Oral History

Narrator: George Hash
Interviewer: Donna Sinclair
Date: March 5, 1999
Place: City Hall, Umatilla, Oregon

George Hash was mayor of Umatilla at the time of the interview. He and his family came to Umatilla in the early 1950s after the building of McNary Dam. He worked as a school teacher first in Umatilla and later in Hermiston, and describes changes he has seen in the community over time. Mayor Hash also discusses how many people east of the mountains feel about some of the more pressing political issues, such as the breaching of dams on the Columbia River and the Umatilla Chemical Depot.

Tape 1 of 2, Side A

GH: Talks about driving a truck to Vanport prior to WWII. Enlisted in the army in Feb. 1942.

Actually, early on in the war, most of us could not believe that Japan would jump on the United States, you know. Japan to us was just a little insignificant nation. And to have them bomb Pearl Harbor was just almost unheard of. But then by, early in '42, it became very evident that the United States was going to be in a war with Germany and with Japan. . .

DS: So did you enlist right away, or? Because you said you drove during Vanport and Vanport was built right after the war started.

GH: No, it was built before the war. It was built to house those people that were working in the shipyards there in Portland and of course those lend-lease, those ships were being built for the, well actually the Allied cause, but not for us at that time because we weren't in the war. That was, they were being built for uh, for England and France, to transport good to them.

DS: So the major construction, there was construction that had already taken place at Vanport before the war began and. . .

GH: And they were building the shipyards. . . Then I went in the service. I was in the service until October of 1945, and then I come out and went back to construction work and worked heavy construction from Washington D.C. to Fairbanks, Alaska. Whatever, I could find me a job that was six or seven days a week, with the ten/twelve hour jobs because I was going to make all the money in the world. But in the meantime, even before I got out of the service. I come back from the war and I come back a bit early because I escaped this prison camp. I was in a prison camp up in the northeastern part of Germany, and another fella and I, in the winter of '45. . . in January of '45 and I'm not sure of the date, but sometime around the middle of January, uh, below zero weather, ten inches of snow on the ground and we walked across the [Yoda? Yodle?] River, and that's the river that divides Germany from Poland and we worked our way back to the Russian lines. In fact, we could hear the shelling from the Russians. When we escaped, they were moving our camp to western part of Germany and it was during that time that this other fellow and I escaped. And so, what happened was, I got back, I worked my way on down eventually to Odessa, Russia, smuggled aboard a ship there. One of these lend-lease ships, by the way, which was quite interesting, but it got some bridge boys. But my partner, he stayed off in Poland. He could speak the language, decided he had enough of the war, but I was anxious to get home. Then, as a result of that I got back home early. And well, uh, from the ship they took me as far as Istanbul and I was interrogated there by some British Intelligence people, and they sent me down on to Port Said, Egypt where we had a huge bombing base. And from there they sent me to a hospital in Naples, Italy and they worked on my wounded arm and shoulder some more and then sent me to Tunis and then Iran, Casablanca and on home. So I got back here, thinking I was safe because I had quite a few points. You know they have a, work on a point system when you're in combat like that and so, I married this little North Carolina girl that I had met while I was in the service. I tell everybody, I said, you know I was lucky, I got home before most of 'em got here, so I got my pick! But anyhow, well we were married and then they sent me to their R & R camp in Santa Barbara, California. And uh, from there they sent out word, they were gathering up all the paratroopers, I found out afterward that we were scheduled, that they were forming a new unit that was scheduling to be the invasion force for Japan. So this is one guy that's really. . . don't ever tell me that that bombing of Japan wasn't a good idea because it saved thousands of lives, both Japanese and American, as far as that goes. . .

. . . I'd had some background in construction so I started looking for good jobs, and then, in the meantime, I got my college education and my teaching credentials. Well I actually didn't have my teaching credentials, but I was close enough that I got some special certification out of Salem and took a job up here teaching. By that time I had a daughter who was starting the sixth grade and I decided that traveling all over the world [laughs], and that's how I landed in Umatilla. I was offered, I think eleven different jobs, or I had interviews for eleven different jobs and I picked Umatilla because I just liked the school superintendent and the president of the school board whose name was Hyatt. In fact he was in charge of the toll section of our bridge here, when this was a toll bridge. You knew that we had a toll bridge here for many years after the ferries shut down and they put that bridge across the river. . . many of the people throughout the county were just real skeptical, they called it a boondoggle. Here the county was going to go into debt for all of these millions of dollars and all of that, but it paid itself off in much shorter time than they had figured. And then that opened it up, but for one thing it was a much shorter route to Tri-Cities and I think by that time, uh, job opportunities in Tri-Cities was quite good and people driving from here to there on a regular basis. But it did shorten that route.

