Fire Department History

Dear Liza,

Well, it looks like I am now working on two stories. I have Clara’s story, about a traumatized little girl learning to find her voice, which I have been working on for about two years. Clara lives on the west side of Portland in 1903.

The second story, which takes place at the same time, is about Henry, a working class boy who wants to go to college against his father’s wishes. Henry started out as part of the Clara story, but he is a really strong character and I want to give him his due.

“In case of emergency…”

One of the difficulties Henry has to overcome is the memory of his older brother, a juvenile delinquent who left town under a cloud of suspicion. I am hunting up ways for Henry to clear his and his family’s name, so I am looking into the Police and Fire protection procedures of the time. Last week I visited the Police History Museum and told you about it.

Yesterday I visited the historic Belmont Firehouse. I learned that in 1903, there were Fire Boxes about every four blocks here in the Eastside of Portland. If someone saw a fire, they could simply break the glass, pull the lever, and an electrical, Morse Code like message would be sent to every fire station. Each station knew which alarm had been pulled and which stations were closest, and the hook and ladder wagons would be on their way.

You can contrast this “Everyone report fires!” approach for fires to the locked Police boxes, which could only be unlocked and used by a Police officer. Obviously, early Portlanders, living in a crowded wooden city heated by wood stoves and powered by wood-fired steam engines, were much more worried about the whole place burning down than about an outbreak of lawlessness.

Fire Chief David Campbell

While I was at the station, I read more about David Campbell, a hero of a Fire Chief. He got the city to invest in internal combustion fire trucks, to replace the slower horse-drawn wagons. He led the department to its greatest, safest period ever, from 1897 to 1911.

And he died doing his duty, pulling the last injured firefighter out of a burning depot at the Union Oil pier at East Salmon before the building exploded.

All this history gives my Henry a lot of opportunities to redeem himself and I look forward to making it all work out for him.


Grandma Judy

Author: Judy

I am a new transplant to Portland from Salinas, a small city in Central California. This is a blog about my new city.

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