Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Pendleton addition would have displaced Round-Up Park

If a platted addition to Pendleton had survived past the 1880s, the west end of the city would look totally different today.

A new subdivision named Sommerville was laid out on February 6, 1882, in the area bounded (roughly) by the Umatilla River on the north, the railroad tracks on the south, Southwest 10th street on the east and Southwest 18th Street on the west — land that now contains Roy Raley Park, the Pendleton Round-Up Grounds and the Pendleton Convention Center, and businesses including Mazatlan, Mac’s Bar & Grill, G&R Truck & Auto Repair and the Albertsons property. According to the plat recorded at the Umatilla County Courthouse on Feb. 9, 1882, “Said town is situated in the SE 1/4 of the NW 1/4 of Sec 10 T2 NR32E of Umatilla County Oregon.”

The community was the brainchild of Stephen Lovejoy Morse, a prominent Umatilla County man in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and the brother of Aura (Goodwin) Raley. The plat was located near Morse’s original homestead claim, and was named after a close personal friend and prominent Pendleton doctor, E.J. Sommerville. It was intended as an addition to Pendleton, and not a separate town, according to Col. J.H. Raley, the county surveyor who laid out the streets and blocks. Sommerville’s Main Street ran roughly east and west, and the streets in the town ran north and south and were named Birch, Taylor, Morgan, Colwell, Coffey, Libe, Ellsworth and Arnold.

Stephen Morse, a U.S. deputy marshal for 14 years, brought his family to Pendleton in 1864 and staked out his homestead claim on the north side of the Umatilla River, across the river from the Goodwin homestead. Among other exploits, he was involved in “moving” the county records from Umatilla to Pendleton in January 1869, a clandestine affair performed under the cover of darkness just after Pendleton was named the new county seat. The Morse family relocated to Pilot Rock in 1894, where he owned a livery stable and was elected mayor in 1902. He died in May 1908 at his Pilot Rock home.

Morse’s plat was vacated Jan. 7, 1884, just two years after it was laid out, and was absorbed into the city of Pendleton. The former burg was discovered in April 1916 when the Blewett Harvester Company bought property across from Round-Up Park (where the former Albertsons building now stands) to build a manufacturing plant.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Historic mining town incinerated for third time

With the cry of “Fire!” at 7:30 p.m. on April 19, 1937, the historic business district of Canyon City in Grant County burned for the third time since its founding in 1862.

Buster Cresop, who lived in the old Elkhorn Hotel, looked out his window and saw smoke billowing up from the attic of the old wooden frame building and sounded the alarm. Some 25 guests were evacuated from the hotel, which was soon reduced to ruins. The flames, pushed by a stiff south breeze, rushed northward and soon most of the wood-framed buildings in downtown Canyon City were ablaze. The fire burned through the night, and when the smoke cleared, 15 businesses and an apartment building had been destroyed. Cause of the fire was reported a carelessly discarded cigarette in the Elkhorn Hotel. Damages were estimated at around $150,000.

The town of 350 was left with its homes, a service station, a Pastime house (bar and card room), the post office, a relief station, the theater and a barber shop. Neighboring John Day sent emergency food supplies to hungry Canyon City residents, and other area cities, including Pendleton, sent relief supplies or cash donations to help the town get back on its feet.

One boy almost lost his life when he attempted to plunge into a burning building in search of his mother. A guard restrained him, and he was later reunited with his equally distraught parent. Two John Day volunteer firefighters were temporarily overcome by smoke, but recovered. And a woman fainted after being evacuated from her home. Otherwise, the townspeople emerged from the fire unscathed.

The tinderbox-dry buildings threw flames so high that they could be seen 25 miles away in Seneca, and within a few hours more than a thousand people had gathered around the fire zone; the city promptly put the gawkers to work in a bucket brigade. In all, more than 500 volunteers pitched in to fight the blaze. In addition to the Canyon City firemen, John Day, Prairie City, Mt. Vernon and U.S. Forest Service crews laid extra hoses to keep the flames from historic buildings like the former home of poet Joaquin Miller and the Episcopal Church, which had survived two earlier fires as well.

Last to leave the downtown inferno was Mrs. Hilda Valade, a telephone operator who stood by the switchboard to call for help through the Mt. Vernon exchange, 10 miles away. She escaped through a rear exit only after the telephone offices had started to collapse.

A view of downtown Canyon City after the devastating 1937 fire. In the foreground, a mangled press was all that remained of the Blue Mountain Eagle offices. (photo courtesy Grant County Historical Society)

At the Blue Mountain Eagle offices in John Day, editor Clint Haight busily put out a special edition of the paper, but his Canyon City building burned as well, destroying all the newspaper’s files and archives. The Eagle (then the Grant County News) had been the only downtown survivor of the 1898 Canyon City fire that started, mysteriously, in the room of a traveling performer about an hour after he sang “There’ll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight” in the town’s New York Theatre. He was arrested and put on trial, but acquitted for lack of evidence. An 1898 East Oregonian story reported an oil lamp exploded in the room of a “morphine fiend.”

