No Man Is an Island

But Some of Them Come Close

By Rodger Nichols

Charlie Reither rows the Columbia River, as most often seen by area residents. Photo courtesy of the Hood River County Historical Museum

The official name on government maps is 18 Mile Island, but for more than a century, the land has been known to mid-Columbia residents as Chicken Charlie’s Island. The official name derives from its location 18 nautical miles west of Big Eddy and the historic narrows now covered by The Dalles Dam.

Locals may be surprised to learn Chicken Charlie is a misnomer. Charlie J. Reither, falsely known as Chicken Charlie, was the first person to legally own the island in 1917, but he wasn’t the first to live there.

There is no evidence Native Americans occupied the island before Lewis and Clark. Tribal customs seemed to have been focused on other islands in the Columbia as burial sites.

The first record of someone living on the island comes from a memoir written by Leona Hunter, who came to Mosier in 1894 at age 17. She noted a couple was living on the island but could not recall their names. The woman, she said, sewed clothing for girls, infants, and dolls, which her husband sold to area residents.

But the winter of 1894-95 was a particularly harsh 1, and they left the following spring.

Somewhere around 1903, a rancher named Robinson owned a chicken farm on Mill Creek that was being eaten out of business by coyotes, bobcats, and raccoons. He hired a couple named Roy and Lola Bailey to live on the island, build chicken coops, care for the hens, and market the eggs. That venture only lasted a couple of years but established the local name as Chicken Island.

A Native American, Jack Couver, was next to occupy the island, supporting himself by doing odd jobs for farmers in the area. He was followed by a tribal couple, Jack and Lena Orr, who sold smoked fish and made wampum.

Charlie was a streetcar conductor in Ohio before moving to the Pacific Northwest. Photo courtesy of the Hood River County Historical Museum

Charlie Reither was born February 13, 1882, in Wood Township, Ohio, 1 of 9 children. The family came to the mid-Columbia in 1908. In 1917, Charlie convinced his brother George to file a homestead on 160 acres on the Washington side of the river, which included the island.

The Orrs were forced to leave, as they and the previous residents had been squatting on the property. Charlie bought the island portion from his brother in 1920.

Charlie had been a streetcar conductor in Maumee, Ohio, and knew the advantage rails could have in moving large loads. He bought a narrow-gauge mining track and had it shipped to his home. By taking the tires off a Model T pickup and running the rims on the tracks, he was able to easily transport hay to his barn from hayfields on the north and south of the island. It was likely 1 of the shortest working railroads in the history of the Northwest.

When Bonneville Dam was completed and the water backed up behind it, the rise in the river reduced the size of the island by several acres. Eventually, the government paid Charlie $2,500 for a flowage easement.

Below the island was a sandbar. When workers were building the freeway, they wanted to use that sand. Charlie refused, thinking it might change the flow patterns in the river and endanger his home. As it happened, flow patterns did change once the freeway was completed. The new currents washed away the sandbar, leaving only a rocky spur with a navigational beacon on it.

But it was another change in the river that affected Charlie. The Army Corps of Engineers wanted to dredge the channel but decided it would be easier to do so on the north side of the island. That moved the border between Oregon and Washington. Charlie’s island was now in Oregon.

An article in the Goldendale Sentinel in 1959 said, “Charles J. Reither, 80-year-old recluse, had his taxes increased from $3.01 a year to $19.50 a year. Reither’s island retreat was taken from the tax rolls of this county, where it had been for over 40 years, and turned over to Wasco County. The assessed valuation was upped from $100 to $200 and the millage doubled. Reither came to Goldendale last week to protest being made an Oregon resident. He waved the Wasco County tax bill about and spoke unhappily of the tax jump. He wants to stay in Klickitat county.”

Charlie was a bit of a character. Concerned about the Hanford reactors upriver, he refused to use the water from the Columbia. Patricia Krussow wrote about his habits in an entry on Chicken Charlie’s Island in the 1974 book “From Akki-Daakki to Zoomorphic: An Encyclopedia About Hood River County.”

“Though his arthritis was so bad he could not walk, he still rowed his little boat, made out of 1/4-inch plywood, to Mosier,” she said. “There he crawled up over the rocks to fill 6, 1-gallon water jugs with spring water to take back home.”

Charlie worked intermittently. He did some work on Bonneville Dam in the early days and worked as a stonemason riprapping a seawall at the Port of Vancouver.

He died in January 1963. He was found by his friend, Mosier Postmaster Willis Gholston, who noticed no lights on the island for several nights. Charlie was buried in Oak Grove Cemetery in Mosier.

Subsequent owners replaced his shack with a modern structure, a dock that meets Americans with Disabilities Act requirements, and electricity from the mainland. The island has passed through several hands. The property that was once taxed at just $3.01 was sold most recently for $775,000. Charlie would be impressed.