Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The mystery of the frenzied fish

On Aug. 11, 1913, shortly before 10 a.m., several people passing on the Main Street bridge in Pendleton noticed hundreds of dead fish floating down the Umatilla River. When they looked closer, they could see a large number of live fish as well, congregating at the dam just below the bridge. According to the story in the East Oregonian, “Every few minutes, one would expire and before dying would seem to be affected with a frenzy. With head above the surface, it would dash through the water at a great speed sometimes leaping clear out of the water on to the gravel bars. The sight attracted a large crowd and there was much speculation as to the cause of the mortality.”

Prominent members of the local fish and game association, including G.I. LaDow, C.K. Cranston and W.W. Hoch, were convinced there was some kind of poison in the water. Fingers pointed first at the Byers mill, suspecting it was being treated with cyanide, but employees there said that was not the case. It was pointed out that there were no dead fish between the mill and the penstock (where the water was diverted from the river by a gate to drive the mill’s wheel), and above the foot of the millrace there was no water in the river to speak of, so the poison had to have entered the water after it left the penstock of the mill and before it rejoined the river.

The strange situation apparently resolved itself within an hour, and the remaining fish recovered and swam away. It was mentioned in the article that a similar incident had occurred in the same place two years prior.

Most of the dead fish were suckers and pike, but a fair number of redside trout also were killed. Mr. Cranston inspected the insides of one of the fish but didn’t find anything out of the ordinary. The fish and game men did prevent people from picking up the fish for eating, however.

My first thought, as well, was some kind of poison. I read forward a couple of weeks and didn’t find a follow-up story, but forensic techniques were crude or non-existent in those days, so the chances of detecting poison in the water were pretty slim. My second thought was either a sudden increase in the temperature of the water (the article didn’t mention whether the day was particularly hot) or some other reason for a temporary decrease in the amount of oxygen available to the fish. That might explain the frenzied racing around exhibited by the fish. A third scenario might include some kind of predator trapped behind the dam harassing the fish, which might explain their leaping out of the water. I’m open to explanations from anyone out there more knowledgeable about the subject.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

A look back at firefighting in the 1890s

Looking back at local history has been a feature of the East Oregonian almost as long as there have been newspapers to look back to. One such story, in the July 17, 1913 edition of the EO, revisited the destruction of the Villard House on that date 20 years prior, in 1893.
The Villard House, built in 1880 by David Horn at a cost of $10,000, was for many years Pendleton’s chief hostelry. The two-story frame structure was located on the corner of Main and Court streets where the Judd Building now stands (which now houses Maverick Spa & Boutique, Pendleton Book Company, Miss Joni’s Florals and others).

At about 1 p.m. a fire broke out near the flue at the north end of the building and the entire structure went up in a very short time. The EO reported that Fire Chief Ell and H.J. Stillman fought the flames alone with Babcock fire extinguishers until the fire engine and hose companies arrived. The two hose companies had “but 1500 feet of good hose and 350 feet of poor hose” but managed to have six streams on the fire in short order. Keep in mind at the time Pendleton had only 4-inch water mains, so the firemen mainly were battling to save adjacent buildings from catching fire. One company fought the fire at close range from the top of the Despain Building. The fire engine used so much water from the nearest cistern at the corner of Court and Garden (S.W. First) streets that by the time the fire was out an hour and a half later only 16 inches of water remained. The article concluded with the report that the two hose companies engaged in a water fight after the fire was out, something that happened quite frequently in the early days of Pendleton.

I like this story for a couple of reasons. The contrast between firefighting equipment and techniques then and now is stark, and the fact that originally most of Pendleton’s downtown buildings were made of wood and situated cheek-by-jowl along the main thoroughfares meant a fire in one building could easily take down an entire block if firefighters were delayed or the fire was very large. There is a good reason that all the buildings in downtown Pendleton are now constructed of brick or other fire-resistant materials.

I also like the idea of the firefighters capping off a hot, dirty, stressful day’s work by letting off some steam, having a little fun and cleaning up at the same time.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Fish story or true tale?

I’m not sure whether this fish story is true, or a real whopper of a tale.
In the July 17, 1913, edition of the East Oregonian I found a story about two men who braved the elements to engage in some trout fishing. Their destination was Green Lake, which I found buried smack in the middle of the Eagle Cap Wilderness at about 6,700 feet elevation, about 15 miles west of Wallowa Lake as the crow flies. These days the lake can be accessed by a trail, but even in July the trail hasn’t been cleared by the U.S. Forest Service this year. In 1913 the trip was compared Frederick Cook’s 1908 attempt to reach the North Pole, with the pole trek judged the easier one.

