The Oregon Statehouse Fire

As a steady seeding of smoke boasts its raspy path through a singed thick-April sky, the curtain is drawn. The year was 1935. The date: April 25th. The setting: much like that of any quiet evening in Small Town, America. Some were just sitting down to dinner, others were enjoying a quiet stroll along the grassy banks of Mill Creek. The Southern Pacific was right on time, but it's mournful moan would prove no match for those of "Small Town, America" tonight.

As man and machine played out their heroic roles, racing frantically through the crowded streets and into the firey raze, by-standers watched in awe as the sequel to "The Statehouse is Burning", unveiled before their eyes. The original story and cast took place in Dec., of 1855, at a cost of $40,000 to produce. Though it would be the first, it would not be the last, of Oregon Statehouses to succumb to the unforgiving laps of fire.

Yes, it could have been the scene from any disaster movie - but this wasn't Hollywood, and these weren't actors. This wasn't a prop, and the events weren't staged. This was the night that 20,000 people would remember for the rest of their lives. This was the night that would leave a scar on Oregon's history six city blocks wide. This was the night that the " Oregon Statehouse Burned."

Shops abruptly closed, people from every corner of the city dropped what they were doing and raced toward the Statehouse, in hopes of discrediting the awful rumors at hand. The grim truth was easily to be detected - confirmation could be seen raising in a steady stream from somewhere within a prism of orange and blue glow. There was much conversation among those who had gathered to watch - much conversation, indeed! Many had felt that from the very beginning the new Oregon Statehouse was a firetrap by design. Before the trials of the night were over and the dawn of a new day begun, it would also come to light that such pessimistic remarks would become the tragic reality of one of Oregon's most monumental losses.

First occupied in 1876 and completed in 1887, at a cost of $325,000 , the new brick and stone structure, at first seemed to be faring well against the small blast of fire, which records indicate began in the basement, probably in a paper baling room. However, the struggle would prove hopless from the very beginning. The insurance rating bureau reported as follows:

"In the early stages of the fire it became apparent that this monumental structure ... was doomed by the flames enveloping its interior. Arranged in the form of a cross with long corridors extending from a rotunda in the center, with a joisted interior, and with large vertical drafts throughout, little opportunity was afforded to check the advance of the flames.

Hose laid into the building by the first companies responding to the alarm and directed at the apparent seat of the fire had to be withdrawn within a very few minutes because of the intense heat and smoke.

Within a short time the fire had spread to the false walls and had ascended to cornices and attic space. Despite the efforts of the local fire department and the assistance rendered by men and apparatus rushed from Portland, 50 miles distant, the fire stubbornly persisted.

The dome was of skeleton steel construction, independently supported by four pairs of latticed steel columns. The latter had been enclosed with wood paneling to give the appearance of tall pillars. In the fire, these acted as long flues to carry and spread the flames throught the structure.

They had the further effect of impinging the heat and flames upon the steel columns, hastening their failure and the collapse of the dome. The next morning the capitol stood with its walls enclosing a mass of ruin and debris."

A.H. Currey of the Eugene Register Guard wrote this recollection: "The dome ... had appeared something like a tall, smoldering haystack through the first hour or two. Now it filled with an angry deep orange light which became increasingly ugly as the sky around it darkened. Before it eventually crumpled, the dome became an Olympian torch that flared blue, green, red and yellow - all at the same time - as its heavy copper and bronze components were consumed. Finally, it was over. The blaze surged on, attacking remaining walls and age-hardened wooden beams. But the great dome was gone. The crowd gradually dispersed, quietly."

Those familiar with the interior of the building tried desperately to navigate the fireman to where the most valuable records were stored. Fortunately, several years before, the state's $40 to $50 million in investments had been moved out of the Capitol and placed in the vaults at the Ladd & Bush Bank. Though sadly rendered to ashes were the portraits of nearly every Oregon governor, invaluable and impossible to replace.

The greatest casualty of the fire was young Floyd McMullen, a couragous 23-year-old man, from Hermiston, Oregon who was at the Cottage Street fire station the night that the frantic call went out. A law student at Willamette University, Floyd was provided free room and board in exchange for being on call as a volunteer fire fighter. He was manning a fire hose the night that the final curtain dropped. A piece of the structure snapped like thunder, crushing him beneath it's horrible weight.

Floyd McMullen was not just the only casualty of the great blaze of '35, but his brave heart and his selfless courage exemplifies the spirit by which the State of Oregon has been founded.

1998 Roxann Gess Smith
All Rights Reserved

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