Wednesday, November 25, 2015

McKay Reservoir yields ancient rhino bones

Pendleton barber Ray Spangle discovered the rear leg bones of an aquatic rhinoceros while fishing the banks of Pendleton’s McKay Reservoir on two separate occasions in 1947. In October 1949 he joined in an archaeological dig with University of Oregon scientists to find more of the skeleton.

Thirty million years ago, Umatilla County was covered in swamps and marshes. Discovery of the rhino remains and those of a deer-like animal added to what little scientists knew about the area’s geologic and ecologic prehistory at the time. The rear leg bones of the rhinoceros were large, about 18 inches long, and weighed over 15 pounds in their fossilized state.

Spangle attributed his find to his hobby as an amateur geologist, saying the bones were the same color as the rocks along the shoreline but that he knew they were fossilized bones by their shape.

Aided by Spangle, his son Charles and East Oregonian reporter George Skorney, University of Oregon paleontologist Sam Sargent and Arnold Shotwell, curator of the university’s museum of natural history, unearthed six large leg bones, five complete teeth of at least two different animals, two fragmental tusks and the bones of several small animals in the same area where Spangle’s rhino was found.

After the search was completed, Sargent and Shotwell conjectured that the finds may not necessarily have been from the same water-laid volcanic ash formation as Spangle’s rhino and deer, possibly because the bones were found in gravels exposed by erosion of the dam’s waters rising and falling. While the rhinoceros lived some 30 million years ago, bones of a prehistoric horse and a saber-tooth cat found in the same general area were laid down during the last Ice Age, 1-2 million years ago.

Sargent and Shotwell urged people who find fossilized bones to leave the site intact and contact scientists who can remove the finds properly.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Ambitious doctor stirs up Pendleton politics

Dr. James A. Best was a well-known and respected doctor in Umatilla County the early 1900s, first in Weston and later in Pendleton. Dr. Best became a household name in 1913 when he launched his political career, beginning with the controversial gravity-fed water project to bring drinking water from Thornhollow Springs to the city.

As the water project was heading for the finish line, Dr. Best joined in the race for a seat on the commission. Best stirred up the current board when he charged the project’s bank account was short more than $33,000 and implied one or more of the commissioners was at fault. The race was fraught with mudslinging, and Best was accused of graft when a contractor working on the project said the candidate was supplying his own horse teams for hauling gravel and demanding to be paid more than the other haulers.

When Best was elected to the commission by a large margin, the other four members of the board submitted their resignations and requested a thorough audit of the books. Contrary to Best’s allegations, the audit turned up a small ($1.14) excess in the project account. The recalcitrant commissioners were lured back to their seats on the board by the fear that anti-gravity men would be appointed to the commission and tie up the project before it could be completed.

Dr. Best’s detractors continued to try to dig up reasons why he should not be allowed to sit on the commission, citing his lack of U.S. citizenship, among other things, but the charges never seemed to stick. Best eventually gave up his seat on the water commission when he entered the race for mayor in 1915.

This campaign also was beset by strife; supporters of Best’s main opponent, John Montgomery, dredged up accusations that Best was in cahoots with local bootleggers and purveyors of bawdy houses — accusations that Dr. Best did not deny. The East Oregonian weighed in against Dr. Best, running editorials and political cartoons depicting organized crime interests using every tactic (including corrupt polling practices) to secure their candidate’s victory. Special police contingents hovered at every polling station to prevent non-eligible voters from swaying the outcome. More than 500 people were registered to vote the day of the election. In the end, after the heaviest voting ever seen in Pendleton to that point, Dr. Best was declared the winner, beating Montgomery by 232 votes, 1197 to 965.
East Oregonian file photo
 A near riot followed the close of the polls. One of Best’s other opponents for the mayoralty, Dudley Evans, left the polling station in the Bowman Hotel to walk to city hall for the official results and was followed by a mostly quiet crowd, though some of Best’s supporters began tossing about jeers and threats. After the crowd returned to the hotel, Dr. E.J. Sommerville stirred up the crowd and a short scuffle erupted in the lobby of the building, compelling officers to pull their guns to scatter the crowd. Dr. Sommerville joined up with another Best supporter, E.W. McComas, near the St. George Hotel and there ran afoul of Chief of Police Alex Manning and Officer Omar Stephens. Words led to blows and in the short melee Officer Stephens was knocked down. Chief Manning clubbed McComas over the head and took both McComas and Sommerville to the police station. The crowd reformed and attempted to force its way into city hall, but Chief Manning again drew his gun and club and, with a few well-placed blows, beat back the rioters. Several prominent citizens were able to defuse the situation, but the crowd did not disperse until well after midnight.

