Firefighting in Portland Through the Years

Great Fire of Portland 1873

The Volunteer Years (1850-1883) 

In 1850, Portland was a community of 600 folks who might spend their time reading a newspaper called the “Weekly Oregonian”, or strolling by the only hotel in the City, the California House, located on Front street where it intersected with Alder.  The streets were rutted and muddy, and lined with single-story wooden buildings that burned like straw. The founder of the newspaper, Thomas Dryer, also founded the Pioneer Fire Engine Company #1.  A little better than a bucket brigade, it was a volunteer force of 37 men wearing red shirts with a single hand pump.  For three years, the “red shirts” responded to whatever fires the citizens could kindle. Any mishap, from a shattered oil lamp to dropped embers from the hearth, would send Dreyer and his men to the rescue.  A costly steam mill fire at the foot of Jefferson Street illustrated the desperate need for an organized fire fighting force.   On July 29, 1853, the Vigilance Hook and Ladder Company #1 was born, complete with 36 volunteers to operate it. Less than a month later, 22 men volunteered to staff the Willamette Engine company #1, and the first engine house in Portland was built on a donated lot on Yamhill Street.  

Portland circa 1879
Portland circa 1879

Two decades later, a major fire would change the face of Portland, leading to the end of the volunteer department, and two significant innovations in firefighting.

The great fire of 1873 started August 2nd, a hot dry day, in a City parched with drought.  The Hurgren and Shindler furniture shop, located at First & Taylor, began to burn. When the fire hit the varnishes in the basement, flames rolled up the side of the building, searching for other structures to attack. The alarm bell clanging from Willamette Engine Company #1 was too weak to be heard over the wicked hissing and crackling of the fire.  Creating its own wind, the fire spat flames all over the city, burning for 12 hours, and bringing Portland to her knees. Twenty-two blocks were rubble.  Arson was suspected as the cause.

Great Fire of Portland 1873
Great Fire of Portland 1873

Two months later, the City ordered a new alarm bell which folks could hear all the way to Oregon City. Then in 1875, that bell was replaced with a system of telegraph wires, signal boxes and engine gongs.  

A second innovation arrived just as the volunteer era ended… the use of fire horses. During the hayday of horses, from 1882 until 1911, no sight was more awe-inspiring than a pair of brave and beautiful geldings in harness, breaking into a gallop from the bays of the engine house. 

Portland Paid Fire Department (1883-1904)

January 3, 1883: Portland Paid Fire Department submits its first annual budget to City Council.

Chief Engineer’s salary2,000
1st Assistant’s salary500
2nd Assistant’s salary400
Superintendent Fire Alarm600
Salaries (5 companies, 48 men)22,140
Office rent for Commissioners325
Purchase of 14 horses3,500
Four new hose carts1,800
Harness & repairs650
Horse blankets200
No. 2’s engine4,000
Horse feed2,400
Shoeing of horses275
Coal and wood450
Oil and sponges500
Supplies for maintaining fire alarms500
Fitting up commanding officers, books, stationery750
Alteration of engine houses2,500
Repairs on apparatus2,500
Construction of new hydrants1,200
Construction of new cisterns3,000

The budget included items still found in today’s Fire & Rescue budget: salaries, apparatus, medications, etc.  But of course, horse blankets, feed, and harnesses are as foreign to modern firefighting as automatic external defibrillators would have been the Portland Paid Fire Department of 1883.  

One might say the most romantic and regal era of firefighting was when horses were the true horsepower of the engines and trucks. The heart wrenching stories of the animals’ loyalty, bravery and commitment are the stuff of urban legend. 

  • Colonel, a white gelding 21 years in service as of 1904, would become so excited at the sound of the gong that twice he left the engine house before his driver was ready.  Following the lead steamer, Colonel would pull his hose cart to the box, find the nearest hydrant, and wait to be hitched.
  • Firefighters wept as a horse named Roachy, sick and near death in his stall at the firehouse, died trying to rise at the sound of the bell.
  • Jerry, a big horse with 21 years in service in 1911, was Portland’s most heralded fire horse.  He was so smart that men swear he winked when he heard them making favorable comments about him.   He served long and well, and became best known for gallantry as he snatched a hat off his handler, tipping it if a lady was passing.
  • Blind Dick was so loyal to the fire service that he hauled the supply wagon when he grew too old to run with a steamer.  Blind Dick lay down and died when his handler came to his stall with the sad news that he’d been auctioned.

