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.