The Rise and Fall of Portland's Pinball Gangsters
EVERY TUESDAY, pinball fanatics inundate Portland. At Rose City Pinball's weekly tournaments, competitors face each other down, tilting the machines as they jostle against them, and more than a few words of anger are exchanged. It's all fine weeknight fun now, but back in the early- and mid-20th century, these tournaments would have been a hotbed of disreputability.
These days, pinball is associated with a certain kind of geek nostalgia. If people think of it at all, they think of it as the thing that preceded Pong and Space Invaders in America's arcades. Pinball, though, used to be the tip of the vice iceberg, and along with booze it was the profitable province of gangsters. The same men who ran gambling, prostitution, and unlicensed alcohol also hustled around coin machines—notably, New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia banned pinball machines in 1942. And in Portland, the blinking lights and zooming balls were a huge source of revenue and the eventual catalyst for the downfall of Jim Elkins, one of the most successful criminals in our city's history.
Back in the early 1900s, Portland was still an industrial river town. The industries we now associate with Stumptown were nowhere to be seen—no sportswear, no tech, no ad agencies, and no microbreweries. It was, more than anything else, a glorified warehouse with a huge population of young, unskilled transient male labor. According to Gonzaga University historian Robert C. Donnelly (author of Dark Rose: Organized Crime and Corruption in Portland), exact demographics are hard to come by, but he estimates that at any given time about five percent of the city's population were transient industrial laborers, seeking out work in the timber and shipping industries that formed Portland's economic base. Like any town filled with itinerant labor, Portland was flush with businesses catering to that demographic: saloons, bordellos, amusement halls, and gambling parlors.
The classic image of a rough-and-tumble Wild West saloon includes a poker table—popular media has portrayed, time and again, the image of burly men with adventurous facial hair trying to outbid, out bluff, and outplay each other. Poker, though, was actually a fairly high-stakes game, and not readily accessible to many of the working-class residents who populated Portland. While card games were not unheard of, they were not really the base of the gambling and gaming economy here. All of the real money was in coin machines.
Electronic gaming machines were far more accessible than card games. With coin machines you didn't have to know the rules, the players, the dealer, or even have much money. "Anyone off the street," says Donnelly, "had enough money to pull the arm once." And back then, the difference between pinball and slots was blurry. While conventional slot machines did exist, some pinball machines also paid out. Winners were often rewarded with tokens or cash, and gambling on scores was common.
Phil Stanford, former columnist for the Portland Tribune and the Oregonian and author of Portland Confidential, says that pinball back then occupied a niche similar to marijuana today. "The people who wanted to get rid of slot machines went after pinball machines, too," he explains. "Much in the same way that law enforcement goes after marijuana." In other words, it was perceived to be a gateway to gambling and other vices.
One of the most successful criminals in mid-20th century Portland was Jim Elkins, a racketeer and numbers runner who moved here from Arizona. Elkins' rise-and-fall narrative reads like a Portland version of Scarface, but instead of kilos of cocaine, Elkins furnished residents with the bright lights and fast action of electronic gaming machines.
In Arizona, Elkins had done prison time for shooting his way out of a botched robbery attempt. After getting out of jail, he moved here in 1937 to join his brother Fred, who was involved in distribution of pinball machines to Portland's well-populated bars and taverns.
"He had a scheduled route where he controlled and maintained the gambling machines, to the point where he was so successful that he was kind of competing with Al Winter," says Donnelly. Winter was the famous mobster who ran Portland before relocating to Las Vegas, where he went into business with the Sahara (the McMenamins bar Al's Den is named after him). "Eventually Fred and Jim said, 'Okay, it's time, we're going to take it over.' They took a shotgun and they said 'Hey, it's time for you to retire,'" says Donnelly. Suddenly, at the point of a shotgun, the Elkins brothers became major players in the Portland pinball scene.
Elkins used his contacts to tightly regulate and control gambling in Portland. Most notably he used his connections inside the Portland police department to shut down rival racketeers from Minneapolis who attempted to set up here without cutting him in on the action. Virtually every time someone walked into a bar or tavern and put a coin into a slot or pinball machine, they were enriching Elkins. He also dipped into unlicensed drinking establishments but claimed to stay away from prostitution. In any case, the numbers man worked hand in glove with the police. Cops universally looked the other way from whatever amusements Elkins provided to the population of Portland, happily accepting bribes and favors from him and his functionaries.
Elkins eventually overreached. He had his machines in bars and taverns across Portland when he set his eyes on a venue far larger than any mere watering hole—he wanted his gaming machines in the Teamsters' Labor Temple. To seal the deal, Elkins had to make a trip up to Seattle and speak with the regional Teamsters boss. He was able to get his machines in the Labor Temple, but there was a catch—he had to cut a Teamster numbers runner in on the Portland pinball action. In doing so, Elkins sowed the seed for his own downfall and events that would change the crime scene in Portland forever.
The Teamsters were not happy with the small concession Elkins had given them. They wanted a bigger cut, and began meeting with Portland city officials about setting up gambling operations outside of Elkins' control. Elkins caught wind of this, and eventually bugged a meeting between Teamsters and Portland city officials discussing which vice operation would be quasi-recognized by the city. "It came down to which crooks would be licensed, so to speak," says Stanford, "which ones would be allowed to operate."
Elkins felt the walls closing in on him. With the vast resources of the Seattle Teamsters moving into Portland, he knew that his days of controlling payouts, gambling, and law enforcement in the city were over. So he went to the press. Two reporters for the Oregonian, William Lambert and Wallace Turner (known in the Portland underworld as Bugeyes and Fishface, respectively), were looking into corruption in city officials and law enforcement. Elkins took his story (as well as his tapes of Teamsters talking to city officials) to them, and in April of 1956, the city's collusion with out-of-town gangsters was splashed all over the front page.
Then the feds got interested. In 1957, city officials including the mayor and district attorney were dragged to Washington, DC. The Senate's McClellan Committee (as it became known) was looking into organized crime throughout the US, and Portland's problems were well publicized, so the Rose City made for low-hanging fruit. In a memorable moment during the proceedings, a senator yelled at Portland's district attorney that, due to the malfeasance and corruption of city officials, the citizens of Portland ought to fly their flags at half-mast as a gesture of public shame. No city officials were successfully prosecuted for their corruption, however; the star witness, Jim Elkins, was simply not considered trustworthy. But the system of corruption was dragged into daylight for all to see.
After talking to reporters and government investigators, Jim Elkins was finished. Portland's number-one numbers runner was reduced to a pathetic husk of his old self, and made a few lackluster attempts at robbery and safecracking, including an attempt (and failure) to rob a Safeway. The former kingpin was run out of town, and returned to his native Arizona.
Well past 60, Elkins attempted to start small and possibly move into Tucson or Phoenix. But before he could reconstruct his erstwhile empire, the former kingpin died in 1968. Official word was that he had a heart attack while driving and hit a telephone pole. According to Stanford, though, Elkins actually died from two bullet wounds to the chest from an unknown assailant.
After the late 1950s, pinball in Portland and elsewhere became disentangled from gambling and organized crime. The legend "For Amusement Only" became standard on many machines as a nudge-and-wink way of saying "no gambling allowed."
In the Portland of the 1950s, today's pinball enthusiasts in places like Ground Kontrol, C Bar, and Slingshot would have been the clients of gangsters. That's hardly the case now. Portland still teems with pinball machines and the bland blue glow of video poker has replaced illicit slots. Jim Elkins is nowhere to be found.