DS: So how did you get into politics?

GH: Well, I got into politics when I became a little disenchanted with some of the turmoil that was going on in our city, kind of some infighting within the mayor, council, chamber of commerce and all of this kind of thing and I had retired from teaching by that time and decided if I would just see if I couldn't do some good. Not only that, but I wanted to clean up the town. When I first moved here to Umatilla, that was forty, almost forty-four years ago now, this was a thriving community. We had uh, every one of these store fronts that you see empty now had a thriving business going on. That uh, used, that second-hand store up here on the corner a couple of blocks up here, that was [Anie's?] Hardware, a real nice little hardware with some nice apartments over head. And it was just a, and I want, I got into politics, I think, to see if we couldn't do something about bringing the city back and also to stop some of the [laughing] infighting that we, we were pretty regular in the paper. . .

That was my primary mission in doing it, and so I first of all took on a try at the, at a councilor's position, and had two people running against me. But I managed to get enough votes for one thing, I had a bit of an advantage because teaching here as long as I did there were a number of families, I was known fairly well. And a number of the people who lived here in Umatilla were old students of mine and that didn't hurt anything. Besides the fact that I don't have any real difficulty in talking, so I just went from house to house. I mean I, I put on a campaign of getting to meet people. And as a result of that I got a pretty fair percentage of votes. And then in the meantime we had a mayor that, over some of the problems that I'm talking about, resigned as mayor. And then we elected another young fellow and, real great guy, Tony [Villanoy?], but he's still around, but, but he was so busy see, he was athletic director and a coach. And you can imagine how much time he had to give to the job and as a result there was much of the time when he was unable to be here even for our meetings. In fact, the year that we had the Oregon State Convention for mayors here in Umatilla, he was gone on vacation and I was up in Canada visiting my son in Saskatchewan, and I got a call from our city manager and she said, "Is there any way you could come back early?" she said. "We've got a state convention to host and we don't have a mayor here for it." So I come on down, and then as a result of that and some of the people that I talked to in that said, "Why don't you run for mayor?" So I did, got elected [laughs]. And that was back, well let's see, I'm starting my. That was in '89 that I was elected, and so I've been mayor since. . .

DS: Are you going to run again?

DH: Depends a lot. Depends on who applies to run on that job. If I feel, what I don't want. Now I have time and I have an interest and I don't have any wheels to grind. My only interest is in the city itself. And so if I can find somebody that will dedicate the time and doesn't have some personal interest that he wants to foster. This happens quite often in small city governments. . .

DS: How do you feel about small city governments having to deal with some of the big, big federal issues?

GH: I think we can have a real impact. In fact, several years ago, the Oregon Irrigator's Association. . . Fred [Zaire?], I don't know if you've met him or not, but he's quite active in that. And he come to the city and asked if we would come on board on a study that was made because that's when they were first talking, early on, not when they were first talking, but early on when it looked like it might be serious on lowering the John Day Pool. And so we chipped in, I can't remember, we chipped in ten or fifteen thousand dollars on it, at Irrigon a little less and what they wanted was some cities to come on board, so that when they presented these findings it was a concern not of just the irrigators, but also a concern of the cities along the river. As a result of that, every time they would have one of these public hearings I would go and I have, I'd get as much information as I could. But as a result of that study we found out how devastating it would be to the ecology of our area. Not the, just the idea of losing the water, but of the fish that spawn here and of the nesting of the ducks and geese and all of the other things that would just be wiped out if that river was dropped down to its normal size again. So that became a concern of mine. And so I would go to these public hearings and whether it was the Power Council or the Marine Fisheries or the Corps hearings, whatever they were. In fact, I've been to two within the past two or three weeks, one was on the breaching of the dams up here on the Snake River and the other was on the lowering of the John Day. And I keep involved in that because I honestly believe, and in fact the paper stated that pretty flat out. Well, Slade Gorton up here said that the reason why this hasn't been accomplished already is because of the pressure of the local people, and so I foster as much of that as I can and get as many people as I can to go to these meetings to let the public know, "Hey, you're devastating an area, completely devastating an area."

DS: What would the impact of the breaching of the dams be on Umatilla?

