Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Hermiston fisherman lands bonus catch

A Hermiston confectionary store owner and sporting goods dealer reeled in a much larger prize than he was expecting on a fishing trip to Cold Springs Reservoir outside Hermiston in August of 1919.

Henry Hitt was relaxing while fishing for bass on a sunny afternoon on Aug. 19, 1919, trailing a hook baited with a tempting-looking minnow across the wind-blown waves and into the weeds at the shore. One particularly long cast sent his lure out of eyesight, and just as it disappeared Hitt felt a tugging on his line.

Hitt set the hook, assuming the battle was on. But Hitt’s line did not immediately dash for deeper water, and he began to think he had perhaps caught something not of the fishy persuasion  — perhaps a mink, like fellow fisherman Bill Matthews, or a water snake like the one towed in by John Dunning.

As he pulled his line in slowly, Hitt was surprised to see a pelican stroll from behind the bushes, attempting as it walked toward him to eat the minnow without also swallowing the line and the hook.

Hitt captured the bird and removed the hook, then packed his peculiar catch up and took it home. The pelican made itself at home around Hermiston for a time, and Hitt later returned it to its home at the reservoir.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Blacksmith’s spark ignites powder cache

An explosion ripped through a blacksmith’s shop west of Pendleton on July 16, 1907, leaving two brothers badly burned and the shop incinerated.

Brothers Leon and Ed Kidder, ages 19 and 21, were working on a threshing machine in the blacksmith shop on the family farm three miles west of Pendleton along the Umatilla River in preparation for wheat harvest. A spark from the anvil off a red-hot piece of metal fell on a 50-pound can of black powder that had been stored in the shop by another Kidder brother, setting off a horrific explosion.

Leon, the youngest of the brothers, was terribly burned from the waist up and his clothing was burned completely off his body. His injuries were thought to be potentially fatal. Ed, who was further away from the powder cache when it exploded, was also badly scorched on his face and hands, but was expected to survive the blast.

The explosion obliterated the interior of the shop and set the building on fire. A Greek section crew from the O.R. & N railroad working nearby put out the fire while one of their members rode a handcar into town to summon the doctor.

Leon was taken to St. Anthony Hospital in Pendleton in serious condition, where the burned skin was removed from his upper body and arms. Unable to lie down because of the extent of his injuries, he was forced to sleep sitting in a chair. Two months later, Leon returned home from the hospital to recover from his burns. His arms were still disabled, but doctors thought his injuries would not be permanent.

Older brother Ed’s burns were not considered serious, and he was ready to begin threshing wheat six days after the blast, on the machine whose repair sparked the explosion.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Gophers develop taste for airport wiring

A new air terminal building was dedicated at the Pendleton airport in June of 1953, but some rascally rodents were determined to make things tough for air traffic controllers and pilots trying to land at the updated airfield.

Part of the upgrades at the airport was a $48,000 high-intensity lighting system for the runways, complete with wiring shielded with a rubber coating specifically designed to deter the predations of the resident gopher population, which had delighted in sharpening their long teeth on the old lead cables. But the rodents were just as cheerful about gnawing the new rubber insulation. “We’ve had pieces of cable that looked like a cob of corn with bites taken out of it,” said city manager Raymond Botch during a city council meeting on June 17, 1953.

The new lighting system had been limited to medium intensity since the beginning of spring, when the newly awakened gophers’ chewing had left the system susceptible to outages at higher intensities. The airport electrical maintenance supervisor, Herb Wiles, complained that extermination would be next to impossible — poison would be too slow and, with thousands of gopher mounds to contend with, cyanide gas would be ineffective.

But he did have an alternate plan. Wiles suggested pouring a concrete casing around the wires, buried about 18 inches underground. At the same time the casing was being laid, a third wire could be added to the two-wire system to solve the problem of large voltage drops and varying light intensities. The contractor who installed the wiring — but only installed two of the three wires requested — would provide a portion of the necessary funds as part of a settlement with the city.

Botch commented that the Pendleton and Walla Walla areas seemed to have more gophers than most other nearby locales.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Button, dust lead to burglary conviction

It was good old-fashioned police work at its best.

Hill Meat Company in Pendleton was burglarized the night of Feb. 14, 1971, and the firm’s safe had been literally torn apart and scattered around the office. Cash totaling $1,800 was stolen.

Oregon State Police officers John Williams and Jim Toddy began their investigation by interviewing W.D. Perkins, the Hill Meat employee that discovered the burglary at 8:15 a.m. Perkins told the officers that an early 1960s beige station wagon had been seen in the company parking lot the evening prior to the theft.

Pendleton police officer Don Isom also saw the car in the area. He had stopped a similar vehicle in the Sherwood area at 4:45 a.m. for running a stop sign. He talked to the car’s two occupants, George Wesley Storms and Inez Guerrero, who Isom said seemed short of breath and nervous. He let them go with a warning. Police soon learned that both men were convicted safe burglars, but the men and the car had vanished.

Meanwhile, OSP investigators at the scene of the burglary found a single black button in the wreckage of the safe. With this and the descriptions of the two suspects, they asked Umatilla County District Attorney R.P. Smith and District Judge Richard Courson for a search warrant. Smith then headed for Portland, where Storms and Guerrero were well known to law enforcement.

