On Dec. 8, 1922, a fire broke out near 11th and Commercial streets in the city of Astoria.
It was just after 2 a.m.
By 6 a.m., most of the downtown district was destroyed.
And by noon, Astoria resembled a war zone, with guards in the streets that were lined with smouldering piles of ash.
Saturday marks the 90th anniversary of that fire, a devastating wipe-out that reshaped Astoria for years to come.
But from the ash rose a phoenix and as the anniversary serves as a reminder of what can happen. It is also a reminder of how far a little human kindness can go and how a community is bonded together, especially during times of tragedy.
“Today, looking back, and we have to see a silver lining in all of this, but the community at that time rebuilt so quickly, they really came together and really pulled up their boot straps at a difficult time, that what we have here is a 1920s intact American downtown,” Astoria City Manager Paul Benoit said. “As opposed to taking their time over a long period with buildings and architecure and opinions on what it should look like and spread out over decades – we have a snapshot of a 1920s downtown and what a commercial district looked like and that’s pretty amazing.
“We don’t have to look to create a look, we have it already here. We just have to take care of it.”
A newspaper report from the day of the fire reads, “No word of discouragement was heard on the streets of Astoria today. A forward looking spirit prevailed. In his battered office in the scorched and battered city hall, its ceilings dripping water and its windows partly shattered and still giving way periodically to thundering detonations from ruins across the street, Mayor James Bremner has this to say:
“‘We've got no town left, but we've still got the best harbor on the Pacific coast. We will start rebuilding at once on the old site. These things have happened before, to us once, to San Francisco, to Chicago and many other cities. Yet folks have gone ahead and built bigger and better cities on the ruins. We hope to do just that.’”
And they did.
The fire was believed to have started in the basement of the Thiel Brothers’ Restaurant and Billiard Parlor between 11th and 12th streets, according to the Dec. 9, 1922 Morning Astorian.
“FIRE DEMONS RAVAGE ASTORIA!” screamed the headline.
“The Great Astoria Fire of 1922 is one of our most important historic events of our city,” Mayor Willis Van Dusen said. “My dad remembered very well sitting up on the hill and watching the whole town burn. He was only 5 years old, but that was one memory he said he couldn’t erase.”
“In our business today,” he said of Van Dusen Beverages, “we have a safe that fell through the floor in the fire of 1922 and stayed on the bottom of the river for two years until it was retrieved. We still use it today and it still works perfectly. It has marks on it from the fire.”
According to an article written by Liisa Penner of the Clatsop County Historical Society, a man named Arne Abrahamson said the fire started accidentally, likely by packing material left too close to a furnace.
Reports of the fire came in just after 2 a.m., and the Astoria Fire Department used every resource to gain control, including the city’s 1921 Stutz pumper, still on display today at the Uppertown Firefighters Museum. Eventually, two steam pumpers and one motor pumper, sent from Portland to aid the fire department in putting out the flames, were “rendered valuable in service in combatting the blaze at the eastern zone of the fire,” according to a newspaper report.
Also in assistance was the government dredge Clatsop, stationed several miles away that came to the foot of 9th Street to offer powerful pumps connected to long hoses, “which were more effective and encouraging since the city hydrants in this vicinity were beginning to fail.”
Dynamite was used during the 11 1/2 hour blaze by fire officials to cut the fire off from travelling further along the viaduct of asphalt-covered wooden bases that served as streets and sidewalks.
The fire, “spread with terrible rapidity to the corner of 16th and Duane streets where terrific efforts were made to save St. Mary’s hospital and the city hall,” The Morning Astorian reads. “Dynamite was used unsparingly and the blaze was headed away from these two structures but continued on its way up Commercial and devoured the fire department headquarters structure which went up in a tremendous burst of flame.”
An editorial published on the same front page set the scene, “Calamity riding on flaming wings has smitten Astoria. The fiery brand has penetrated the vitals of the municipality. Her marts of trade and commerce are destroyed, her people have been driven into the streets by the hundreds, her march toward prosperity has received a grievous setback, a fiery baptism which like a flaming torch will lead us onward to greater triumphs.”
The fire quickly ripped through between 24 and 32 city blocks – according to varying reports that also estimated 30 to 40 acres – in a matter of hours, taking approximately 220 businesses and rooming houses with it, as flames smouldered and traveled beneath the sidewalk on the wooden platforms and pilings for which the downtown portion of the city was built. So while firefighters battled the blaze above ground, fire spread below just as quickly.
The fire was fought mostly from the foot of 14th Street, pumping water from the river to a city built on wood. But it was not enough.
“A fire of undetermined origin reduced the entire business section of the city to ashes,” The Morning Astorian reads, sending “hundreds of Astoria’s citizens into the streets, homeless and in many cases destitute, and scantily attired.”
The fire was estimated to have resulted in more than $15 million in damage. Today, that would equate to more than $200 million, according to the the Bureau of Labor Statistics inflation calculator.
“The most disasterous fire in the history of the State occurred at Astoria, Oregon, on the morning of Dec. 8, 1922,” reads a report by the Oregon Insurance Rating Bureau of Portland. “Practically every store, hotel and office building in the principal mercantile section of this city of 15,000 inhabitants was wiped out by the fire and hundreds of persons were bereft of all their belongings. Coming as it did in the wake of the Hammond Lumber Co. fire reported by this office on Oct. 2, 1922, the present disaster has left Astoria in a critical condition.”
