Portland, OR Waterfront Fire, May 1903

Laid Low By Fire

Mills on Water Front Destroyed.

Total Loss Is $260,000

Flames Spread From Their Origin in a Dry Kiln.

Firemen Hurt--No Lives Lost

Easter & Western Lumber Co., J.A. Martin & Co. and Portland Union Stockyards Are the Heaviest Losers.

Loss Insurance
Easter & Western
Lumber Company……………..$100,000 $40,000
J.A. Martin Co………………... $25,000 $10,000
J.A. Martin……………………. $30,000 $4,000
J.A. Martin and E. Martin……. $25,000 $5,000
Portland Union Stock Yards…..$10,000 $3,000
Oregon Sash & Door Company...$3,000 $3,000
Fire Department……………….. $1,000
City (roadways)………………… $5,000
Six scow dwellings…………….. $1,000
Totals………………………..… $260,000 $65,000

Fire swooped down on Portland’s defenseless water front yesterday and licked up $200,000 worth of property. “It burned up everything it touched,” said a gloomy insurance man, as he watched the dollars go heavenward. “The only thing that didn’t burn was the water, and I’m not so sure about that.

The planing mill of J.A. Martin Company, near the foot of Seventeenth Street, first went up in smoke. The smaller sawmill of the Eastern and Western Lumber Company was next sacrificed to the flames. Twp wharves then rolled skyward. A large barn and other property of the Portland Union Stockyards were consumed, also about 100 feet of fire hose.

Only about one-fourth of the losses will be stood by insurance companies. The companies have been so chary of assuming risks on the destroyed property that the owners could not get full protection, although they paid exceedingly high premiums.

No Lives Known to Be Lost.

There were rumors all day that several men had lost their lives. The rumors could not be sustained, however. It is believed that no human lives were sacrificed. Several men had to jump into the river to save themselves. Three firemen were injured-Frank Slavin, of Engine No. 3, who suffered a broken leg; Fred Wagner, of Hose No. 6, whose foot was hurt and Walter Elwanger, of Engine No. 6, whose had was bruised.

The animals in the stockyards were all released before the fire reached their quarters.

Started in Dry Kiln.

The fire started in a dry kiln of the J.A. Martin Company, between the planing mills and the lumber company’s sawmill. What started it is unknown. A firebug might have set the fire, but this has not been ascertained, and the mystery will perhaps never be cleared up.

“A large part of the savings of my lifetime have been consumed,” said J.A. Martin, “all in a few hours. The loss is indeed very discouraging. Portland needs a better-equipped fire department. The firemen did the best they could to subdue the flames. They fought with great bravery. But the fire department needs better equipment. Portland should learn from this disaster that parsimony toward its fire department is poor economy.”

“Our loss is very heavy,” said W.B. Ayer, president of the Easter & Western Lumber Company, “but I don’t see anything else to do than to meet it calmly and to grin and bear it. Out business will go on the same as usual, but 200 employees of the destroyed mill will be thrown out of work. We sympathize with them and we wish to sat that we appreciate the heroism with which many of them risked their lives to save the mill.”

Value of Destroyed Property.

The destroyed property was valued as follows:

Building and plant of the Eastern & Western Lumber Company……$85,000
Two wharves owned by J.A. Martin and E. Martin…………………..50,000
Building of the Martin mill………………………………....................5,000
Manufactured Product………………………………............................7,000
Stockyards buildings……………………………….............................10,000
Scow dwellings……………………………….......................................1,000
Oregon Sash & Door Company, mostly by water……………………….3,000
Other losses……………………………….............................................6,000

Causes of he Great Loss.

The causes of the great loss of property may be summarized as follows:

Insufficient means of protection against fire at the mill; inadequate water supply, both from the mill pumps and the city mains; inadequate equipment of the fire department and not enough firemen, and no fireboat. Beneath the city roadway and the floor of the mill the flames had undaunted sway, and when the firemen thought they were subduing the fire above, suddenly the flames leaped up from below. Almost as quickly as the tale is told the mill was cut off from the shore by a barrier of fire. The men in the mill who were holding the nozzles found the water supply shut off and had to flee for their lives.

