Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Heppner's 'little flood' leaves a lasting impact

The devastating Heppner flood of 1903 is a well-known story in Eastern Oregon. The flash flood that struck at 7 p.m. on June 14 wiped out most of the town and killed hundreds of people.

Heppner, sitting in the confluence of several canyons, has been a prime spot for flash floods throughout its history. These days the Willow Creek Dam has alleviated a large portion of the residents’ concerns, but in 1971 Heppner was still struggling to get funding to build it. On May 25 of that year, Mother Nature stepped in and gave things a little boost.

According to the East Oregonian story, the town had about 30 minutes warning before the flood hit, and people and cars were evacuated to higher ground. On Cannon Street, where the flood hit hardest, water poured through homes, and a garage at the end of the street near Willow Creek washed away. Three large bridges crossing Shobe Creek on Cannon Street were washed out. The water continued down Main Street and Chase Street, carrying dead animals and debris, at a depth of two and a half feet. One car was washed about a quarter of a mile from South Main Street, across the swimming pool (where it knocked out a wall), then a block east on Cannon and finally north on Chase Street for about another block, where it wrapped around a fire hydrant. The swimming pool was reckoned a total loss.

Roads around the area were either blocked by silt and debris or washed out completely. The worst damage on Butter Creek Road was a few miles east of the Vey ranch. Chunks of paving from a 150-foot stretch of road “were stacked like a deck of cards,” said Umatilla County Roadmaster Gene Palmer.

City residents expressed frustration; Heppner had just finished cleaning up from the last flood 23 months earlier. Some vowed to move, saying, “We just can’t take it.” Others were able to find a little humor; a woman quipped, “Well, now I don’t feel so bad about not cleaning this room Monday.”

U.S. Senator Mark Hatfield said the flood offered graphic evidence of the need to move ahead with the Willow Creek flood control project, and offered help with federal relief agencies on Heppner’s behalf. Hatfield had asked the Senate Appropriations Committee only a week before to provide $300,000 for the pre-construction phase of the project. (The dam wasn’t completed until the 1980s.)

On July 1, 1971, work on the first of 34 miles of diversion ditches was begun on land owned by Roice Fulleton at the head of Shobe Canyon, partly financed by contributions of citizens who lived in the path of the floods, but mostly funded by a $20,000 grant under Rural Environmental Assistance program, part of the Soil and Water Conservation Service. When completed, 54 sediment retention dams with 200 acres of grass-seeded waterways and filter strips, in addition to the ditches, would slow runoff by as much as 50-80 percent and keep silt and debris from being washed down Shobe and neighboring McDonald canyons.

Personal note: I was four years old in 1971, and my family lived three houses south of the old swimming pool in Heppner on South Main Street, just below Highway 207. My mom sent me running up the terraces in our back yard the day of the flood, following my older brother, while she brought up the rear with my 2-year-old sister and 1-year-old brother in her arms. I turned around as I got to the top of the terraces and saw the water coming around the back of the house just as Mom made it to the stairs. We stayed with friends who lived on South Chase Street, at the top of the hill, until my parents could get our house back in order. When they went to investigate, they found the mud had only made it about two feet inside the front and back doors. But my brother and I had left the cellar door open earlier that day, and all my mom’s home-canned goods were ruined when the cellar filled to the top with mud.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Rescue mission aims to save goose eggs from drowning

In April 1968 the Army Corps of Engineers was preparing to shut the spillway gates of the John Day Dam, forming 79-mile-long Lake Umatilla on the Columbia River, in part to take advantage of the permanent fish-passage facilities of the new dam for the spring chinook salmon run. The only problem was that several hundred Canada goose nests and their eggs were going to be submerged when the water level rose 100 feet in four days.

Biologists with the Oregon and Washington game departments and the Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife sprang into action with Operation Mother Goose. Crews of men in helicopters and boats lifted between 1,000 and 1,200 Canada goose eggs from their nests in a four-day rescue mission beginning April 11, 1968. Pickup operations collected eggs from approximately 200 nests on 25 islands that were in danger of being inundated with water by the forming of Lake Umatilla. The eggs were transferred to the Washington State Game Department’s Kennewick Game Farm for artificial incubation. Game officials said the hatched birds would be raised at the game farm until they were old enough to be released in Canada goose nesting areas along the Columbia River.

Biologists expected that by the time the operation got underway, between 25 and 30 percent of the eggs would have already hatched. John D. Findlay, regional director of the sport fisheries bureau, said he hoped the goslings wouldn’t be adversely affected by the rising water and would be left with their parents to occupy the new habitat formed as Lake Umatilla filled.

Findlay also said that strong parental instincts of Canada geese meant that the artificially raised young birds would likely be adopted by mature geese after their release into the wild.

Other denizens of the Columbia River also were expected to be on the move when the waters began to rise. The Corps of Engineers warned sightseers along the Columbia to beware of families of rattlesnakes that would be moving to higher ground as the lake began to fill.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Train travel treacherous in the 1880s

In the 1800s train travel was the main means of accomplishing long-distance trips, but traveling by rail was by no means without its dangers. Many of the train safety measures that we take for granted today were still in their infancy, or non-existent.

On May 5, 1888, a Pendleton woman and her daughter embarked on a trip to Washington, D.C., that was anything but routine. Mrs. Major Brockenbrough and daughter left on a Northern Pacific train for points east, and a few days later the Major received a letter from his wife saying their trip was delayed. A freight train’s smash-up had left their train detained at Heron (Mont.) Siding, and they were possibly stuck for 24 hours while the wreckage was removed from the tracks.

The next day the Major received a second letter. Mrs. Brockenbrough wrote that their train had succeeded in getting around the wreck within twelve hours, but just west of Bozeman, Montana, another train had smashed head-on into theirs. The accident happened early in the morning, throwing the passengers from their sleeping berths and seriously injuring many people. His wife had received a painful and severe cut on her forehead, about an inch and a half long and clear down to the bone, though she claimed it was not serious. Their daughter had escaped injury. A third letter received by the Major told of a landslide that had blocked the train, frustrating their trip yet again.

The East Oregonian reporter who interviewed the Major ended his piece with the hope that the rest of Mrs. Brockenbrough’s trip would be “serene.”

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Chicken-themed event lightens war worries

In June of 1940, Hitler’s Nazi regime was rolling across Europe at a seemingly unstoppable pace. Every day, the East Oregonian’s front page was full of war bulletins and stories of the latest bloody battles in the European Theater. In an attempt to lighten the mood a little, Pendleton merchants planned a city-wide sale promotion called Old-Fashioned Bargain Days.

A full spread of ads in the June 13 newspaper featured chicken-themed savings, with slogans such as “We’re crowing about good old-fashioned bargain days” and “We haven’t been ‘chicken-hearted’ about these mark-downs.”

Planned to coincide with the Elks State Convention, the Friday-Saturday extravaganza included live music with the Elks State Convention Band, Flag Day exercises at the Round-Up Grounds, a big parade through downtown Pendleton and a friendly softball game between two lodge teams.

The biggest promotion was a giveaway set for Friday afternoon at 2 p.m. Two trucks were driven down Main Street and Court Avenue, and as the trucks slowly passed by the people lining the streets, live chickens were thrown to the crowd. Each chicken had a cardboard ticket tied around its neck with the name of the merchant that had donated the bird. The lucky person catching a chicken could take it home, and when they filled out the merchant card and returned it to the donor’s store, they could also win other prizes and discounts. In case of a tie (two people catching the same chicken), the winner was determined by a coin toss.

The promotion provided a little levity during some truly troubling times, and (I’m sure) a much-needed boost to local merchants.