The suspect vehicle was spotted at a Portland bar, and Storms was arrested. Portland police seized the vehicle and OSP investigators Williams and Toddy, and Reg Madsen of the state police crime lab, made a thorough search. In the car they found a copy of the Feb. 13 East Oregonian newspaper and some dust, which was collected with a vacuum cleaner.

But that wasn’t enough evidence to make a solid case. So Portland police, armed with a second warrant, raided a home where Storms was known to have visited recently. And there they collected a black jacket with a missing button. Dust in the pockets of the jacket was also collected.

Pendleton police, armed with mug shots of the two suspects, learned that they had been at Hill Meat Co. a few days prior to the burglary, asking for jobs. But the big break occurred when police interviewed Barry Clift at his service station on Southwest Emigrant Avenue, and learned the suspects’ car had stopped there around 7:15 a.m. the morning following the burglary. Clift said one of the men had pockets full of coins and boasted of making “quite a score.”

Crime lab reports matched the black button to the jacket, and the dust in the car and in the pockets of the jacket included particles of fire clay and paint from the ransacked safe.
During Storms’ trial on June 3, 1971, the prosecution called 18 witnesses to the stand. The jury was out only 20 minutes before returning a verdict of guilty. The 44-year-old Storms was sentenced to 10 years in state prison.

Guerrero faced the same charge, but at the time of the trial was being held in a Portland jail on a charge of armed robbery.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Telephone operators save Pilot Rock residents from flood

A cloudburst the afternoon of June 22, 1938, south of Pilot Rock brought a raging torrent of water through the business section of town, demolishing most of the businesses on the south side of Main Street and damaging many homes. No lives were lost and no injuries were suffered, thanks to the efforts of a pair of telephone operators who risked their lives to warn as many of the town’s residents and area ranchers as possible.

An extremely heavy downpour began about 2 p.m., and an hour later there was two feet of water on Main Street. The first hint of danger came from a farmer who warned the Pilot Rock telephone office of heavy rains on Bear Creek, a tributary of West Birch Creek. Operator Erline Gilliland immediately called all their subscribers on those creeks with the news. At 3:15 p.m. Mr. and Mrs. Hans Nielsen, who lived five miles up East Birch Creek, called in a warning of a wall of water headed for town. Chief operator Maud Gilbert immediately called as many residents as they had numbers for to warn them of the coming flood. Most of the area residents were able to race to higher ground, and those remaining did their best to save valuable property and aid the escape of others. Gilliland was sent home to retrieve her belongings while Gilbert continued to man the phones.

The second rush of water hit Pilot Rock between 3:30 and 4 p.m., raising the level of East Birch Creek about 12 feet above normal. Gilbert stayed at her post until the water was a foot high outside the office, then waded to safety with her husband. The Gilberts returned to the telephone office when the water had receded to below their knees, and she continued to route calls and request aid from Pendleton for hours. The flash flood was over in about 20 minutes, but an hour after the crest of the flood had passed there was still a lot of water in the streets and East Birch Creek was running wild over wide swaths of farmland south of town.

Damage estimates to downtown businesses was about $32,000, but ruined cropland south of town also added to the devastation.

Operators Gilbert and Gilliland in May of 1939 were awarded the Theodore N. Vail bronze medals for outstanding public service by Pacific Telephone & Telegraph Co. In the citation, district manager J.A. Murray recognized their “initiative, courage and devotion to duty in continuing an essential public service under hazardous conditions caused by flood.”

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Roaming buffalo create havoc on Cabbage Hill

The sight of a herd of buffalo grazing bucolically in a large meadow isn’t something you see every day in Eastern Oregon, but in the early 2000s it was actually a common sight along Interstate 84 in the Blue Mountains near Meacham. A herd of the Western icons could often be seen on the south side of the interstate near the mountain town, owned by Robert Carey of Meacham, who had been raising the buffalo for more than a dozen years in the same locale.

But in 2003, the majestic sight became a nuisance after Carey was cited by officials of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, who decided that the herd had reached proportions that were environmentally unsustainable. Soon after receiving the citation, Carey disappeared and the herd gained its freedom from its usual pasturage, running loose on Tribal and private property.

The herd, including both bulls and cows, existed in an official limbo, since they were not considered wildlife and the Oregon Department of Agriculture had not yet classified them as livestock. The reality of the situation, however, is that buffalo can be dangerous and are capable of massive destruction. A mature bull can weigh more than a ton, and cows tip the scales between 1,200 and 1,500 pounds. Buffalo are also extremely athletic and can outrun a horse, despite their bulk. This, and the difficulty of the terrain in which they were wandering, made it a tricky situation for those who would try to round them up.

Several of the residents surrounding Carey’s property had fences demolished and trees and pastures damaged. And buffalo can exhibit a wide variety of temperaments, from completely wild to extremely docile. Several people had had buffalo turn on them — a dangerous proposition.

Carey’s property was foreclosed upon by the former owner, Darrel Sallee of Hermiston, who took charge of the runaway herd. He arranged for a group of the animals who had returned to their original pasture to be slaughtered, and donated the meat to private individuals and Agape House in Hermiston. But Sallee couldn’t keep the remaining 40 animals because of the citation.

A possible solution was posed, a resolution to be presented to the CTUIR government that would allow the Tribes to take over ownership of the herd and maintain them in the Es-cul-pa Creek Wildlife Unit near Tamastslikt Cultural Institute north of Wildhorse Resort and Casino.