U.S. Commissioner Woodson L. “Pat” Patterson and Dr. H.J. “Doc” Horton of Baker embarked on several-day sojourn to the remote lake anticipating a few days of fishing. When they arrived, in sub-zero temperatures, they found the lake frozen over and snow several feet deep on all sides.

The story gave excerpts from Doc Horton’s journal, and I’ll quote them here:

“Midnight, Saturday Night — Pat thinks we have lost our way; not a fish in sight.

“1 a.m. Sunday — Enabled to build a fire and eat a few pieces of frozen bacon; gaining strength to press on for another half mile.

“3 a.m. — About all in; snow getting deeper and mercury dropped out the bottom of the thermometer. Finally made camp with great difficulty. Pat built fire and put his boots over to make soup. Cold was intense; so were we.

“Early Morning — Arrived at lake with feet and ears frostbitten, and all dogs frozen to death but one. Slight rise in temperature enabled us to get our tackle out, and Pat, after several hours, found a hole in the ice. Tried to fish, and lines froze stiff the minute they were pulled from water after the first cast. Four trout about three feet in length leaped from water to the ice, and were frozen stiff instantly.

“Noon, Sunday — Decided to make a dash for home. I here had a grand hunch that saved our lives. Taking the four frozen trout and banding them with straps from our hunting outfit, they made excellent skis, and after four hours hard climbing we made the summit and coasted down hill to North Powder, arriving in a blinding snow storm. Thawed out here and reached home in safety.”

The story said the four trout were brought home to prove their story; the intrepid fishermen planned to have them mounted for exhibition at the Geiser Grand Hotel in Baker.

Now, I’ve heard some good fish stories in my time (and told a few), but I can’t decide whether this is a true tale or a tall one. If true (and the remoteness of their destination certainly supports the story), I’m torn between awe at the conditions they faced and disbelief that they would endure such hardship for a few fish (even three-footers, though those are some mighty nice trout). If it’s a tall tale, I find Doc Horton’s account dripping with dry humor (which I appreciate). Whatever the truth is, I’ve found that true sportsmen will go to great lengths to catch “the big one,” whatever their target might be, and Pat and Doc certainly seem to fall into that category.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

How well do you know your neighbors?

Facial hair fashions for men have come and gone many times throughout history. In 1899 in Pendleton, full beards and mustaches were very common amongst the important men of the town and, in fact, some had never been seen without their facial adornments.

A story published in the Sept. 27, 1899 edition of the East Oregonian showed how much our appearance affects how we are perceived by even our closest friends.

In the story, several public figures shaved off their accustomed facial hair within days of each other and were rendered completely unrecognizable to people who interacted with them every day. One of these men, Deputy Recorder Bob Maloney, shaved off a long, flowing mustache and passed along Main Street without a single nod of recognition. Even his family did not recognize him, and a neighbor treated him “like he was from Kalamazoo.”
Maloney decided to take the experiment one step further, donning an old hat and ragged clothes before setting out in his neighborhood to see if anyone would see through the disguise. He visited eight neighbors, asking for bread, and in every instance was turned down without the slightest amount of pity for his plight. Finally he approached the Rev. G.W. Rigby, who listened to his story of woe: The recent rains had ruined his chances of finding work in his chosen profession — keeping the sun off the sidewalk. Rigby produced a half dollar and said to the disguised man, “Well, you may be fooling me, but I won’t see any man go hungry.” Not only did Maloney manage to fool everyone, he discovered that charity toward the downtrodden was sorely lacking in Pendleton.

The story doesn’t say whether his scheme was simply a joke played on his neighbors and friends, or whether Maloney decided to embark on a social experiment, but it does say a lot about how people treated the less fortunate in Maloney’s day. Since Pendleton was a stop along the railroad, the town naturally dealt with a lot of “riff-raff” that rode the rails looking for a handout, so it’s understandable that a beggar with a flimsy story would be regarded with contempt, at best.

Are things any different in 2013? Pendleton has more than its share of panhandlers, drifters and con artists looking for easy money or a free meal. Would Mayor Houk be willing to doff his famous mustache and go undercover to see if the clothes do, indeed, make the man? And would we recognize him if he did?