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Storms have occasionally interrupted business. The Oregonians pay no attention to rain and there is no diminution of traffic or travel or in the number of vehicles on the street, even for the most drenching showers. Cold, freezing weather, however, drives dray-men and hackmen to their quarters, and the finest, clearest days may pass with but the smallest possible work done. Snow sends every-one to shelter. The winter usually passes with but little of this. Some years, however, the fall has been considerable, and in 1883 it came so suddenly as to cause a genuine blockade. It fell on December 16, with east wind and a temperature of 19° above zero. The storm shifting, threw down a vast depth of eighteen inches from the southwest, mingled with rain and hail. The east wind finally getting the mastery, brought clear skies and a low temperature, converting the mass of slush into ice. Business and travel were impeded for six weeks. The walks and streets were unfavorable for ordinary vehicles; street car tracks were useless; railroad lines were blockaded east and west, north and south. The city hibernated. To an eastern man the sight was quite ridiculous, since this was nothing more than ordinary weather on the Atlantic coast. But the Portland people preferred to wait cosily in their homes and let the snow bank up at their front doors, expecting the south wind to come any night. Their expectations were finally fulfilled, and if another such a blockade should come, our people would go home, build up the fires, and wait again for the south wind.
Occasionally the Willamette freezes over, as in January of 1887, suspending navigation for a few weeks. This has happened no more than four times in fifty years. Violent winds and showers have sometimes visited the city, as in January of 1880. But owing to our light wooden buildings there has been small injury, the damage being chiefly confined to sign-boards and the loss of hats. Slight shocks of earthquakes have been felt, but with no damage beyond fright and stopping of clocks.
Fire, the chief peril of wooden towns, has been quite destructive here, but is now happily ceasing to play so much havoc. The stone, iron and brick buildings of the present are practically fire-proof, and the fire department is very efficient. In 1883, the total loss was $319,092.20; in 1884, $403,051.90; in 1885, under the paid fire department, the loss fell to $59,329.73; in 1886, $98,-146.06; in 1887, $84,173.72; in 1888, $54,347.70; in 1889, $20,000.
The first large fire was in 1853, the burning of the old steam saw mill at foot of Jefferson street. The loss was probably upwards of $25,000. The great fires were in December, 1872, of over $100,-000, and of August, 1873, of about $1,250,300. The latter was a great catastrophe and should be spoken of somewhat particularly.
The fire of December, 1872, which was started at the foot of Alder street, had left at this point a spot not yet occupied by buildings of any kind. This circumstance is thought to have prevented the burning of the whole city, when fire was once more loose in the dry season. The great fire began at about 4:30 o’clock A. M., Aug. 2, 1873, while the summer drought was on, and, by popular opinion at the time, was due to incendiaries. It began in the furniture store of Hurgren & Shindler on First street near Taylor. Fastening on the oils and varnishes in the work room, the energy of combustion was so great as to throw up a shaft of flames through the building far into the air, with dense smoke accompanying, which soon burst into sheets of fire, and involved the entire structure. The alarm of the bells and the cries of the firemen aroused the city, and the streets were soon crowded with men. There were wooden buildings close by, the Metropolis Hotel, the Multnomah Hotel, the Patton House and a saloon, carpenter shop and foundry, on the same block; and within a quarter of an hour the whole was under the flames. The fire passed through these buildings with extraordinary rapidity, our fir lumber proving to be excellent kindling wood, and burning with the violence of tinder. Although promptly on the ground, the firemen were unable to check the devastation, and under a breeze from the hills the conflagration was so extended as soon to include six blocks, reaching to the river and between Taylor street to Main and back to Second.
The front of the fire, moving northward, making a blinding light and a scorching heat, leaped easily across the street, advancing on three blocks, sweeping down four dwellings on Second street and catching upon the Portland Hotel on Taylor. The Fashion stable on the west side, a saddle shop, saloon and a market and some four frame buildings on Front street were next seized and the fire bent toward two hotels, the Lick House and Kellogg’s, which lay directly in its path. Seeing the uselessness of trying to save these buildings, the efforts of the firemen were directed toward the St. Charles Hotel, then reckoned as one of the grandest buildings in the city, and located at the corner of Morrison and Front streets. Ascending to the roof and covering the side threatened with blankets, upon which they kept constant streams of water, and working often in an air of scorching heat, as the flames bent toward them they held on most bravely and manfully, keeping their post until the Kellogg house had sunk down. With the crash of this building a torrent of fire was rolled up which threatened to sweep everything, and swaying out toward the river front overwhelmed even the engine of one of the companies (Columbia No. 3), working there on the edge of the water. But the open space left from the ‘old fire intervened between this and the buildings on the north, and after this last burst had been driven back, it became apparent that danger was past in that quarter. It was the Salem company that had come from the capital early in the morning on a train which made the fifty-three miles in an hour and fifteen minutes, that held the roof of the St. Charles.