As a result of the Hammond Mill fire, more than 600 Astoria men had already lost their jobs. With the December fire, merchants and their employees had lost their way to make a living.
“Businesses forced to relocate filled every space that was available in buildings beyond the burnt area,” Penner wrote. “The ‘burnt’ district was another name for Swilltown, located on Astor Street. Most of it survived the fire. Many businessmen moved what they had left of their businesses into places where saloons, gamblers and wild women used to be.”
Approximately 70 percent of the businesses were covered by insurance, with 40 percent of the buildings covered.
Several banks were destroyed and guards were posted in front of each of the vaults until the money was safely retrieved. Other guards and soldiers from Fort Stevens were posted around town to prevent crime.
The good and the bad
With the exception of looters – who were said to have broken into the Eagles Drug Store and stolen “a number of Kodaks, fountain pens and vials of expensive perfumery,” as well as “practically the entire stock of cigars and cigarettes” – most pulled together to help those left without anything.
“When that fire happened, it was amazingly devastating. It wiped out the entire downtown which was the commercial center of the city,” Benoit said. “But two things always impressed me about that fire. First, how the community so quickly came together and maintained optimism. It was almost immediately, the spirit of the people of Astoria at that time carried forward in the most difficult time and really envisioned something. And I think that has carried on through today. It could have taken years and years for them to recover. But the people quickly came up with a reconstruction plan.
“Second, they assisted the people who lost everything. They really came together for the people that lost everything and helped them.”
In fact, a committee on fire relief was formed within hours of the fire, and “had arranged to erect four 50-foot tables in the Lovell Garage at the corner of 14th and Duane streets where persons unable to get food will be furnished with meals supplied by foodstuffs sent down from Portland.”
Bakeries from Portland also sent bread to the residents of Astoria. The Lovell garage, owned by Sherman Lovell, survived the fire and was made available for receiving and distributing. A resident, H.R. Hoefler opened his home as a temporary hospital and the high school was used by the sisters of St. Mary’s Hospital for patients, too.
Wood came in from all over to be used for heat.
The Seaside Hotel was opened to offer shelter to all Astorians who were homeless. A free bus to the hotel shuttled residents from the YMCA Building, which served as the headquarters for the relief committee, as well as a temporary office for The Astorian newspaper.
Daily Astorian office
While the newspaper plant was damaged in the fire in its office on Duane Street, the paper was printed in both the morning and the evening.
“The Morning Astorian is carrying on under difficulties,” a memo reads on the bottom corner of the Dec. 9 paper. “We’ll get better as we get used to it. Let’s go.”
The “Let’s go” message again appears at the bottom of the Dec. 9 editorial that states, “Phoenix-like, Astoria is unfolding her wings to arise from a couch of flame with a greater and more splendid glory. Let every citizen unite with the common purpose to advance, to grow again; let none lag; let none be dismayed. Every Astorian should echo the cry of those who called upon to do the impossible and dare the utmost on an embattled front in a foreign land, made their slogan of two simple words: Let’s go.”
The paper was printed first at the press in Seaside and then when that didn’t prove sufficient – “impracticable” – it was issued on mimeographed sheets, according to a Dec. 9 article that appeared via the Associated Press. The paper was eventually printed on the presses of the Finnish paper in town, The Tovert.
Just two deaths
Two bodies were discovered as a result of the fire – the body of Norris Staples, a former city councilman and prominent businessman, and a logger, John G. Smith, said to have hanged himself beneath the dock near the Sanborn Co. offices.
Reports at the time stated that it was undetermined when Smith died and if it was a result of the fire or a coincidence. The coroner, E.B. Hughes, said at the time he believed Smith died after the fire had broke out.
Staples had a reputation of being the first man in Astoria to sell a Model-T Ford in the city. According to The Morning Astorian, Staples died “from the effects of over exertion and excitement.” He was said to have had a heart attack while pushing a car out of harms way with his son Harvey Staples and Lloyd Van Dusen.
The aftermath of the tragedy
By the time the Evening Budget was printed, it was stated, “The work of reconstruction has begun. On the ashes of the old Astoria a new Astoria will rise. But it’s a big job and it needs stout hearts, strong wills and willing hands, and we have them all.
“With the conflagration still raging, the work of organizing to meet the emergency was begun.”
Within a few months, the fire chief S.B. Foster, grandfather to prominent Astorian Michael Foster, was fired from his position for being incompetent and letting the fire get out of his control.
It was 1923, during a time that the Ku Klux Klan had taken over the city of Astoria and some believe they used the fire as an excuse to rid themselves of a Catholic.
As a result, 11 firefighters quit to stand by their chief. In 1926, Foster got his job back and his memory is alive in Astoria today.
So is the “forward thinking” of the engineers from those days, who installed chairwalls – concrete walls that separate the street level from the ground below – to allow for underground wiring for utilities.
“There’s a lot to work with here in Astoria. We’re a unique community,” Benoit said.
“There are communities where a building or a block burns down and that’s devastating enough.
“But this burned 30 blocks or more but because of the spirit of the people, they worked together with optimism and rebuilt. They looked forward.
“It’s because of that forward thinking that we have chairwalls and that the utilities are underground. That design and vision was remarkable really.”
This story originally appeared in Daily Astorian.