Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Mail mixup leads to new name for Pilot Rock Junction

While not quite a ghost town, the little burg of Rieth just outside Pendleton is a shadow of its former self. Established in 1907 as a railroad freight depot at the cutoff to Pilot Rock and points south, the town originally was called Pilot Rock Junction. In April of 1916, the name of the town was changed to Rieth because the mail for Pilot Rock and Pilot Rock Junction kept getting scrambled.

By the time the named was changed, Rieth was a bustling adjunct to Pendleton with a store, hotel, restaurant, school and rooming houses to serve the depot and its employees. Rieth became the main freight depot in Eastern Oregon for trains running between Portland and La Grande to switch out crews (passenger trains changed crews in Pendleton). And the main stock yards in the area were moved to Rieth when Pendleton residents on Thompson Street (modern Southeast Third) complained about the smell. In no time there was a housing boom as railroad employees and their families sought to settle there. Portions of town were trucked out of the way when the depot added four new tracks and expanded the stock yards to handle shipping for sheep and cattle ranchers in south Umatilla County. The town even boasted its own baseball team, playing against the likes of Athena, Nolin, Pilot Rock and Adams.

But where did the name come from? In a letter to the East Oregonian, J.H. Raley recounted a discussion he had with William Bollons, the superintendent of roads, on a train trip from Portland. Bollons wanted a short name for the junction, “a name that will be easy to handle over the wires.” Raley told Bollons about the history of the area, and about a pioneer family that had lived at the confluence of Birch Creek and the Umatilla River in the late 1800s, the Rieths. According to Raley’s letter, he also suggested the name Rodeo for the town. Bollons submitted both names to the proper authorities, “and they wisely selected the name Rieth,” Raley said.

The Rieth family consisted of four brothers and two sisters. Two of the brothers, Jacob and Joseph, were part of the famous Bonner party (no, not the Donner Party) that got lost crossing the plains on its trek west. They built a log cabin at the mouth of Birch Creek around 1862, where they were joined by siblings Eugene, Louis, Mary and Julia in the 1870s. The Rieths were cattle and sheep ranchers, and eventually built a large house (called Rieth House) that was very popular with the locals for parties and dances. They sold their property to the Oregon-Washington Railway & Navigation Company in the early 1900s and scattered throughout the Northwest.

With the rise of autos, trucks and barges, train travel and shipping eventually dwindled and Rieth shrank from a population of 200 in 1922 to 45 in 1940. Rieth’s train yard and depot were moved to Hinkle, near Hermiston. The hotel, store and rooming house shut their doors. The post office was closed in 1971, and the school closed in the 1980s when it became too expensive to maintain for its few students. Now with an official population of zero, Rieth is home to Blue Mountain Lumber Products and a bedroom community for Pendleton.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Driving violation leads to melee

Some days, whatever can go wrong, will go wrong. No one knows this better than police officers. And in June 1994, two Milton-Freewater police officers found themselves in a situation in which almost everything that could go wrong did — but quick thinking by a Mac-Hi student saved the day.

Officers Stuart Roberts and Francisco Martinez pulled over Antonio Flores just inside the gates of Orchard Homes Inc., a labor camp housing migrant workers, on June 25, 1994. When they found he was driving with a suspended license and no insurance, they told him that his car would be towed. That’s when things started to get ugly.

Flores became upset when he found out he would lose his wheels, which led to his being arrested for obstructing police. He was handcuffed and placed in the back of the patrol car. But the officers soon found themselves surrounded by about 300 residents of the camp — friends and neighbors of Flores — and about 15 of the men stepped forward and began to assault Roberts and Martinez. Their mace and police radios were taken, and some of the men struck the officers in the face. That’s when Matt Harrington stepped in.

Harrington, a 17-year-old McLoughlin High School student and a member of the Explorer Scouts, happened to be walking by when the altercation began. He slipped into the patrol car and was able to call for backup. “Fortunately, he’s ridden in police cars and he knew how to get into the car and operate the radio,” said Mike Brown, criminal investigator for the Milton-Freewater Police Department.

Law enforcement from all over Umatilla County, and as far away as Union County, showed up to get the crowd under control. But in the melee, someone opened the door of the patrol car and Flores fled into the night in handcuffs.

According to Roberts, now chief of police for the city of Pendleton, the officers were lucky to escape with their lives. Patrol cars had to be left behind, some of which were flipped over by the crowd.

Brown lauded Roberts and Martinez for handling the situation without using their weapons. “When you get a weapon involved under those circumstances, innocent people can get hurt, There’s no justification for it,” he said. The officers were not seriously injured, and Brown said they would be part of discussions on handling such situations in the future.

Flores was sentenced to 20 days in jail and more than $1,000 in fines following his re-arrest. Judge Sam Tucker told Flores that, while he did nothing to incite the crowd, he was responsible for what happened because “your friends were trying to protect you.”

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Pie-eating contest nearly derails Navy career

Herbert Otto Roesch, the son of pioneer Umatilla County brewer William Roesch, served a long career in the United States Navy, beginning with his appointment to Annapolis in 1904 after graduating from Pendleton Academy. Along the way he made quite a name for himself as a championship marksman and a talented ship’s commander. But a pie-eating contest almost squashed his career before it began.

