From Zidell to Illahee: put these bunks to bed

I will admit that rarely has a bunk bed been my favored, most comfortable sleeping spot. Decades ago a fall from my brother’s top bunk led to a jagged, sloppily sewn scar I still wear today, created after I struck the corner of a dresser drawer. A decade or so later, I suffered through nights in a dormitory full of bunk beds, saturated with late teen female Crater Lake Lodge staff: hot, smelly, and loud with snoring. But those memories all fade in importance when compared to my thoughts of our real bunk beds. The sets of bunks my siblings and I, our cousins, and the next generation of Montgomery kids and cousins, bedded down in at our Long Beach Peninsula beach house, Illahee. (See My Music Man Chapter 11: Pirates.)

Only recently did I think much about it not being the norm for kids to grow up sleeping in beds once slept in by sailors, narrow cots with railings to keep bodies off naval vessel floors, while sailing in raging, torrential seas. Beds that, instead for us, occasionally served as make-believe islands, protecting us from alligators and pirates, repeated by our own kids a generation later. Beds that also become creaky, uncomfortable sleep spots for unlucky left-over adults when too many of us crammed into our small three-season cabin. Yes, I will, in a sentimental fashion, miss those bunkbeds now that they’ve been put to bed, and replaced with more comfortable and better looking bunks.

Illahee bunks: legacy 1960’s-2019.

Upon the dismantling of the bunks, my cousin reminded us how his dad, our Uncle Bill, secured these from a navy ship during ship breaking activities at Portland’s Zidell yards. Uncle Bill set his two sons to work scraping and painting the bunk beds (too many years ago for me to now worry about lead exposure), setting them up first at his house on Montgomery Way in Wilsonville – where I remember how cool it was for my cousins to have two sets of three story bunk beds! Sometime after that the beds made their way to Illahee where they are all that I remember knowing in our kids’ bunk room.

It now reminds me of this previous blog I posted in 2017.

It wasn’t until reading the Oregonian’s piece on the closing of the barge operations last weekend did I learn that Zidell’s built their first barge in my birth year, 1961. Zidell’s grew out of a south waterfront – well, what we call south waterfront now – scrap yard started by Russian immigrant Yeschie Zajdell, who later called himself Sam Zidell. With steel in high demand after WWII he found a business in dismantling ships, and as we later learned, leaving us with brownsfield and superfund legacies. In all, Zidell built 277 barges varying from 150 to 400 feet, built for all sorts of uses. And although Zidell’s will still be involved in leasing existing barges, we will see no more barge building as we board the aerial tram, but rather more urban living, medical and retail spaces, with a bit of room earmarked to perhaps help our senses adjust to the changing landscape of development, or what some may call progress.

From “Barges, I would like to go with you.”
Dede’s Musings on Life in Oregon, June 21, 2017

When Yeschie Zajdell, later renamed Sam Zidell, first migrated to the U.S. from Russia he began selling secondhand machinery in Roseburg in 1912. The next year he moved to Portland and set up Zidell Machinery and Supply Company, and began selling equipment and supplies to the expanding industrial base. Sam’s son purchased Commercial Iron Works in 1946, turning it into a ship breaking yard, the Ziddell Ship Dismantling Company. Business boomed with scrap steel in high demand, and by the 1960s – the decade Uncle Bill secured those bunk beds -Zidell’s (now known as Zidell Explorations) had become America’s largest ship breaking operation, eventually dismantling 336 ships, including Liberty ships. Also leaving us with a toxic legacy laced with lead, asbestos, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB). Eventually, as demand outstripped the recycled steel supply, Zidell began building barges in 1961, continuing until 2017, as noted in my blog above.

The last of Zidell’s barge building as viewed on the Portland Aerial Tram, June 2017.

Lest we fear our old stories end with the death of the story maker (or the dismantling of old bunks), we are reminded, again, of the power of story. We carry those stories, and pass them on to others. My Dad and his brother’s stories become my generation’s stories, that we now share with our grown kids – kids that also slept on those beds, playing their own pirate and alligator games. And perhaps somewhere, in a world where spirits might live on, Bill laughs, and Dad smiles.

Photo of USS Hornet (CV-12) enlisted bunks


One thought on “From Zidell to Illahee: put these bunks to bed

  1. What an interesting history and legacy of the bunk bed. Made me smile recalling memories of my brothers bunk beds…..sharks and islands and pirates!

    Like

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