Tag Archives: Highway 26

The Customary Celebration on Lower Crab Creek

The remains of Oscar Danielson's irrigation pipes lead to his fields and ditches from the site of the Danielson dam.

The remains of Oscar Danielson’s irrigation pipes lead to his fields and ditches from the site of the Danielson dam.

In a previous post I published a photograph of swimmers perched on the top rail of the irrigation dam Oscar Danielson built to draw water out of the community canal. This canal redirected some of the flow from Crab Creek towards a number of farms or orchards west of the watercourse. Around 1920 Oscar purchased surplus wire-wrapped wooden water pipes from the city of Seattle to tap into the canal, pumping water from the reservoir behind his wooden dam. His single-stroke gas engine is still hidden in the weeds near the ranch he later occupied on the banks of Lower Crab Creek.

Oscar Danielson on his Crab Creek farm in Grant County, WA, circa 1920

Oscar Danielson mows hay in a field watered by the pipes leading from the Danielson dam. The photograph is probably from the latter half of the 1920s.

The swimmers were part of a larger crowd gathered at the dam for a Fourth of July celebration. It was a custom amongst the farmers and ranchers Continue reading

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Home Alone

The badger snarled at the approaching truck.

The badger snarled at the approaching truck.

As the youngest of six children, I was rarely offered the opportunity to be by myself when I was growing up. It wasn’t until my older brothers and sisters began college that our little house started to provide nooks or rooms where I could be alone. For time alone, I hiked, but that wasn’t alone time either: the dog always had to come along. That I didn’t mind.

I wasn’t necessarily anti-social, I just liked to curl up in silence with a good book sometimes. Sometimes I wanted to be able to watch whatever I really wanted to watch on the television. Whatever KHQ in Spokane offered, that is. I was 16 years old before I got the chance to really be alone.

In August of 1970 my parents decided to take a brief a vacation. I don’t recall what the occasion was, maybe one of those trips they made to Seattle so they could attend a Seattle Symphony performance. One of the difficulties they faced in doing things like that is that someone still had to change the water, feed the horse and chickens, collect the eggs and water the garden. On this particular occasion I hastened to volunteer to take care of the place. I was 14, and I was the only child left at home. Somehow, my parents agreed that I should mind the farm all by myself.

How can I portray the boundless joy it gave me to be the master of my own farm? As I watched the station wagon leave a trail of drifting dust behind it, as it signaled left and headed west on Highway 26, I was filled with glee. There was nobody here to tell me what to do, to spy on me and to criticize me.

There had been, over the previous weeks, a few mysterious haystack fires that summer. An activist union calling itself the National Farmers Organization had been attempting to raise the price of hay. Some of the more militant activists among them targeted haystacks and hay trucks with sabotage or fire. The one word of advice my father had for me as he left was to keep an eye on our haystack. It was a wall of hay twenty feet high running along the lower edge of our alfalfa field, right next to the highway. My father’s admonition made me feel important, and I climbed into the 1948 Ford pickup to check on the haystack several times that day.

I checked the last time after darkness fell. The headlights of the truck cast a cone of visibility on the ruts of the access road. Tall grass grew right up to the edge of the road and the wheel ruts had a strip of grass between them, shorn to a constant height by the undercarriage of the pickup. As I wheeled onto this road the lights revealed a dark shape filling one of the ruts ahead of me. It moved. As I approached the badger turned to face me, a devilish face full of snarling teeth and white stripes at oblique angles. For a moment it looked like the badger intended to attack my truck, but then it turned to flee. Being a teenager, I did the most humane thing I could think of: I sped up and chased that badger down the ruts. It had no exit for a while, with dense walls of unbroken grass on both sides. The fat beast wobbled back and forth, glancing over its shoulder as I kept my distance from it. Finally it plunged into the ditch on the left side of the road. All was clear at the haystack.

That night was perhaps the spookiest night I ever spent. In the house alone, with total darkness beyond the plate glass windows, I heard every creak and pop of the dead wood as it cooled in the night. A breath of wind found gaps in the window frames, chilling the back of my neck. It was just me, the dog and the television in the dark. And on that television, Psycho. I squirmed in my seat. Suddenly the bathroom, across the dark hallway, seemed far too far away. The only light in the house was in the room I was in. I didn’t even want to raid the freezer for the ice cream I had planned on eating. Our freezer stood in the damp, cob-webbed basement, too much like a Hitchcock set to allow me to be brave. In fact, I didn’t move from the couch through the entire movie. And when it was over, time to go to bed, I developed a strategy for turning on lights in the next room before turning off the ones in the room I was leaving behind.

