Tuesday, July 1, 2014

War sets Umatilla County residents on edge

Tensions were running high in the summer of 1917. World War One was raging and suspicions were running rampant that the United States was in danger of sabotage from Germany and its allies. The U.S. government encouraged every citizen to support the war effort by buying Liberty bonds, to the tune of $2 billion, or $7 for each man, woman and child; if the money couldn’t be raised, the threat was that the war would cross the Atlantic and we would be fighting on our home turf. Shirkers were jailed in some towns. Men were joining the armed forces in droves and everything from food to coal was rationed.

Umatilla County was not exempt from the paranoia. Several story lines in June 1917 underlined the fear that the U.S. was in danger from enemy agents:

•National Guardsmen from Company M were stationed at railroad tunnels and bridges in case enemy agents tried to blow them up. In early June guardsmen at the O.W.R. & N.’s tunnel at Campbell Station were shot at by unknown assailants. The shooter jumped on a passing train and escaped. Other shooting incidents within the same week had the guardsmen on high alert. A special agent for the railroad investigating the situation said the same man had been spotted trying to cause trouble in other areas.

•A former Pendleton resident who returned for a visit brought the story of a mine fire at Butte, Montana, where more than 200 men lost their lives after a high-voltage line ignited tar 2,400 feet underground. Subsequent news coverage fingered a German and an Austrian, both workers in the mine, as suspects in the blaze.

•Fearing the loss of its extensive grain fields, many farmers in the Inland Northwest were taking a closer look at their hired help as stories began to circulate about agents from the Industrial Workers of the World infiltrating farm crews with an eye to burning the fields just as harvest was about to start. Fifty special secret deputies were stationed in the area to guard against potential sabotage.

The I.W.W., an industrial socialist group, was accused of conspiring to hinder and discourage enlistment in the U.S. armed forces during WWI and generally to obstruct the progress of the war with Germany. Its leaders were convicted in Chicago in 1919 of more than 17,000 crimes.

•An irrigation dam in the mountains 22 miles west of Baker burst the morning of June 28, and a raging torrent inundated the town of Rock Creek, just west of Haines, wiping out the entire town. While the townspeople were able to escape the flood, fields and animals were destroyed and the remaining crops were destined for drought conditions. Early speculation was that someone had blown up the dam.

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