Dr. Best next threw his hat into the ring for the Republican nomination for state representative in February of 1916, another potential step up for the aspiring politician. He polled a distant third of three candidates in the race.

Best’s time as mayor was also quite contentious. On March 23, 1916, Best attended a boxing match at the Oregon Theater, a ten-round bout between Romeo Hagan and Ray McCarroll that lasted only into the second round. McCarroll was knocked to the canvas and Mayor Best stood up to announce the match would be the last to be staged in Pendleton during his tenure, as prize fights were against the law. In the furor that resulted from his announcement Best “hurled a profane epithet and obscene injunction” at one of his tormentors that resulted in the mayor being brought up on charges. A protracted legal battle ensued, ending a year later when the mayor suddenly changed his plea to guilty, paying a fine of $15. He admitted he had broken the obscenity laws but claimed he was fighting the official charge of vagrancy; his own search of state statues revealed it was the only law on the books he could be charged with on the complaint.

Mayor Best also ruffled feathers in the police department. One of his first official moves in January of 1916 was to appoint himself the head of the police commission, which up till then had never been done. He immediately got on the wrong side of Chief of Police Thomas B. Gurdane, who claimed the mayor was undermining his authority and hampering his abilities to do his job. A protracted struggle between Mayor Best, a contingent of city councilors led by Claude Penland and Chief Gurdane built up over several months, ending in March of 1917 with Gurdane’s abrupt resignation and a barrage of letters in the East Oregonian revealing a sampling of the mayor’s alleged transgressions (including allowing illegal businesses to operate during Round-Up and splitting the profits). The city council meeting of March 9, 1917, blew up into charges and counter-charges and almost erupted into a brawl. But again, the expected firecrackers between the mayor and his detractors fizzled out when the planned “clipping of the lion’s claws” during the March 21 council meeting didn’t happen — the rebel councilors appeared to be afraid to speak up, much to the disappointment of a large crowd. Dr. Best served as Pendleton’s mayor until October of 1917, when he joined the war effort as a captain in the medical corps.

Best returned to Pendleton, after serving almost two years in the military, to continue his duties as a doctor. Dr. Best was eventually elected to the Oregon legislature, serving one term as state representative in 1933 and three terms in the Senate, where his priorities included assistance for the elderly and agriculture. He retired in December of 1944 due to ill health and died Aug. 18, 1946.

Dr. James A. Best

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Hermiston man drills ‘breathing’ well

A Hermiston man drilling a water well on his property in 1965 ended up with nothing but air — and a hole that inhaled or exhaled depending on the weather.

Carol Northrop, who owned a home and steel fabrication shop on the Hermiston-McNary Highway north of Hermiston, decided to drill a well on his property on October 24, 1965, using a 1928 engine mounted on a 1929 truck he built himself. His bit got stuck in bedrock about 87 feet down, so he decided to blast through the obstruction. After extricating his bit with some difficulty, Northrop lowered 10 sticks of dynamite and filled the hole with water, to direct the force of the blast downward.

