Visitors soon realize that Pendleton blows the horn of its history about every chance it can. The town’s economy and businesses rest on that history, from the notorious and sordid to the respectable and established.
History, without our careful attention, falls prey to the varnish of lore — the stretching of a good story on its own into a false narrative for the sake of a morality lesson or mere exaggeration. We tackled three such tales to get to the truth, with the help of Rebecca Frostad, the manager and membership coordinator at the Heritage Station Museum, 108 S.W. Frazer Ave., and other Pendletonians.
Town of confusion
Finding your way through Pendleton was not always as easy as now (and it’s still not always easy).
Pendleton had only named streets in its early days and no numbered streets. Street names also lacked directions, such as northwest or southeast.
Frostad said Pendleton’s first street names came arose from the first property owner on the block or noted areas of importance. Railroad Street, for example — now Southwest Frazer Avenue — was next to the railroad yard. Water Street, now a portion of Byers Avenue, ran parallel to the south side of the Umatilla River.
To get anywhere, she said, people had to know where Webb Street met College Street, a situation that even in a small town could be frustrating.
That changed after the city built its airport in 1930. Frostad said city leaders recognized the town’s road system was messy, so they alphabetized street names and added numbered streets, along with directions, to create a grid pattern. Only two streets have kept their original names over Pendleton’s 149 years, she said, Main Street and Court (then street, now avenue) because that is where the courthouse is located.
The changeover also brought new designations to the handful of streets bearing the names of Confederate Civil War leaders, including Jeff Davis Street, Beauregard Street and Stonewall Jackson Street.
Infamous outlaw bites the big one
Hank Vaughn was a horse thief, gunman and an all-around bad guy. The kind of man, who, according to the East Oregonian at the time, shot at men’s feet to make them dance.
In 1893, at the age of 46, he met his end on the streets of Pendleton.
“Hank Vaughn was out celebrating to some extent” the afternoon of Tuesday, May 30, 1893, the EO reported, and with an “air of bravado” galloped up and down Pendleton streets in a “gratuitous Wild West show” when he spurred his steed and “rode furiously down Main Street” to the railroad depot, where he tried to turn.
Vaughn‘s horse stumbled and fell, hurling him over its head and into gravel. Some spectators said the animal even sprawled on top of Vaughn.
The horse stood, Vaughn did not. One foot remained in a stirrup. He was covered in dirt, bleeding, one eye “nearly forced from its socket.”
The next morning, after medical attention, Vaughn bragged he was tough to kill off. Days later he was in trouble, according to the EO, and while his body seemed to improve off and on, his brain and mental condition did not. By June 13, Vaughn’s condition was “almost of a stupor,” the EO stated, and he was getting weaker. He died Thursday, June 15, 1893.
Frostad said “no one was really too sad to see him go, except, perhaps, one of his jilted lovers.”
The day after Vaughn died, the EO ran a lengthy piece detailing his life, including the 1865 account when he and a partner stole horses from Umatilla County. They high-tailed it to either Burnt Creek, Oregon, or Burnt River, Idaho, depending on the source, and Umatilla County Sheriff Frank Maddock and his deputy Jackson “John” Hart tracked down the desperadoes.
A gunfight ensued. Vaughn took a round but escaped, only for the law to catch up with him later, landing him eight years in the Oregon State Penitentiary. Maddock was shot in the face and lived.
Hart was shot and killed, becoming the first officer to die on duty in Oregon.
The EO did not hold back its opinion of Vaughn in describing his fall that afternoon in 1893: “the man who appears to have nine lives ... had at last been the victim of his own recklessness.”
Building on the dead
Blue Mountain Community College moved to its location on the west end of Pendleton’s North Hill in 1965. Campus construction continued over the course of a decade, and not without hitches.
Grey Elliott taught writing, literature and film at the college. During the construction of the parking lot behind what’s now the Bob Clapp Theatre in Pioneer Hall, he said workers uncovered human remains in old coffins.
“I actually packed a couple of skulls down to the biology lab,” Elliott said. “Covered in real white hair — it was kind of creepy.”
Bob Jenson, another BMCC professor at the time and former state representative from Pendleton, said the discovery caused quite the fuss. No one knew where the remains came from, and Elliott said there was concern the work unearthed an Indian grave site, so construction stopped.
He also said the skulls presented their own mystery — there were holes in them.
The county coroner, Dr. Paul Knowels, examined the skulls, Elliot said, and determined the holes were from trepanation or trepanning — the process of drilling holes into the skull to treat certain diseases or relieve cranial pressure.
Elliott said rather than Indian remains, these likely were from earlier days of the Eastern Oregon State Hospital, the insane asylum Oregon opened in 1913 on 450 acres below the college. The state from 1983-85 converted the hospital into the Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution, the medium-security mens prison.
Elliott nor Jenson said they knew what happened to the coffins or their dreary contents.