Firefighters today are still passionate about their apparatus, and care for the rigs with the respect that would make their predecessor’s proud.  But it would seem that more than tradition ties the generations together.  Some say, on a hot summer day, you can still smell the horses at Station 9.  Nonetheless, modern American La France fire engines share a bay with the ghosts of fire horses at 9’s, where you can still see teeth marks and hoof scratches on the wooden walls. Chief Engineer David Campbell was the first to purchase a staff car, and began consistently beating all horse drawn apparatus to fires. That was the beginning of the end for bran mash and manure, and the strong, brave fire horses. Campbell, fondly known as “Our Dave,” brought Portland Paid Fire Department into the age of horseless apparatus, and he blazed a path to Portland Fire & Rescue as we know it.


No longer known as “red shirts”, firefighters in 1906 wore turn outs, and wore mustaches to put in their mouth to help block out the smoke.    These “smoke eaters” lived together, ate together, played cards, pool, and joined engine house polka bands.   That year, David Campbell was unanimously elected president of the Pacific Coast Fire Chief’s Association. Meanwhile, the amount of fire damage in dollars increased every year.  Chief Campbell, eager to put emerging technology to use, christened the first fireboat.  He upgraded cisterns and hydrants, and consolidated the alarm system.   Automobiles were all the rage.  The City ordered two American LaFrance chemical and hose engines capable of traveling 45 miles per hour. 

Chief David Campbell
Chief David Campbell

With a fleet of motorized fire apparatus and a force of proud firefighters, Portland Fire Department was at the top of its game on June 26th, 1911 when the second alarm came from E. Salmon and Water Street.  A pump at the Union Oil distributing plant had thrown a spark, igniting gas accumulated in its motor pit.  Chief Campbell was one of the first to respond.  By 0830, every fire company in the City was at the scene.  
As fumes expanded inside one of the half-empty, bulging oil tanks, it groaned, then finally exploded.  Flames lashed out in a giant column, and smoke unfolded slowly against the Portland gray sky. 
Campbell borrowed a turn out coat from one of his men, then he and two other officers entered the building to begin an interior attack.  An ominous rumble from deep inside the basement warned that accumulated gases in the basement had reached their flashpoint.   With the second tank explosion, a ball of fire hurled firefighters to the ground and lifted the roof off of the Union Oil Company.  The officers with Chief Campbell retreated from the building, but Campbell never made it out.  A fire lieutenant saw him silhouetted against the flames, holding his arms up to brace against the falling roof.  At 1045, they found Chief Campbell, huddled dead in a front line firefighter’s turnout coat.  You could still read “F.D” on one of the buttons. To this day, Portland Firefighters honor bravery and sacrifice in the line of duty with the Campbell Memorial Ceremony, which takes place the third week in June every year.

Union Oil Fire of 1911
Union Oil Fire of 1911

The Best Fire Fought is One that never started

Portland was a city built to burn, comprised of rickety warehouses, and miles of wooden docks soaked in petroleum.  By 1912, it became obvious that since you could not stop Portland from burning down once she was aflame, you’d better stop her from catching fire in the first place.  A businessman’s group organized to promote fire prevention in the downtown district.  April of 1914 marked the first official Safety First Committee.  J.W. Stevens was appointed Portland’s first fire prevention officer. 
Fire codes became standard operating procedure by 1920, after a hotel fire started by a careless smoker killed four people.  The fire department had finally gained the statutory power it needed to enforce the code.   
When a series of mysterious fires plagued Portland beginning in 1922, Fire Marshal Ed Grenfell proved the worth of his new arson squad.  He assigned plain-clothed firefighters to observe the crowd at suspicious fires.  They soon discovered one face reappearing in the crowd, time after time, like a moth to a flame. He was a firefighter.  After three years of investigation and 68 arson fires, Portland Fire Department saw one of their own committed to a state hospital, judged a pyromaniac.
Continuing with this new tradition of fire prevention, Ed Grenfell, then Chief, appointed Fred Roberts as Fire Marshal.  Under Roberts, 13 firefighters were reassigned as inspectors, further reducing fire loss per capita. The Fire Prevention Division was finally well established, and the psychology and behavior of humans was rightfully recognized as the major contributing factor to fire.