Canyon City first burned to the ground in August of 1870, when the town was a much larger, bustling gold mining town. Because the town was built in a narrow valley, and the main street was originally so narrow, no insurance companies would insure the businesses, and in the first and second fires the town was a total loss.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Loose talk aids in murder conviction

Loose lips sink ships — or, in the case of Charles Monte, help ship you off to the penitentiary.

A daring escape on June 9, 1902, from the Oregon state penitentiary in Salem by inmates Harry Tracy and Dave Merrill also led to the death of guard Frank Ferrell. Alleged to have aided in the escape was Charles Monte, who was accused of smuggling guns over the prison wall to the escapees. He in turn implicated a friend, Harry Wright, in the caper.

Sheriff Til Taylor discovered Monte’s role in the escape after a jail inmate, James Morris, came forward in April 1905 to offer information about a conversation he had with Monte while both were jailed in Umatilla County. Monte was in jail awaiting trial for a burglary charge, and evidently got a little loose in the tongue after drinking too much, bragging about how he was one of the two people who helped Tracy and Merrill escape. Morris was hoping his information would result in a lighter sentence for his own crimes; he ended up being sentenced to the penitentiary anyway.

After state law enforcement carefully gathered evidence on the pair, Monte and Wright were indicted on first-degree murder charges in Salem circuit court on April 25, 1905. Monte was brought from his cell at the Salem penitentiary, where he was serving sentence on the burglary charge, and Wright was brought to Salem from the penitentiary in Walla Walla.

Monte’s jury deliberated 18 hours, and required 16 ballots, before returning a verdict of “guilty of murder in the second degree.” He was sentenced to life in prison. While waiting for the street car to take him back to the penitentiary, Monte turned to Sheriff Culver and said, “How would you like to try me for something I had really done? You may have that chance in the future.” It was supposed that Monte meant to have revenge on Morris, who he claimed gave false witness during his trial.

Wright was acquitted of the murder charge in his trial, but he didn’t get off scot-free. Before the murder charge was dismissed, the district attorney filed a new charge against Wright, one of larceny. He was accused of hiring a team and buggy in May of 1902 under the pretense of making a short drive. He promptly drove the team from Salem to Portland and attempted to sell the outfit at a livery barn there. Wright was brought before Judge Barrett and plead guilty, and was sentenced to a year in the pen.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Tree pranksters return 40 years later to show contrition

In a grassy field along the Old Oregon Trail Route on Highway 203 south of La Grande, five former Union County residents each planted a tiny conifer seedling on April 24, 1979, in penance for a 40-year-old prank that toppled a landmark during their wild youth.

The stunt that felled the 97-year-old Ponderosa pine tree, a landmark along the route, made national headlines in 1939. The Lone Tree was the victim of a prank perpetrated by Robert Watts, Roland McCroskrie, Bill Southhall, Bill Wiese and Lyle Morehead, La Grande high school students, who didn’t realize the worth of the tree. “We thought we would cause a little devilment,” said Weise, 59, of San Mateo, Calif.

The group hit upon the idea of cutting down the tree while driving between La Grande and Union and enjoying a little Red Cap ale that warm, drizzly night. Two of the group did the sawing while the others drove up and down Highway 203 in Morehead’s car, keeping a lookout. They were caught the following day, supposedly by an alert Oregon State Police trooper, but more likely because everyone at the high school knew the identities of the tree-cutters.

Not only did the incident make headlines across the country, a national radio show did a skit parodying the prank. “It was blown up to magnificent proportions,” Wiese added. According to McCroskrie, half of La Grande’s residents thought it was funny; the other half was not amused. “Fifty percent were for hanging us and 50 percent for shooting,” cracked Wiese.

The boys were sentenced in June 1939 to 30 days hard labor. They sweated under the summer sun to saw Lone Tree into firewood, dug up the taproot, and then painted guard rails from Kamela to Hot Lake.

The return to La Grande was the brainchild of Watts, who in 1979 was a Clackamas County deputy sheriff and a former police chief for the city of Union. Southhall, who spent 3 1/2 years in a Japanese prison camp, became a world traveler and settled in Kansas. McCroskrie retired a colonel from the U.S. Air Force and moved to Florida. Of the original crew, only Morehead was absent; he died in Italy during World War II when his plane crashed. Another childhood friend, Dr. Leonard Lee (who took no part in the original incident), stood in for Morehead during the planting ceremony.

Wiese also made one final act of contrition: He paid each of his compatriots $3, a sum he had owed them since their time on the road gang for the Lone Tree stunt.