How the Flames Were Fought.

The flames began their destruction shortly before 5:30 o’clock A.M. The new day was about an hour old and was opening bright and beautiful. All at once smoke was observed to be pouring out of the top of one of the dry kilns. The alarm was sounded and the employees who were operating the mill rushed out the hose. At the same time the whistle broke forth in its shrieks of alarm and soon thereafter the great siren of the Eastern mill added its voice to the noise. The department was summoned at box 43, Seventeenth and Front Streets. It responded promptly, engine company No. 6 and hose company No. 6 being the first on the scene.

Lines of hose were run out immediately but the supply of water from the hydrants was low. Many minutes, which stretched out like ages, went by before the hose grew full. Chief Campbell had arrived early and was prancing up and down, sweating profuse streams of perspiration over the dribbling nozzles.

Meanwhile the fire had jumped from the dry kiln to the Martin mill, which was separated from the kiln by a narrow space. Soon thereafter the kiln fell through to the ground. The hole it left behind revealed a fiery furnace underneath. Just a few minutes before it fell Chief Campbell had called several of his men from its roof.

Up to this time several bursts of flame in the sawmill had been extinguished by the firemen and the mill hands. The men had high hop of saving the sawmill even though the Martin mill should be consumed. But they did not count on the fiery furnace beneath them not on the fierce draughts of air which were fanning the flames to frenzy under the mill. The puffs of smoke which at first had floated lazily up between the boards where the men stood soon began to shoot up angrily from the pent up force beneath.

All at once the flames forced their way up from below, and in a minute they had the mill at their mercy.

Engine Almost Hemmed In.

The large fire engine No. 3 was pumping at Seventeenth and Front Streets. It was almost hemmed in by the rapid approach of the fire. By great effort it was pulled away to safety. The fire immediately took possession of the roadway where it had been working. In a short time they had consumed the roadway, Had the engine remained but a few minutes longer it would have been destroyed.

This engine was supplying four lines of hose to defend the mill. This hose and the men who were working it were cut off from the shore by a wall of fire, and had no water. One or two of them felt their way back by crawling on their hand and knees. Others, among them several who had been using the mill hose, made toward the river. Several jumped into the stream and swam out and the rest let themselves down on a boom of logs and escaped to the Star Sand Company’s wharf.

Within half an hour after the alarm was sounded the two mills were mantled in fire. Six engines were pumping their best, but in vain. Engine 4 was rolled down to the river north of the Martin mill, where it drew water to throw on the flames. Engines 2, 3, 5, 6 and 8 pumped from hydrants near by, but they never had all the water they needed. A main burst under the streets close by. Until the waste of water could be stopped several lines of hose were impotent. The city is now laying in a 14-inch main along Front street. Had this main been in service yesterday and had the street been filled in with earth and the destruction of property might not have been so great.

Chief Campbell Saves an Engine.

Chief Campbell was urged to run on of the engines down to the river under the sawmill. He congratulated himself last night that he did not do so. “If I had,” said he, “what would the public be saying now? The engine would have been consumed with the mill. I wouldn’t be very comfortable now, would I? I’m glad I followed my best judgment.”

The warehouse of the Oregon Sash & Door Company caught fire in the inside several times, but the flames were soon extinguished. The damage to the stock of this company from fire and breakage will not be over $300. But the damage from water will amount to perhaps $2500.

Animals in Stockyards Saved.

In the stockyards were about 100 cattle, 200 sheep and 300 hogs. The animals were all driven to safety. A large barn containing much hay and grain sheds, fences and pens were consumed.

The fire alarm system became deranged and could not be used for signals. This was due to the destruction of wires by the fire. For a long time the fire bell and whistles added their noise to the confusion.

Streams of water were kept playing on the ruins all day. Heaps of sawdust and rubbish remain, which may smolder for several weeks.

Insurance Losses.

