Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Suspicious fire destroys Round-Up grandstand

A fire thought to be incendiary in nature destroyed the covered wooden grandstand at the Pendleton Round-Up Grounds on Aug. 15, 1940, during the early innings of a softball game between the champion Pendleton Elks and the Sioux City Colored Ghosts.

A crowd of 1,500 people was watching the game when smoke was first detected in the east side of the grandstand. According to reports, the fire started in a storeroom used by the visiting team as a changing room, and was originally thought to have been ignited by a discarded cigarette. But police later learned a young boy came into the Nirschl service station two blocks from the grounds, “unstrung and sobbing,” to report he had seen a man start the fire.

As the fire spread, fans climbed over seat backs and railings to flee across the grass infield, escaping through the gates near the bucking chutes on the north side of the grounds. Many ran for the Umatilla River, wading across and climbing the far bank. Someone also turned a score of riding horses loose from the barns on the property, and the animals ran wild, trampling Clarence Ogren, 25, and knocking down Mrs. W.C. O’Rourke.

Nine people were injured during the fire, though none seriously, including Clarence Horn, blistered badly while carrying his wife, who had fainted in the panic. Joe Caglione, the watchman for the Round-Up Grounds, said he had paused in his security rounds to watch the game when he smelled the smoke. When he investigated, the fire was already well underway, and he rushed to evacuate his wife and daughter from their living quarters just 20 feet from the storeroom where the fire started. Others risked their lives to help evacuate the stands, finally driven out by the intense heat of the fire as the last of the crowd escaped.

Within 15 minutes of the fire bell sounding at 9:30 p.m., a crowd of 5,000 people had arrived to watch the destruction, not only of the grandstand but of the historic stage coaches, covered wagons, buggies, surries, buckboards and prairie schooners stored beneath.
The grandstand at the Pendleton Round-Up Grounds burns on Aug. 15, 1940 (EO file photo)

A man was questioned by police after they were told he had been seen in Pendleton the day prior to the fire, and that he had threatened to burn the grandstand after his request to take part in the Westward Ho! Parade was denied. He was given an alibi by friends, and his name was not released to the media.

Round-Up officials declared the show would go on, despite a time frame of less than a month for rebuildiing. Fundraising efforts raised $23,000 and crews worked day and night for three weeks to build the new 3,000-seat grandstand. Contractors worked at cost, and an architect drew up the plans for free. The Westward Ho! Parade was staged using antique vehicles donated from around the region.

The brand new seating was ready for Round-Up fans just in time for the iconic rodeo’s Sept. 11 opening day.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Local nurse found insane after disappearance

When Nellie Baker of Pendleton left for Portland in June of 1912 to serve as a private nurse, her mother thought nothing of it. Three weeks later, Nellie was found in a padded cell in a Portland jail after she was discovered wandering the streets in a state of insanity.

Nellie Baker was a 26-year-old nurse who periodically performed private nursing duties for Pendleton residents. She told her mother she was approached by a Miss Huntington in June 1912 to accompany her to Portland as a nurse and companion. The two women supposedly left for the city on June 23 and took rooms at a Portland boarding house. Nellie sent several letters to her mother about their trip, but her last communication was received in Pendleton on July 5. At about the same time, the landlady of the Portland boarding house noticed that Nellie had not visited her room for three days, but had left all her personal belongings behind. She immediately called the police.

On July 15, Nellie was identified as an inmate of a padded cell in the Multnomah County jail, where she had been since July 3. She had been found wandering the streets of Portland, completely insane, and was unable, or unwilling, to hear or speak since her incarceration.

Pendleton police began their investigation by attempting to locate the mysterious Miss Huntington, but could locate no one by that name in town. Nellie’s mother insisted that her daughter had received a call from a woman on the north hill and had gone to talk to her. A taxi arrived early the next morning to take Nellie to the train, but no one at the station saw the young nurse in anyone’s company, and the brakeman of the train testified that Nellie traveled to Portland alone. This led investigators to theorize that “Miss Huntington” was a figment of Nellie’s imagination, and that she had already been suffering from some kind of mental breakdown before she left Pendleton. But friends, including a Pendleton doctor, insisted Nellie was perfectly rational when they talked with her prior to her departure for Portland.

Portland police were criticized for not identifying Nellie earlier, as Pendleton police had sent her description and a photo when she disappeared in early July. But in their defense, Portland officers related that when she was picked up Nellie was using the name Gertrude Wilson, and she gave a lurid story of an attempted abduction into white slavery. She told officers that she and her mother had moved from Minnesota to Stanfield several weeks prior to her disappearance, where they had attempted to start a chicken ranch. Their endeavor had failed and they lost all their money, and she had gone to Portland on the promise of a job. When she arrived, Nellie said, she had been met at the train station by the husband of her alleged employer, who had attacked her and attempted to drag her into a taxi. She had escaped from him just before the police spotted her on July 3, she claimed.

Portland police had taken Nellie to Stanfield in an attempt to find her mother. “Gertrude” had told them her mother dressed like a man, and lived in a hut there. When her mother couldn’t be located, Nellie jumped out a second-story window of the hotel where she was staying and hid in the sagebrush, but was soon found. On her return to Portland she was put in a straitjacket and locked in a padded cell at the jail for her own safety.

Nellie’s mother telegraphed Portland authorities that she would travel there to make arrangements for her daughter’s care. On July 17 a letter from Nellie’s sister said that Nellie had regained her powers of speech and had briefly admitted that the Miss Huntington story was a complete fabrication, but later recanted. A piece of clothing known to have been worn by Nellie when she left Pendleton was found, badly torn, but no cause was ever found.

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.