Well and good. Lights out in the living room and the television was off. I had the lights on in the bathroom. I closed and locked the door, although there was nobody else in the house. I peeled down my pants and sat down on the toilet. Instantly there was a deafening, inhuman shriek outside the window, the only lighted window in the house. I found myself screaming, squirming face down on the tiles of the floor. I scrambled into my parents’ room and snatched up my grandfather’s Winchester. In my haste, I left it unloaded. Trembling with fear I barricaded myself in the bathroom, slowly getting my breath back. I came up with a satisfactory explanation for the scream: my actions must have startled a visiting coyote. Still, I knew what terror there was in darkness. I had just watched Psycho.

I slept soundly in spite of the incident. But when I rose in the morning and looked out the dining room window I was stunned to count at least nine columns of smoke rising from various places to the north in Grant County. I rushed outside to look at our haystack. No smoke, but there was a silver pickup parked on the edge of the highway close to the stack. I waited for it to leave before driving our old green pickup out to the haystack. I searched around the haystack but found nothing alarming.

As I fried up some eggs and bacon I realized I was looking forward to my parents’ return later that day.

Then & Now

I published this photograph of the Lower Crab Creek Valley as viewed from the Taunton townsite in “Another Flood.” On a recent visit to the same spot I took the following photograph.

This summer I took a hurried trip through Eastern Washington, photographing sites I have written about. In this article I try to post old photographs alongside more recent ones. In some cases I have also provided views of places previously mentioned in my posts, although no older photographs are available to compare them to.

A view of the Lower Crab Creek Valley in 2012, more than fifty years after the previous photograph was taken, reveals the changing ecology of the formerly arid landscape. Irrigation and invasive species have radically altered the local habitat.

There is definitely an article to be written concerning the environmental changes that have taken place in the Lower Crab Creek Valley over Continue reading

The Summer it Rained Airplanes

Two mechanics crank the handle of a USAAF Bell P-39Q-1-BE Airacobra, at Hamilton Army Airfield, California, in July, 1943. Saga Boy II was flown by Lt.Col. Edward S. Chickering, commander of the 357th Fighter Group. USAAF photograph as published in Wikipedia Commons.

Early Sunday morning, June 11, 1944, Stanley L. Stroud opened the door to the cockpit of his P-39Q fighter trainer for the last time. Stroud lifted off from Moses Lake Army Air Force Base and headed towards the Lower Crab Creek country to practice strafing or firing his cannon. Maybe both. Maybe he was one of the “flyboys” my dad accused of shooting at livestock grazing along the creek.

Stroud probably drained his ammo cans before pulling up out of the valley, headed east. He may even have jettisoned the empty shells, although that practice was frowned upon. We used to collect .50 caliber shells, some of them still live, and other ammunition from time to time as we wandered across the vacant lands along the creek. With his ammo used up, Stroud gunned the engine and pulled back on the stick to sweep upwards out of the Crab Creek Valley. It would have been a thrill of sheer power, with a roaring 12 cylinder engine just behind his seat, one of the most muscular machines in the world. At the time, nobody knew why it happened, but pilots had for years reported that the P-39 would sometimes spin out of control. As Stroud gained altitude and shot eastwards along the northern flank of Saddle Mountain it happened to him. Stroud may have been knocked unconscious by inertia forcing the blood out of his brain. We can only hope that was the case. His plane plummeted in a tight spiral known as a Stall/Spin, exploding against the face of Saddle Mountain in a huge fireball. A seared patch of hillside, roughly the shape of Alaska, was branded into the sagebrush for at least the next forty years. Today you’d have to know where to look.

When I first heard his story in grade school, the pilot had no name and the story was told as if such an accident were unusual. It was one of the legacy tales that made my hometown seem special. But when I began to research that incident for this article I discovered something astounding. Stroud’s death was only one of 123 accidents involving P-39s from two Army Air Force Base Units located in Moses Lake and Ephrata that were training fighter pilots that summer 1944. All of these incidents occurred in only about five months, from late April to late August, 1944 (except one, which took place the following January). Continue reading

To Glenwood for Christmas

The reasons for my father’s decision to abandon the Danielson Ranch on Crab Creek have never been entirely clear to me. I remember that when I asked him about it, he was very close lipped. Myself, I was ready to get away from the Central Washington weather by the time I went to college. No more of these sweltering iron-colored skies for months on end, Enough of these months of boringly gorgeous sunsets and clear nights so starry you could hike the hills without a flashlight even when there was no moon. My father lived in Glenwood long enough to marry and have children, but he moved back to Othello to take advantage of irrigation water from the Columbia Basin Project in the early 1950s.

