keaton). The tracks are now gone (the railroad was scrapped and removed in 1994), but you can now explore the former rail right of way by either foot or bike. The former railroad is now the Row River Trail.

The section with the double track runs behind a Safeway. While the area is completely changed since 1926, the hills in the background (Hansen Butte and Know Hill) are still the same (see featured sketch). I did walk down the path and did a sketch of the former filming location.

This is looking west down the former tracks of the Oregon, Pacific and Eastern Railroad used for filming The General.
Riding east on the Row River Trail, the filming location of many scenes in The General. The back of the Safeway is on the upper right. More about this cinematic bike ride in the next post! (No cyclists were injured in the taking of this photograph).

Cinema’s Bikeway: Row River Trail

The Row River Trail has a rich Oregon film perigee. I have previously posted about the railroad being used in Buster Keaton’s masterpiece The General. This location, then the Oregon, Pacific and Eastern Railroad, was used again in the summer of 1985 for a classic coming-of-age story.

But first, to really explore the trail, I needed a bike. And so it was that I stood before Rainy Peak Bicycles, five minutes before 10 AM, waiting for the shop to open. The shop, on Main Street, is a mere five blocks from the start of the Row River Trail. The shop mainly repairs bikes but because of the popularity of the Row River Trail, they have a side hustle renting bikes.

But before I go on any great, or not so great, undertaking, I draw a map. In this case, the first ten miles of the Row (rhymes with “cow”) River Trail. Here I have noted milage and some of the locations I wanted to see, such as the location collapse of the train trestle from The General, which was the single most expensive shot in silent film history. Unfortunately getting to the spot requires trespassing on private property so I was not able to sketch the scene (and I did not want to get shot in the attempt).

I started off on the trail and it was easy going because it was a railroad grade and relatively flat. The first mile or so was used for a large number of the shots in The General. The next landmark I was looking forward to seeing was at milepost 3: the Mosby Creek Bridge.

The Mosby Creek Bridge was where the adventure begins in Rob Reiner’s classic film Stand By Me (1986). Back when the movie was filmed, railroad tracks spanned the bridge that crosses Mosby Creek and the four boys walk onto the the tracks here, and cross over the bridge on their journey to look for the body of Ray Brower (the film is based on Stephan King’s novella The Body). The bridge looks very much the same as the day when production occurred here in the summer of 1985. Today the rails have been replaced with asphalt and it is now a popular hiking and biking trail.

After crossing the bridge, the Row River Trail heads east in a straight section. It was along this straight section of the railroad that the first train dodge scene was filmed in which the character Teddy Duchamp (Corey Feldman) attempts to dodge an ongoing freight train.

I pulled over and pulled out my sketchbook and pencil bag. I stood in the middle of the the trail, assuming the perspective (and camera angle) of Teddy Duchamp, played by Corey Feldman. In 1985, he was looking down the rails to an oncoming steam freight train. The locomotive used in the shot was a 2-8-2 #19 which was built in 1915 and at the time was leased from the Yreka Western Railroad in Northern California. Luckily Teddy was pulled from the tracks by Chris, played by River Phoenix.

Riding a bike on the Row River Trail was one of the highlights of my summer break. The freedom of self-propulsion, the surrounding cinema history, and the beautiful scenery made this a memorial experience.
These Oregon Film Trail signs were a great help. This one is alone the shore of Dorena Lake near where the campfire scene was filmed in Stand By Me. Oh and later that day I did visit Brownsville, filling in as the fictional town of Castle Rock.
This the the bridge featured in the end of Stand By Me. This leads to the town of Brownsville, or which stood in for the town of Castle Rock in the film.
This perspective of Brownsville, is seen at the beginning of the film when Gordie Lachance (played by Wil Wheaton) walks down the street.


Before returning to the classroom I took a final summer road trip that took me up north to the state of Oregon, with a slight dabble into Washington.

Ashland, Portland, and the Oregon Coast were all destinations on the  1,824 miles I logged on this journey . In two sketchbooks I completed 22 sketches in the week I spent in the Beaver State (in truth two sketches were done in Northern California).

The three sketches included in this post are all field sketches from Stumptown, or Portlandia, or P-town, aka The City of Roses: Portland, Oregon.


Line sketch of Portland’s iconic Union Station Tower, on the west bank of the Willamette River.


The lumberjack (circa 1959) that is the sentinel of North Portland (NOPO).