In the early morning hours of Dec. 8, 1922, fire tore through Oregon’s oldest city.
Astoria’s fire likely began near 11th Street and quickly spread through the downtown business district.
Despite a drizzle of rain and light snow, the blaze jumped from building to building. Within an hour of the first alarm, an entire block turned to ash. Newspapers described it as an “inferno.”
“The heat was terrible,” the Oregon Journal reported. “In the path of the on-coming flames people ran through the streets carrying children and what few goods they could gather.”
“— Oregon Daily Journal, Dec 9, 1922
... people ran through the streets carrying children and what few goods they could gather.”
The Journal detailed how former Astoria police officer Chris Carlson managed to salvage a few valuables before watching his house burn. “It was just like daylight, wherever you went even though the electric lights went out,” he said.
The fire raged for over 11 hours, burning nearly every building in the business district. An insurance report at the time said the fire destroyed 220 businesses and rooming houses stretching over 24 city blocks. Later accounts listed the damage as even worse.
Out of a population of 14,000, nearly 2,500 people lost their homes. At least two people died.
No one knows for sure exactly how the fire started. While some newspapers speculated on foul play, others blamed a kitchen fire. The Oregon Insurance Rating Bureau report ruled the cause as “inconclusive.”
Regardless of the cause, the city’s early timber structures and viaducts helped fuel the fire. Founded in 1811, Astoria is the oldest settlement by white Americans west of the Rocky Mountains.
The city sits on a hillside bordered by the Columbia River. Without much flat land, a portion of downtown was built over the water and tide flats using a system of wooden pilings. The timber buildings, elevated on wood planks, created ideal conditions for fire to spread quickly. That’s just what happened in July 1883 in what was known locally as “the Big Fire.”
That blaze began in a sawmill and destroyed buildings, wharves, and houses. Despite the fire danger, the city quickly rebuilt using the same system of raised buildings. After the 1922 fire, concrete pilings finally replaced wood.
Visitors can get a first-hand look at old Astoria and the 1922 fire through the Lower Columbia Preservation Society’s self-guided walking tour brochure or visit the fire exhibit at the Clatsop County Heritage Museum.
Related: Watch the full Oregon Experience documentary “Astoria” below.