I’m sure I’ll revisit the reasoning behind my father’s choice another time. But it’s the holiday season, and for me that always brings to mind my grandparents and their old home in the Glenwood valley of Klickitat County. These were the only grandparents I knew, since my father’s folks had both passed on by the time I could crawl. My mother’s parents seemed incredibly ancient from the very beginning, as if they were the living remnants of the rich family history they represented. And if I have any explanation for this urge to write down these stories, it probably ought to be blamed on my Grandfather Herman, who labored over his antique typewriter, one-eyed, pecking out the letters one by one and filling up pages of uneven type that eventually became several volumes of local and family history about life in Klickitat County. Recognizing his skills as a story teller and nurturing my own taste for history, I made it a point to find time to ask him questions whenever we visited, and I was richly rewarded with personal stories and the outlines of a family’s fortunes on the Washington frontier. I’ll be passing some of this on in later articles. I regret that I didn’t inherit more than a few of his marvelous old photographs, so I won’t be able to post clear copies of them to illustrate his tales. Most of the photographs I am publishing came from my father’s collection and were probably his own.

My favorite Christmases as a boy were those we had at Glenwood. Our home place outside Othello might get heavy frosts and the occasional dusting of snow, but Glenwood seemed like it always had a white Christmas. Continue reading

Adventures in Changing Sprinklers

One of my earlier jobs away from my home farm was changing hand line sprinklers on a neighbor’s ranch, perched just at the cusp of the hill above the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge on Highway 26. The sprinklers had to be moved twice a day, at sun-up and sun-down, and there were two fields to move so I had to make an early start of it. I was young enough that I wasn’t yet driving, so I’d ride my old red and white one-speed bicycle on the canal maintenance road down to the neighbor’s place.

The pipes were four-inch aluminum, thirty feet long. The first field was relatively flat, and when I’d cut water to the pipes there would still be a load in every pipe. I’d have to disconnect each pipe and drain it by lifting it gently in the middle until the water flowed out.

This field fronted on the highway, so I could entertain myself by watching the traffic pass by. But there was also a pond in this field, a pasture frequented by a herd of steers. The sprinklers had to be laid right through the pond. It was disgusting. The water was coffee brown with bovine wastes and it was deep enough that my boots would invariably flood. The sun climbed and the air grew oven hot. I’d spend the rest of my shift squelching around the fields with stinking wet socks.

The farm dog would often accompany me, a wiry blue-heeler with an attitude. He had his most fun on the second field, where the fenceline bordered on the wildlife refuge. This was a hilly field, and my sprinklers had to be laid right over the tops of some small ridges. One morning the dog spotted an intruder at the top of the first ridge, a scrawny grey coyote. Continue reading

Drilling for Oil on Frenchman Hill

An unidentified traveller in an unidentified location. As the age of the motor car increased demand for petroleum, the industry looked for resources throughout Washington, including in the Columbia Basin.

An information circular published by State Geologist Raymond Lasmanis in 1983 declares that Washington’s first gas and oil resources were spotted on the west side of the Olympic Peninsula as oil seeps in the sea cliffs and mud cones spouting natural gas. That was in 1881. With more than 16,000 feet of basalt flows covering potential petroleum deposits in the Columbia Basin, nobody was really expecting to locate anything there. It was farmland that appeared to be most valuable in that area, and that meant water would have to be supplied.

The early 1900s saw some pretty heroic efforts to bring water to what could become productive farmland. Canals were the favorite projects, luring money from investors from far afield. But in 1913 the Conservative Land Investment Company of Spokane began drilling a well for water on the north slopes of Rattlesnake Ridge. They had reached a depth of just over 700 feet when, to their dismay, it wasn’t water that erupted from their hole, but natural gas. They had no way to accurately measure it, so estimates of the flow rate range from 70,000 to as much as 500,000 cubic feet per day, forced out with a pressure of up to 7 pounds per square inch. You might think they would have tried to contain the flow, but instead the gas from that well and several others in the area was simply vented into the air until 1929. By the time commercial production was attempted, the pressure rate had dropped to around 2 pounds per square inch. Even so, over the next dozen years or so, the Rattlesnake Hills wells produced around 1.3 billion cubic feet of gas until it was shut down in 1941 when the Hanford Reservation was created.

With the Rattlesnake Hills field in production, investors began scouting for similar opportunities. Wildcat operations formed to exploit untouched gas fields hidden beneath the basalt.

Donny Boy Number 1 was drilled into the northeast flank of Frenchman Hill, from 1935-1939. The site is near the west end of O'Sullivan Dam. Photograph by Bror Gustaf Norberg.

People’s Gas & Oil Development Company was one of these wildcat enterprises. W. Gale Mathews of Ephrata was hired to run point in acquiring mineral leases. According to a 1974 letter from Floyd Harris, a local old-timer who witnessed the entire process, land owners on the eastern end of Frenchman Hill were offered ten cents an acre and one twelfth of the all oil found in a well drilled on their property. I had to wonder whether Harris was correct in specifying one twelfth of all the oil, since there weren’t many indications that any oil would ever be found in this region. Continue reading