Roesch started his Naval academy studies quietly in 1905, but soon rose to prominence with his marksmanship skills. In 1909 he went up against the best shooters of the Army and Navy during a tournament at Camp Perry, Ohio, and beat all comers. He shot 50 out of 50 at 800 yards, and missed acing the 1,000-yard trial by one point. He scored 98 out of 100 in the skirmish run and fired 10 shots in 40 seconds during the 200-yard rapid fire contest, placing fourth. He beat the veteran international champion, Major Winder, by half a dozen points. He was presented with the governor’s cup, a gold medal and a cash prize of $50.

Home in Pendleton, the town rallied around his new-found fame and presented him with the first-ever blanket woven on the new Pendleton Woolen Mills looms. He also was honored by the National Society of the Sons of the Revolution for “outstanding marksmanship for excellence in practical ordnances.” Herbert Roesch was on his way to big things.

But in August of 1910, disaster almost struck. Graduation from the Naval college was imminent. A group of underclassmen embroiled in a pie-eating contest asked Roesch to referee, and the result was allegations of hazing, the withholding of his diploma and the threat of a court-martial. Fortunately, the Secretary of the Navy deemed the matter too trivial for notice, and Roesch earned his place as midshipman on the USS George Washington.

Roesch proved to be worthy of the Navy’s forbearance. In 1911, during maneuvers in San Francisco Bay, he pulled four sailors out of the water, saving their lives. An East Oregonian editorial suggested he should be considered for a Medal of Honor. He moved up the ladder of success quickly, serving as lieutenant commander of the George Washington by 1918.

Another training exercise on the Pacific coast almost spelled disaster for Roesch and his men in September of 1923. As commander of the USS Nicholas, Roesch and the rest of Destroyer Squadron 11 were taking part in a high-speed engineering run when the leading ships received inaccurate navigation information for the entrance of the Santa Barbara Channel. Seven destroyers in the group, including the Nicholas, ran aground on the rocks of Point Pedernales, known to sailors as Honda, or the Devil’s Jaw. Roesch and his crew valiantly battled the heavy seas but eventually he and the crew had to abandon the ship. All of the Nicholas’ men survived, but 23 other sailors lost their lives in what became known as the Honda Point Disaster.

Herbert Roesch remained with the Navy for the rest of his working life. He died in 1961 in San Diego, Calif., at the age of 75.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Veteran lawman shot by own men in mixup

Lack of communication and a case of mistaken identity resulted in the shooting of a veteran Union County lawman in June of 1921 by his own men.

Officer J.H. McLachlin had received information that a Cadillac roadster carrying a quantity of whiskey would be moving from Pendleton through a canyon west of Hilgard in the Blue Mountains near La Grande. McLachlin, also a deputy federal agent, decided to lie in wait to capture the suspected bootleggers, and took up a post on the bank of the Grand Ronde River with his gun across his knees.

On the same day, La Grande officers and Union County sheriff’s deputies received a tip that a holdup man was working in the same canyon. When they spotted an unidentified man on the river bank they called for him to put up his hands. When he ignored their request (likely he didn’t hear them), one of the officers fired a shot, hitting the man in the back.

Upon learning McLachlin’s identity, the officers scrambled to transport him to La Grande for medical attention. But before he left for the hospital, McLachlin urged sheriff’s deputies to take up his vigil for the whiskey shipment. And when a Cadillac bearing two “foreign-born” men rolled up later in the day, the deputies were able to capture a cache of Canadian Club.

Known as “Old Mack” for his long service and prowess in catching criminals during his storied career, McLachlin was considered the Til Taylor of Union County, and assisted in the capture of Taylor’s killers in 1920.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Backpack a reminder of Japanese interment camp

A Milton-Freewater resident had painful memories rekindled in March 1988 when a photo surfaced that hearkened back to his time in a World War II Japanese interment camp in the Philippines.

John Wightman and his family celebrated a day of thanksgiving every Feb. 23, the day U.S. troops from the 11th Airborne and elements of the Filipino guerrilla forces liberated 2,247 prisoners from the Los Banos interment camp in the Philippines in 1945. But John said he remembered very little about the time spent in the camp except from stories his parents told. “When we got back to the United States, I was having trouble emotionally adjusting to a ‘free’ life. Part of the way I finally adjusted to that was to forget most everything,” said Wightman, who was six years old when the family was freed after a little more than three years in the camp. His younger brother Bill was born there.

John’s memory was given a jog when a photo on display in the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., was discovered in 1987 by Dick Hoyt, the editor of Voice of Angels, a publication for the 11th Airborne Alumni Association. Hoyt was able to identify the children in the photo by the names written on their backpacks. Wightman’s father, in an article for the publication, wrote that the packs were made because the Japanese army had a custom of suddenly moving prisoners from a camp to an unknown destination. John still had his backpack, and a knife given to him by one of the liberating soldiers.

The Wightman family moved to the Philippines to help in missionary work with John’s grandparents and two uncles. When the Japanese invaded the islands in December 1941, the entire family was taken prisoner. The family endured frightful conditions, but all but one uncle survived to return to the U.S. — he was killed when a Japanese ship was torpedoed and sunk by a U.S. submarine crew that didn’t know there were prisoners aboard.

Wightman came to Oregon in 1970 and moved to Milton-Freewater in 1974, where he lived until his death in 2012 at the age of 74.