LA GRANDE —Unlike today, 92 years ago the residents of La Grande were talking about the echoes of a past epidemic.
Here is why: Inlow Hall, Eastern Oregon University’s first building, is situated over an old pioneer cemetery.
In 1928, after excavation work started, a crew uncovered skeletal remains of pioneers. The pioneers were believed to have died in an epidemic that struck the Grande Ronde Valley in the 1870s, according to a presentation given on May 15, 2000, by Rebecca Farrester, then a student at Eastern. The type of epidemic is not known but it is known there were outbreaks of diphtheria in the Grande Ronde Valley in the 1870s.
The construction workers feared in 1928 they would contract whatever disease had swept through the valley if they touched the bones of those who had died from it. The men refused to continue working.
“They staged a sit-down strike,” Farrester said.
The construction workers refused to change their minds. Finally state officials gave in and changed construction plans, eliminating the need for additional excavation work for Inlow Hall, which was completed in 1929. Eastern was initially named Eastern Oregon Normal School.
People were first buried in the cemetery Farrester spoke of in the 1860s. The graveyard was La Grande’s lone cemetery until 1878. By 1900 the cemetery was no longer in use.