The Martin mill for many years has paid 8 per cent for insurance. The Western mill paid 7.26 per cent, the Eastern mill is protected by an automatic sprinkling apparatus, which cost $12,000 and which secures its owners a rate of 3.5 per cent. Neither the Martin nor the Western mill could get all the insurance it wanted, owing to the low limits of liability which the companies wanted on carrying.

Recent Disastrous Fires.

Portland has been visited by several disastrous fires of late. On March 3 the Dekum building sustained a loss of $150,000; on March 10 the Victoria dock fire destroyed property to the value of nearly $300,000. Sealy, Mason & Co., Canning, Wallace & Co. and the Oregon Furniture Manufacturing Company have suffered disastrous fires.

Sawmill Built in 1896.

The sawmill was built in 1896 by the Western Lumber Company, of which P.M. Henderson and J.H. Peters were the chief members. About a year later W.B. Ayer and Mr. Henderson bought out Mr. Peters. In the past year the mill received expensive improvements. About six months ago the Western Lumber Company was merged with the Eastern Lumber Company, in 1900, built the large mill which is about one-fourth of a mile north of the mill that was destroyed yesterday. The Western mill had an output of 130,000 feet of lumber in 24 hours. The Eastern mill has an output of 280,000 feet every 24 hours.

The machinery and the output of the Martin mill were owned by J.A. Martin and by the Eastern and Western Lumber Companies. The mill buildings and the grounds were the property of J.A. Martin. One of the wharves was owned by J.A. Martin and the other by J.A. Martin and E. Martin. The mill had a very fine equipment of machinery, the equal of the best in this part of the country. Mr. Martin was preparing to double the output of his mill, and had laid a large supply of materials for his business.

Incidents Of The Fire.

Many Side Happenings Among the Crowd Who Watched.

The fire was prolific of incident, more so than any similar [illegible] seen in Portland for a long time. The huge crowd of spectators, fully half of whom rushed to the scene on foot or bicycles before the streetcars were in operation, seemed to feel that it was “getting it’s money’s worth.”

“Something was doing all the time [illegible] the sideshows apart from the main spectacle of roaring flame’s. First there was the sudden advance of fire under the wharves, from which dense clouds of smoke shot up, seemingly enveloping and cutting off the retreat of the fire men and mill workers in the first lumber yard. It was a deliciously thrilling moment to the crowd.

“It’s good-bye to them fellows in there! Say, ain’t this great.”

In the excitement a young man let his cigarette go out, exclaiming at intervals, in chorus with his fellow:

“Gee, ain’t this great.” But the firemen were Foxy Quillers when it came to making the final “get-away.” They stayed with the hose in the lumber yard up to the last second of time, leaving themselves the barest margin to get out with their lives, Dave Campbell bawling hoarse warning to them through a throat half choked with smoke. Two or three came out pretty groggy, and one fell prostrate at the outer edge of danger. A big copper lifted and supported him out to breathable air, where he quickly recovered and rushed about his work, of which there was plenty to do.

Fire engine No. 3 was in the smoke now and began to shriek signals for its horses. But they were tardy, “Run her out, boys.” yelled the Chief, and everybody with smoke-proof lungs surged against the engine and got it out of danger with nothing to spare in the matter of time.

Hook and ladder No. 2 was in melee, too. The anxious driver looked back vainly for some of his company.

“Got to get to --ll (sic) out of here with this truck.” he said. “Guess the boys had to get out ‘tother way. Say, mister,” he addressed a newspaper artist with a big sketch block under one arm, “D’you think you could steer for me back there-just ‘nuff to get this out?”

He Could Steer.

The artist reckoned he could “steer ‘bout as well’s he could draw,’ but while he was trying to find a rudder or oar or steam-steering gear in the vicinity of the hind axle, forth out of the black smoke came the rest of the wild-eyed truck company bearing their ladder-”with their shield or upon it” was their motto.

“I’ll lam you do snoot when I git time.” said one of the newcomers with surprising fierceness.