GH: Well, for one thing it would take, it would take away all of the shipping from our port on up north, up through the Snake River system. Another thing is that it would take a great, it would devastate the wheat harvest in that part of Idaho and Oregon, up in there, because they would take those pumps out and as a result of that there would be no wheat, and that, and they were even talking about buying out all those ranchers. Okay, that wheat comes down the river and is transported right on through here. And what it would do to the farmer, even if uh, even if everything else was equal, it would raise the cost of shipping wheat from about two dollars a bushel to about three and a quarter a bushel which would wipe the farmer out. You know these ranchers are making it on a very slim margin as far as, you know, of profit of the ranch. That's the reason why they have to be so large, is in order that that margin might be enough to make an income. Well, they could not afford to ship wheat out of there. See, that has a snowballing effect because that affects all of these farm related things. And once they got that down, you know what the next is? It's already been spoken of. McNary would go next and all of the pumps out of there and all of our, our grapes and potatoes and onions and, and asparagus and all of that, is being pumped out of there. And uh, and you see this all affects the entire city because our, not only the people that work out there, but the people that they buy goods and services from, in our communities. And we would be back where we were, well not fifty years ago because things were good around here fifty years ago. They were building McNary Dam. . . . the period before that dam. What would happen is we would go back to that economy again. In addition to the fact that that would put about five thousand trucks a month on the road to replace this barge traffic. Yeah, five thousand a month or more.

DS: How does the barge traffic that comes out of Lewiston, Idaho or out of Idaho, benefit Umatilla? Wouldn't it be more beneficial to Umatilla, this is something that I've been wondering about, to have the barges, have truck traffic, say come here and then barge it down river? Wouldn't that actually benefit Umatilla?

GH: There again, your truck traffic costs about a third more to truck that same produce. You see, that's your cheap transportation. That's why it's been used for. It goes back to the very beginning of our city - you know - that river transportation is your cheap transportation. And of course, that's essential. When you are, all of this, all of this big business is based on a margin and when that margin is cut down to where it no longer can bear the cost of operating, it closes. And this is, this is exactly when. What else, [emphatically] that nobody has even mentioned hardly. Gordon Smith brought it up. . . that it would take from five to seven years for the silt that is already at the bottom of those dams to wash out, and for five to seven years no fingerling could swim down that river. It would wipe them out. You talk about your native salmon. There would be no native salmon for that part of the river. They'd be wiped out, they'd have to start all over again with stock out of the fish hatcheries to stock that five or seven years down the line. What really bothers me is the fact that they're zeroing in, and environmentalists, we shouldn't be fighting with them. We should be working with them on some common goals to restore the salmon. And it isn't, the dams may have some effect, but I don't think they have a very large effect on it to be real frank.

GH.. No. But I'll tell you what I did. Before I even moved to Hermiston I started, well first of all I started taking odd jobs in construction, then I started my own construction business, and so then I'd build a house. As soon as I took this job in Hermiston I built a house out there on Bridge Road, on a little lake ridge you know and then I sold that and built another one. I don't know, Iíve built a dozen or fifteen houses and some other buildings, well maybe more than that, but anyhow, a number of houses in the area. So I had a supplementary income beyond the teaching. It enabled me to rear my family and provide a decent living for them.

DS: So what about the impact of John Day Dam?

GM: It didn't have a great deal of impact on us, except for the fact that it robbed us of all of this lower area, we call it the old townsite, and it robbed us of that area. And out of that came a school building, we still have.

[End Side A, Begin Side B]

GH: . . . court. What I understand is that they requested to keep that bell. The government said no, and so the firemen that used it for a, thought it was a child or something and [laughs] rescued it out of the belfry, and hid it out, and uh, and I'm sure, and that's about as good a story as I can tell because I think that's exactly what happened. I've heard that from too many of the old-timers and, we're kind of proud of that bell, just because of that. Put something over on the government for a change. I guess I probably shouldn't say this, but I get awfiilly discouraged with the government when they destroy perfectly good property just to be destroying it. My son was in the Coast Guard up in Ketchikan during the Vietnam War and they'd take those nineteen foot Boston Whalers, when they were through with them, after they'd used them a few years, then they would replace them. They'd just take a chainsaw and cut them in two and burn them. We do a lot of that, we do a lot of that. We had some jeeps out here on the depot a few years back, and I wanted in the worst way to get one of those jeeps for our 1O1'1 Airborne Association, for our Oregon Association, to use in our parades.

DS: And they wouldn't let you have them?

GH: No, they sold some of the parts off of them and then cut them up for metal. Yeah!

DS: How about the depot? What about the incineration project? What do you think of that?

GH: I think it's the best thing that ever happened, uh, to get rid of that stuff Because, 1 have no fear of it, but at the same time I have a respect for it. And so I do all that I can, and I've become quite active, and in fact you'll probably read today or tomorrow an article that, I had an interview with a, with an EO reporter yesterday because we've got one building down here that houses, well if they were all put in that one building, it's the Headstart Program, and they have no protection whatsoever from there. Now they have bought some Shelter in Place plastic and this kind of thing, but nothing from the government, no over pressurization of that building and I requested that last fall, and then I come back again when I was referred to. . and then I was referred to the county person that's in charge and uh, and then when Ijumped her again sometime back because these things never get attended to. It's always we're gonna do it tomorrow, we've got the money here, we're going. But uh, anyhow, then she said, "Will you write a letter?"

