The Great Conflagration of 1873
August 2 marked the date 145 years ago that fire raced through the booming city of Portland like never before or since. Although many cities suffered from fires in the mid-nineteenth century, this was the worst fire on the Pacific Coast since the Sacramento fire of 1854. In Burying My Dead, the fictional character of Simeon Small spies the flames from the hillside in East Portland. In the light of dawn, he watches it spread as people are still asleep, turning mansions, tenements, storefront businesses and upstairs living quarters into ash and rubble. He feels helpless, much as I do when I hear about the devastating fires consuming square miles by the dozen in 21 fires in Oregon and Washington alone.
Twenty-two blocks were damaged in the Great Conflagration of 1873; more than two hundred dwellings and one hundred stores were destroyed. Losses would top over one million dollars, with less than a fifth of that insured. This map shows the city hugging the river. As Portland was rebuilt, its geographic center moved up hill, further west.
Volunteer firefighters did their best. They were often men of prominence like banker William Ladd, merchant David Burnside and druggist Stephen Skidmore, pictured below with Multnomah Company #2. Known as The Red Shirts, it was a fraternity of sorts, an excuse to socialize and march in parades. They had already been stretched to the max in December 1872, when a fire started in a Chinese laundry, destroying several blocks around Morrison and Front Streets. Compared to the August blaze, the 1872 calamity seemed like a blip in history. In truth, the empty blocks destroyed by the earlier fire acted as a buffer zone, saving much of the city.
On that disastrous Saturday in August 1873, the gallant volunteers may have looked more like the Keystone cops, although the fault was not theirs. Four engine companies and one hook and ladder company leapt into action at the sound of the fire bell. Thirty-two cisterns were scattered around town. The men had to pull the equipment to the scene, and they were exhausted before they even began to fight the fire. (Horses were not added to the fire department until 1882, just a year before the city decided to pay firefighters and budget for the maintenance of its new prize geldings.)
Completely overwhelmed, one company rounded up Chinese residents and put them to work behind the burning warehouses. The heat was so intense that the Chinese had to be hosed with water from the wharf to keep them alive. Armed with a bayonet, a soldier from the Emmett Guard forced a Chinese man to walk barefoot over a burning boardwalk. On August 5, the Daily Oregonian did not mince words when it printed: Too strong language can not be used in condemning the inhumanity that was exercised by some persons toward Chinamen during the fire on Saturday. Ironically, many historians believe the fire was started by a member of 28 Strong Men, who had warned of disastrous consequences on that date if citizens continued to employ Chinese workers.
Portland Mayor Henry Failing didn’t hesitate to ask for aid to fight the fire. Equipment and volunteers came by rail and water from Salem, Oregon City and Vancouver. But, after the calamity, he refused financial assistance from outside sources, despite pleas from such leaders as William Ladd, who saw immense suffering, especially among the poor. The New York Times account of the fire, written on August 18, was heartbreaking.
Civic leaders had plenty of ideas about how to prevent future fires. Many proposed widening the streets from sixty to eighty feet so flames would not so easily spread. But the city rebuilt quickly. The only tangible financial outlay of money by the city was the purchase of a bigger bell, one that could reportedly be heard all the way to Oregon City. In 1875, the bell was replaced with a system of telegraph wires, signal boxes and engine gongs.
The city has gone through many transformations since 1873, and only two commercial buildings from that era remain. One is the Hallock-McMillan Building, a brick structure with Romanesque cast-iron arches. It not only survived the fire of 1873 and the flood of 1894, but many architectural “redesigns.” Thankfully, it was restored to its original splendor less than a decade ago. You can tip your hat to the grand dame at 237 SW Naito Parkway.
With climate change upon us, who knows what disasters will befall us? In Oregon today, wildfires claim property, disrupt lives, destroy memories. The ash from last summer’s Gorge fire was tangible evidence that we all live close to the edge. A perpetual spiral feeds the flames: bigger, more frequent fires require additional money for firefighting, leaving paltry funds for prevention. Let’s hope future lawmakers will see the dangers and act. In the meantime, at least we can look to the resiliency of the human spirit. People do survive, damaged though they may be, and carry on. That is a lesson for all of us.