Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Pendleton woman drowned in steamer wreck

A holiday trip ended in tragedy for a Pendleton woman in 1921 when the steamer ship she was sailing on ran aground in dense fog on Blunts Reef off the northern California coast.

Ruth Hart, a telegraph operator for the O.-W. R. & N. Railroad in Pendleton, boarded the steamer Alaska in Portland on Aug. 5, 1921, en route to California for a month-long holiday. The following evening the steamer’s inexperienced crew lost its way in heavy fog off the northern California coast south of Eureka and, though they changed course several times, the steamer was allowed to travel too close to shore. The foghorn near Blunts Reef was heard, but couldn’t be located.

When the steamer crashed into the reef, the passengers flooded the decks in an attempt to secure a place on the ship’s lifeboats. But the green crew badly bungled the launch of the loaded boats and two were upset, throwing their passengers into the water. The ship sank in just 30 minutes. Captain Hovey was last seen on the bridge of the steamer with two wireless operators, one of whom bailed into the water just before the steamer went under.

The survivors, clinging to debris from the sunken steamer, floated for hours before the steamer Anyox, alerted by the S.O.S. calls from the Alaska, arrived at the crash site to begin rescue efforts, eventually picking up 166 of the more than 210 passengers and crew. Many of the survivors were covered in fuel oil from the steamer’s ruptured tanks. Residents of Eureka provided, food, clothing and baths for the rescued passengers, most of whom were transported to San Francisco the following evening. Fishing boats from nearby villages had the grim task of hauling the bodies of the dead ashore.

Though accounts of the accident varied, passengers and crew said the wreck would not have occurred if the steamer had not been traveling too fast along the treacherous coastline in an attempt to make up speed. The inexperienced deck crew also took much of the blame, one boatswain stating that only five of the 14 crew members were competent in their duties.

The dead washed ashore for days. On August 10, the body of a girl about 25 years of age wearing a wrist watch bearing the initials R.G.H. and a lapel pin with the letters O.R.T. (Order of Railway Telegraphers) was found. Ruth’s sister, Julia Metzler of La Grande, traveled to Eureka to identify her body and bring it home.

Ruth Hart was laid to rest August 15, 1921, next to her parents at Olney Cemetery in Pendleton.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

1979 total eclipse wows Eastern Oregon

A large portion of the United States is gearing up for a total solar eclipse that will be visible from coast to coast on August 21, 2017. Beginning at 8:46 a.m. at Yaquina Head Lighthouse near Newport on the Oregon Coast, the eclipse will darken a more than 60-mile-wide swath of the state before moving on across the continent. Most of Central Oregon is in the path of totality, and it is estimated that a million people will travel to Oregon for its cloud-free viewing opportunities. And it will be the last time in our lifetime that Oregonians will be able to watch a total solar eclipse from home — the next one to cross the state won’t happen until June 2169.

The first known documentation of a total solar eclipse was made in China in 2137 B.C. Two Chinese astronomers, named Hi and Ho, were tasked with bringing back the light by banging drums and shooting arrows at the giant serpent they thought was swallowing the sun. However, they lost their focus during an unfortunate bout of heavy drinking, and lost their heads to the royal executioner as a result.

The last time Eastern Oregon was in the path of a total solar eclipse was Feb. 26, 1979. The eclipse began around 7:15 a.m., just as schoolchildren would have been on their way to school, and school districts around the area either delayed opening or opened early so kids would have supervision during the celestial event. Many districts geared the day’s lessons around the eclipse, making homemade viewers to safely view the sun as it was gradually covered by the moon’s shadow. The 1979 event was an annular eclipse, meaning the moon was a little further away and therefore did not completely obscure the sun’s corona, even at totality.

Local pilots loaded friends and family into their planes and took off from regional airports, seeking a vantage point above clouds that threatened to block the view. Hermiston residents cheered when a break in the cloud cover appeared just as totality was imminent. Other residents traveled to the nearest public observatory, in Goldendale, Wash., where more than a thousand people viewed the eclipse from atop a butte above the Columbia River. In Portland, people had to be satisfied with photos taken by others; their view was blocked by overcast skies.

Before 1979, the last total solar eclipse seen in Eastern Oregon occurred on June 8, 1918. And though Pendleton received 99.5 percent totality, many residents traveled south to Pilot Rock and east to Baker City to see the eclipse in its full glory. The naval observatory at Baker City photographed the eclipse using a 65-foot camera, the largest in the area.

Haven’t been able to score a set of eclipse glasses? You can make a homemade viewer with two pieces of cardboard, a piece of aluminum foil and tape. Cut a one-inch-square hole in the center of one sheet of cardboard and tape a piece of foil over the hole. Poke a tiny hole through the center of the foil with a sewing needle. To use the viewer, turn your back to the sun and place the cardboard viewer over your shoulder. Use the other piece of cardboard as a screen, moving it closer and farther away to make the image of the eclipsing sun larger or smaller.

Looking directly at the sun during a total solar eclipse, even for a short time, can permanently damage your eyesight, as 121 people discovered during an eclipse in 1970.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Soaring temps spur classic experiment

August in Eastern Oregon invariably means high temperatures. With thermometers topping 100 degrees, most folks seek a way to escape to cooler climes. For an East Oregonian photographer in August of 1967, the intense heat of the concrete canyon of downtown Pendleton created the perfect scenario to attempt to prove or disprove a classic “just how hot is it” experiment.

EO photographer Virgil Rupp wanted to know if it was indeed hot enough to fry an egg on the sidewalk on August 14, 1967. Rupp first enlisted an assistant, Elaine Alkio, a 1967 graduate of Pendleton High School. She donned a bikini, armed herself with a couple of eggs and a box-opening knife (having no kitchen implements at hand), and began scouting for a promising “frying pan.” Almost immediately a crowd — consisting mostly of men — formed, and a dispute broke out over whether concrete or asphalt would better serve the experiment.


Alkio gamely cracked her first egg amidst helpful advice. “Higher!” someone called. The egg splattered upon hitting the pavement.

“I’ll just scramble it,” Alkio said.

Another egg was cracked as the crowd grew larger. It splattered too. But, wielding her improvised spatula, Alkio showed onlookers that, with patience, you can indeed cook an egg on a sun-scorched patch of concrete. Rupp’s article, however, did not say how long it actually took for the eggs to cook, or what the eggs looked like when they were done.

The average air temperature of 102 degrees Fahrenheit during that week translates (according to internet research) to concrete temperatures north of 140 degrees. But in a 2013 NBC News article by Rob Lovitt, even at air temperatures of 128 degrees in Death Valley, despite monumental efforts by visitors to the state park there, eggs would not cook on pavement. Concrete and asphalt are poor conductors of heat, and cracking an egg onto either surface will cool it below a temperature sufficient to cook the egg. And it makes a huge mess, park rangers lamented.