And I said, "Sure." So I wrote a letter requesting it, and then I noticed when it came out that, reason I knew we weren't going to get anything is because it wasn't one of the items listed in the budget for CSEPP this year, so uh, I decided well I'm going to go this route, so I went down, I got me a reporter and I went down there and showed the building, sixty-five, seventy kids that are there. And the sad part of it, these are there from poor families for the most part. They're there from families of teenage mothers, they're children of young mothers that are working, oh there are several categories, but this is the, for the most part it's from families of uh, limited income. And those kids are taken down there and they're there for the day, with no protection. I think that's.

DS: Is that the one in Hermiston?

GH: No, it's right down here on Third Street. Yeah. Anyhow, I ended, I lodged some other complaints. They were to receive $45,000 a year ago for these Shelter in Place kits. We haven't seen the first one yet. It's not because they don't know how to put them together, I brought one of those kits back from Toelle, Utah. As I say I, I've got time, I go.

DS: You visited Toelle?

GH: Oh, I've been to Toelle twice, been back to Washington D.C., and visited with James Watt too, and when I get this article I'm gonna send this with a strong letter back there saying, a year ago when 1 was back there, in fact it was a year ago in February, when I was back there we were assured all of these things you know, because we were back there as a result of all of our complaints. I said those complaints haven't been addressed yet. I want to send that back, the fact that we've got the [D-can?] trailers, but nothing to pull them. We've got, oh they've got the protective clothing for our police and our fire department, so they're stored over in the depot, so what you do, you run to the depot if there's a leak out there! [laughs] .

DS: It is quite a contradiction.

GH: And the tonal radios, and I got a letter back on this and it's always, "We are planning to" do this. Thirty days after they're ordered. Why weren't they ordered thirty days ago? And they're not ordered yet, you know.

DS: Are you on the governor appointed commission that will determine what's going to happen to that property?

GM: No, I'm not on that commission.

DS: You're not on that commission?

GH: No, I'm not on that commission. No, I'm in the wrong party for that. [laughs] Have you been reading about our jail deal up here? Our prison deal?

DS: Yes, I have. Why don't you tell me a little bit about that.

GM: [laughing] Well, it's interesting. What happened was that the people in Wilsonville and in that area, were adamantly opposed to putting a prison down there, and they brought it to the legislature, and the legislature decided to take it out of the governor's hands, really. So they promoted a bill. Now before that was ever fielded, that Senate Bill, before that was ever fielded, uh, Senator Kutub and a group from down there, from the State Legislature, from the State Senate really, and the fiscal officer who does all the uh, money analysis of cost and everything like that, they sent out letters asking if there were any cities that were interested in having a prison in their community. We already have one. Uh, we had.

DS: The men's prison, right?

GH: Yeah. . . They got these replies and 1 think there were six or seven of these, all of them from eastern Oregon, except Lebanon, I believe Lebanon was on the list in the valley. So they toured all of these sites and they had a criteria by which they rated them, and of course we came out way ahead because of the cost saving in placing it here. $91 million, and as I told them down there at one of those hearings, well both those hearings in fact. The Senate and the Mouse hearings. And that's something else, see I've got time to do this and I enjoy doing it. . . I get involved because it's dear to my heart you know. I want, what I'm interested in, two things really. Not just the jobs, average forty thousand dollars a year. Those are good jobs. But I'm interested in people having those jobs, moving into my community, buying a home there. And then those, and then they've got a lifetime job, with a great retirement, you see. So, they'll be here. Okay, they become a part of our civic organizations, our churches, our schools, our city government and all of these. And they're the kind of citizens that build strong communities, because they've got the income for it, they've got the stability for it, and they're able to buy a house.

DS: How many jobs will the prison?

GH: This one up here? They tell me somewhere between five hundred and five hundred and fifty, and the women's prison, somewhere just a little less than that.

DS: How many of those are those good paying jobs?

GM: Nothing less than about, about uh, I think about the least paying job is, 1 think $12.50 an hour, somewhere in the neighborhood of close to $30,000 a year, for those, for the low paying. You know the highest paying jobs in our city today, in Umatilla, the highest paying jobs are your teachers and your people who work for the government here on the dam. And other governmental agencies. Those are good paying jobs, and we have, we have all kinds of lobbying down in Salem, from schools saying we need more money for our teachers you know. Our teachers jobs are so low-paid and all that. That's our best paid. [laughs] . . .

Photo Archive * Documents Archive
Oral History Archive    
Bibliography & Web Resources