Scarcely had the destroyer been stayed on the north-as the morning was advancing-when a jet of flame was seen ascending from a block on the west, or northwest, in the rear of the store occupied by Powers and Burchard, from about the centre of the pile, thereby suggesting incendiarism. A crowd quickly surrounded the block to seize the perpetrator of the deed as he should pass out to escape the flames; but, as usual, nobody was found, or in the general excitement easily escaped. The block was soon in uncontrolable flames, and the north side of the street was again in great danger, but by the prompt destruction of the awnings and other inflammable materials on the north side of Yamhill street this was relieved. By this action the spread of the fire farther north was prevented and the largest portion of the city was saved.
Toward the river it was found impossible to stay the element, the breeze coming from the northwest, and it became evident that the fire must run until it reached the water. It passed on, successively sweeping over the block on Taylor and First streets consuming a saloon and a number of tenements, occupied for the most part by Chinese, and the costlier brick structures occupied by Emil Lowenstein, C. S. Silver & Co. and P. Selling. It swept through the produce and commission house of Cohn and Rosenfield, and caught upon the stores of Walter Moffitt, J. A. Strowbridge, Dr. Weather-ford, and A. Meyer. These buildings were speedily swept under and left to burn down.
To the southward the flames ran with great speed, pressed upon by the wind, and met with no effectual resistance so long as there was material to burn. A large number of dwelling houses, store rooms, a foundry, frame buildings, saloons, the ice works, Love’s hotel and McGinn’s bakery succumbed, and the flames leaped across Madison street, burning, among other things the engine house of the Protection fire company. As a sort of dramatic incident, one of the members of the company ran under and tolled the bell until the string was snapped by the hot air and flame. Vaughn’s flouring mills, the steam saw mills of Smith and Brothers, cabinet shop of W. Wilcox, Jones’ coffee and spice mills, Moffit’s wharf and brick buildings, Sykes’ brewery, a number of hotels, saloons and restaurants, and the extensive sash and door factory of John T. Walker, together with many lesser buildings went down successively in ashes or up in smoke.. A most determined fight was made to save the steam saw mill of Smith Brothers, at the foot of Clay street, and, although it caught in a hundred places it was finally saved. At Clay street, having passed over a district of eight blocks along the river bank, and for the most part back to Second street, and having consumed about $1,200, 000 worth of property, the conflagration met with a number of shade trees, and came upon a less densely built section, where the dense foliage arrested the sparks and defeated the flames-demonstrating, as has so often has been done, that green trees are the best of protectors against fire.
Various wild and ill-ordered individuals, either a little turned by excitement, or allowing their love of destruction to exceed all bounds, or else in hope of plunder, were found setting fires in other parts of the city as the day advanced, but these were quickly extinguished. During the whole terrible destruction the steamboats on the river rendered most efficient service, taking on vast quantities of goods that were hurried out from the stores and other threatened places. As may be supposed, the excitement, the rush of the crowds, the rage and terror consequent upon reports of incendiarism, and the curiosity of people from the suburbs, bringing them in from all sides, reached a great pitch. But, nevertheless, in all this turmoil and in the hasty work on the part of firemen and others, there were but few accidents.
Great praise was accorded to the firemen who certainly fought bravely and sagaciously. Invaluable aid was rendered by the Salem and Vancouver companies. To provide for those rendered homeless nearly all the churches fitted up their basements for sleeping and eating accommodations, and much provision was sent in from abroad. Great sympathy was felt for Portland throughout the East, and contributions were sent from many points; General Grant, then President, among others, lending his influence to raise means at Long Branch. Portland, however, rather surprised the country and herself by accepting but little of this proposed aid, trusting to her own vigor to rise again from her ashes.
The loss, however, proved exceptionally high, there being no more than $250, 000 insurance, leaving the net loss something over $900,000. Partly from the fad that the heavy business center was then moving toward the north end and partly that the loss fell upon many of small means, the burnt district was very slow in rebuilding.