Oregon lost world’s biggest log cabin in spectacular 1964 fire
Ancient electrical wiring ignited Portland's legendary Forestry Building, a structure made of massive, flawless old-growth logs that had been built for the Lewis and Clark Exposition in 1905.
A souvenir postcard image of the Forestry Building from the 1905 Lewis
and Clark Expo, probably from a sketch made before construction was
By Finn J.D. John — June 17, 2012
When the sun came up on the morning of August 17, 1964, Oregon was home of the world’s largest log cabin.
When the sun went down that evening, it wasn’t — and firefighters were still battling a blaze that sent flames 10 stories into the air and rained burning embers the size of apples down on neighboring houses’ roofs.
“It was the granddaddy of all fires in this historic area of Portland,” local photographer and graphic designer Grant Keltner later wrote. “I don’t think I’ll ever see anything like it again.”
World’s biggest log cabin
The cabin was one of the last two surviving building from the 1905 Lewis and Clark Exposition in Portland*, and it sat across the road from Montgomery Park in the northwest section of town. It was an enormous structure, measuring 206 by 102 feet – just shy of half an acre. A full million board feet of lumber went into it.
Portland timber magnate Simon Benson — the fellow who installed the famous “Benson Bubbler” drinking fountains in downtown Portland — supplied most of the logs for the structure, and they were hand-picked old-growth monsters from Columbia County. There was a colonnade down the middle of the building, made of 52 unpeeled six-foot-thick tree trunks, hand-matched like a string of pearls. They’d had to be handled specially when they were cut and hauled, to preserve the bark.
A vintage postcard showing a more detailed view of the
Forestry Building's central colonnade. Note the people standing
at the base of the
After the 1905 exposition, the building was purchased by the city of Portland, which for many years let it decline and decay. It was nearly lost to fire several times when embers fell on the roof, either from nearby building fires or from wood-stove embers, but quick responses by the fire department kept it going.
In the 1940s, there was talk of actually demolishing the building, which by then had turned into a safety hazard; the balconies had been built with whole logs, which had warped, making them dangerous, and the whole building was like a banquet hall for wood-destroying organisms like bark beetles and termites.
Finally, in the 1950s, the Chamber of Commerce took up a collection to restore the place. By this time, people were starting to realize it was completely irreplaceable. Old-growth timber like what had gone into its construction could still be found, but it was deeper in the forest and less uniform. Finding 52 matching trees would be prohibitively expensive if not impossible to do, and — since the logs would have to be trucked to the site rather than just floated up the river — log-handling systems would have to be engineered to prevent the bark from being scarred by logging equipment.
A vintage postcard showing n interior scene in the Forestry Building,
with the central colonnade of matched old-growth fir trees.
By the time of the state’s sesquicentennial celebration in 1959, the building was mostly restored to its former glory. It now boasted a “priceless collection of logging and lumbering exhibits — both antique and modern,” according to an Oregonian report. Also on display was another bit of history — the first sheet of commercially produced Douglas Fir plywood ever made, a product of the Autzen family’s Portland Manufacturing Company, produced in 1904.
All of it went up in flames on what was surely the biggest and most spectacular single-building structure fire in Portland history and, until the 1992 burning of the blimp hangar in Tillamook, in Oregon history as well.
The fateful night
On August 17, 1964, the Forestry Building’s caretaker locked up for the night at around 5:30. Within 45 minutes, neighbors were noticing that something was wrong. Specifically, the place was on fire, and when the fire crews arrived at around 6:15 it was clear that nothing short of direct divine intervention was going to put it out.
A photo by A.O. Biggerstaff made in the year of the Oregon Centennial,
in 1959, just a few years before the catastrophic fire. (Image: UO School
of Architecture and Allied Arts)
“There was never a hope of saving the building,” the Oregonian reported the next day. “Nothing was saved from the inside.”
It turned out that the fire had been started by some bad vintage-1905 electrical wiring. Had it broken out an hour earlier, the caretaker might have seen it in time to raise the alarm and possibly save the building. But that’s not what happened.
The fire rapidly grew to spectacular proportions, and people flocked to the scene from all over Portland.
Grant Kelton was a boy at the time, living about four blocks from the building.
The Forestry Building as it appeared around dusk on the night of the fire,
after the flames had died down a little. (Image: Portland Fire Department)
“The flames were almost ten stories high. The fire illuminated the sky for miles, the neighborhood was an orange glow,” he wrote on his Website. “The windows on the entire south side of the Montgomery Park Building were blown out. The heat was so intense that the windows were popping out. Glass was falling down to the street below. Ashes the sizes of large snowflakes fell to the ground within a mile of the structure. It was surreal, an amazing sight.”
Some of the spectators, the Oregonian reported, were in tears.
Afterward, the city pulled itself together as best it could. C itizens and civic leaders got together with timber-industry leaders to create the Western Forestry Institute to fill the void. The new institute soon had a new building, roughly the same size as the old one, in Washington Park; generations of northwest Oregon schoolchildren remember it from field trips to “the Zoo, OMSI and Forestry Center,” before OMSI (the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry) moved to its present location.
So the mission of the Forestry Building lives on. But as for the building itself, it was an artifact of a time that is gone and is not coming back — the great heyday of old-growth logging in Oregon.
(Sources: Mark Moore, www.pdxhistory.com; Grant Keltner, grantkeltner.com; worldforestry.org; Long, James Andrew. Oregon Firsts: Past and Present. North Plains, Ore.: Pumpkin Ridge, 1994)
TAGS: #EVENT: #fire :: # #timberCulture :: LOC: #pdx :: #186
* Another building that was part of the Expo, the National Cash Register company exhibition building, survives to this day. It now houses the St. Johns Theater and Pub, part of the McMenamins group. Thanks to Robert Linnemann for calling my attention to this. —fjdj