The oldest U.S. settlement west of the Rockies, Astoria, Oregon is located near the mouth of the Columbia River. By the 1920s, what started as a fur-trading outpost had grown into a thriving city of over 10,000 with its economy centered on timber and fish canneries.
This historic city was built of wood: wooden buildings on wooden foundations. Even the sidewalks and streets were made of wood. Several entire blocks near the river sat elevated off the marshy ground on wooden pilings. And all of this wood created some unexpected consequences in years to come.
At 2:00 a.m. on December 8, 1922, the first shouts of “Fire!” sounded in Astoria’s business district. The area was soon engulfed in flames. The fire rapidly burned out of control, destroying as many as 30 downtown blocks. Portland dispatched firefighters and equipment to help with the blaze, which was finally brought under control by dynamiting buildings in the fire’s path.
Financial losses totaled hundreds of millions of dollars. Nearly 2,500 residents, mostly those who lived in downtown apartments, were left homeless. One death was attributed to the fire.
Most of Astoria was promptly rebuilt after the fire. Main Street today remains much the same as it appeared after its 1920s restoration. Having made it a priority to preserve buildings of its past, Astoria now claims to have more historic houses per capita than anywhere else in Oregon.
To learn more about the city’s history, watch the Oregon Experience documentary “Astoria.”