The sketch maker wasn’t sure who was meant but refrained from inquiry. The ladder was run on, the horses started with a jerk, the truck swung a little, and the end of a ladder “lammed” the fierce fireman on his own “snoot” so that the blood came and he was groggy for a moment but he didn’t bat an eye, just shook himself together and rushed on, for work was a-plenty.

“Don’t leave that hose here,” bawled the Chief. “Lend a hand boys.”

“Come on,” yelled young Dr. Cardwell who had been binding up somebody’s splintered fingers or burned hand. “Come on-grab a root everybody.” and everybody f the rear contingent lad hold of the long hose, the end of which was lost far in the smoke. And so the engine, the truck and the hose, or just part of it, were saved.

Meanwhile the main body of spectators were absorbed in watching the movements of the men hemmed in on the burning dock.

A bunch of a dozen or so mill workers and one or two too venturesome sightseers who had been afraid of losing some of the show, slid down a length of belting off the end of the dock onto the boom of logs in the river, thence making their way to safety.

Not so with two others, who seemed to be a little rattled. They clambered along the outer edge of the lumber piled on the dock until one either fell or jumped off. He flopped his arms in a desperate effort to fly, but Old Gravity was too much for him and he went on down twenty feet or more into water which he was probably glad to find only up to his armpits. Then he waded ashore. The other man turned back into the smoke in an excited fashion, and many people, not seeing him reappear, announced with great excitement that he had perished. But several saw him emerge later and climb down the piling to the providential boom of logs.

Scow Dwellers Were Busy.

Now the fire was rapidly making life strenuous to the scow dwellers in the little bay between the burning dock and the crowd.

“Hey you!” shouted someone to a fair whiskered man who was “getting busy,” “better get out o’that!”

“Oh yah.” returned Yellow Whiskers; “Aye no got much, but Aye tank Aye save heem” And he methodically went about his work of removing the contents of his scow to a very leaky boat. He saved “heem” all right, though he will have to build another scow.

About this time things were getting interesting over in “Slabtown” the small compact village of rough, unpainted structures across the street from the mills and adjoining W.P. Fuller & Co.’s brick building. Here the inhabitants stood not upon the order of their moving, but moved. Fat women with calico aprons and lean men in workmen’s clothes darted about vociferating in voices of foreign accent. Household goods and gods were pulled out helter-skelter and transferred piecemeal to be packed in heaps along the railroad track. Anxious mothers in soiled “Mother Hubbards” staggered along under heavy bundles of chattels, with one or more little ones clinging to their skirts. One stout matron was cool and methodical enough to match the man with yellow whiskers. With a fat baby on her left arm, she yet managed to carry to a place of safety all but the heaviest of her possessions. One family experienced great difficulty with a big range. It was almost as large as the house they were leaving, but at last they got it loaded on a rickety wheel barrow, which promptly broke down. However, it began to appear that the danger was less threatening than at first thought, and the range got no further.

Slabtown Fire Brigade.

A crowd of small boys organized the Slabtown Fire Brigade, and, climbing upon one of the shanties, had literally a high old time, dousing water from small tin buckets over the roof and upon the heads of unsuspecting spectators below. The irate owner “came a-running” and the boys slid off the opposite side of the roof as if it were a trick mule.

Finally, when the excitement seemed about over a very corpulent lady had a fit, and flinging down upon a grassy bank, began to kick and scream with great vigor. Her husband and sons secured her limbs and held her by main force, while a crowd of well-dressed women and girls hurried around, striving to get a closer view of the show. An agonized call for water went up, and none being immediately forthcoming, a workingman with great presence of mind and unselfishness produced his dinner pail and poured out a cup full of coffee, which was dashed in the poor woman’s face. She rapidly revived, and upon the arrival of a large supply of water she was able to sit up and was soon assisted away. To the disappointment of the sightseers, the fire was now under control, and the streetcars began to reap a rich harvest of homeward-bound fares.

Yea, truly gee; It was a great fire!

Oregonian, Portland, OR 2 May 1903