Northrop set off the dynamite and stood by with a camera. He was expecting the water to shoot 30 feet or more into the air. Instead, water lifted less than a foot from the top of the pipe, and the rest disappeared down the hole.

On Oct. 25, the well began to emit air with a strong sulfur odor. Two nights later the well inhaled all night. The next day the well was dormant, but resumed inhaling for 12 hours that night. It blew the next morning and then all was quiet. There was no pattern to its breathing.

Northrup was stumped, as was a friend, a former oil well driller and civil engineer. But another man said the phenomenon is not uncommon in Idaho, and that the hole was responding to barometric pressure, “blowing” during times of low pressure and “sucking” during high pressure events.

“Breathing wells” can occur when connected voids exist beneath the surface of the soil. In the Snake River Valley near Pocatello, where breathing wells are more common, an excavation in the 1930s revealed that boulders 6 inches to 2 feet in diameter were found underlying the gravel and cobble layer deposited from the Portneuf River and Utah’s Pleistocene Lake Bonneville. Some of the voids between the boulders were 5-6 inches across.

Northrop wasn’t sure what to do with his well, though he did attach a can to the top of the well Halloween night, scaring trick-or-treaters with the haunting whistle. He briefly considered lowering a camera into the well for flash photos, with a view to opening up any big hole he found to the public for a fee. In the end he decided to try blasting the bedrock again, hoping to find the elusive water table and fill in the voids at the same time.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

1936 earthquake rocks Milton-Freewater area

On July 15, 1936, at 11:08 p.m., an earthquake registering between 5 and 5.5 on the Richter scale shook residents of the Milton-Freewater area out of their beds. The strongest shock hit the Stateline area, cracking the pavement there, in places up to two meters wide, and at one point the ground dropped by 2.4 meters (7.9 feet). The shaking started slowly and lasted for 15 seconds; more than 54 aftershocks were reported by George Harshman of Freewater following the initial shock, and they continued intermittently until November 17.

The East Oregonian reported the earthquake was felt as far west as Arlington and as far north as Spokane, and severely damaged buildings in Walla Walla, Milton-Freewater and Athena. Residents of Pilot Rock, Pendleton and even Heppner fled their homes and businesses during the quake.

Among the reported damage: Homes in the area were uninhabitable due to large cracks in the walls, and chimneys and flues were shaken loose from roofs; a meat market and bank in Athena, joined together before the quake, were separate buildings the following morning; two freight cars were shaken off the tracks at Blue Mountain Station, and large rocks the size of cars bounced into the intersection of Souther Creek Road and Walla Walla River Highway; the Rev. J.M. Marlatt’s concrete home fell to the ground; and the quake shook loose artesian wells in the area — one on the A.M. Fix ranch that had dried up three weeks earlier, and another new artesian well from a previously shared well on the farm of Walter Maxson.

In some of the places where ground cracks appeared, water also was present in the cracks, signaling liquefaction of the soil. Liquefaction (when the soil temporarily loses strength and acts like a liquid) can cause extensive damage, bringing underground infrastructure like water and sewer lines to the surface and even swallowing people, buildings and cars whole in seconds during larger quakes, especially if the ground is already saturated with water.

The epicenter of the 1936 earthquake was fixed at 10 kilometers (6.38 miles) northwest of Milton-Freewater. It possibly occurred along the Wallula fault system, which runs from near Milton-Freewater to Kennewick, Wash., along the Horse Heaven Hills, and is part of the larger Olympic-Wallowa Lineament that reaches from the Wallowa Mountains to the Olympic Peninsula, although some researchers place it on the Hite fault system, which runs north-northeast.

Our corner of Northeast Oregon is still seismically active, though the magnitude of earthquakes is generally below 4 on the Richter scale. The Milton-Freewater area has recorded 66 earthquakes since 1931, the largest in recent history a 4.3 quake in November 1991. The most recent earthquake was Jan. 23, 2015, centered 4.7 miles southwest of Athena; it registered 3.7.