Cool Equipment for Hot Emergencies 

As the City grew, so did the waterfront. By 1913, two fireboats patrolled the rivers, the George Williams and the David Campbell. The Campbell, gleaming in the sun performed more like a showboat than a fireboat at first.  While attempting to pump water onto the burning surface of the Steel Bridge, she accidentally smashed into it, damaging the forward turret.  That was July 29, 1913.  A few days later the Williams was unable to throw any water at a raging fire, and steamed away, while engines on land battled the blaze.  Aside from that rather bumpy and embarrassing start, the Williams and Campbell served the City well until 1928, when they were mothballed in favor of three new gasoline powered craft. 
In 1928, Fire Alarm Dispatch (FAD) was constructed solely for use as a communications headquarters at NE 21st and Pacific Avenue.  By 1930, 752 pull boxes alerted 16 fire stations throughout the City, using 48 circuits that connected everything to the Central Fire Station.
The last horse drawn vehicle in the department was retired in 1920, and 13 years later, the first ambulance graced the fire service.  It was a specially outfitted Lincoln called the George Baker Emergency Car, which responded to injury cases and fire victims.  Several years later, in 1939, a futuristic looking J.W. Stevens Disaster Car served as a mobile headquarters and first aid station.  They weren’t exactly the paramedic engines of the year 2000, but the Baker Car and the Stevens Disaster Car foreshadowed the changing role of firefighters in emergency medical response. 
Training also became an issue as firefighting became more sophisticated.  A Fire College was established in 1928, and a manual for firefighters was developed. Trainees were actually tested now, before entrance to the Fire College. What a concept.

Starting to Look Familiar

The war years between 1940 and 1945 brought a new set of problems for Portland’s fire department.   Fifty percent of firefighters joined the military to serve their country.  That left an overworked and under-trained firefighting staff to cope with increasing fire hazards of wartime workers who swarmed to the City.  But like the City she served, Portland’s fire department recovered, and improved operations with organizational changes.  Administrative and clerical positions were added, and significant scheduling changes helped integrate firefighters into their community.  The two platoon, 72 hour workweek became a three platoon, 60 hour workweek. 

A “modernization program” from 1957 to 1963 streamlined the department, reducing the number of districts from five to four, and the number of stations from 38 to 30.  New technology brought new equipment.  Lightweight hose and couplings arrived in 1966, full protection helmets in 1968, and self-contained breathing apparatus replaced filter masks in 1972.  Two way radios helped companies communicate, and a closed circuit television station for training in-service companies rounded out the 1970’s. 

Ending a millennium 

Portland Fire Bureau welcomed Multnomah County Fire District 10 in July of 1984.  By the late 1980’s all Portland Firefighters were trained as Emergency Medical Technicians, and to reflect the diversity of services provided by the bureau, the name is officially changed in 1988 to “The Portland Bureau of Fire, Rescue, and Emergency Services.”  (Later commonly referred to as “Portland Fire & Rescue”.)  Portland Firefighters now responded with trained staff to medical emergencies, hazardous materials incidents, rope rescues, dive rescues, and numerous other types of emergencies. 

February 1993 was a nostalgic day for Portland firefighters and the beloved Fire Alarm Dispatch.  Built in 1928, the walls in the stone building had heard millions of cries for help from citizens of Portland, and alerted firefighters to respond with its electronic circuits and underground cables. Now civilian dispatchers at a new Emergency Communications facility in Southeast Portland were the voice behind the call to 9-1-1. 

The age of computers makes a mark on Portland Fire & Rescue’s organizational chart: a new section called Fire Information and Communications Services is added in 1992.  Each fire station gets equipped with a personal computer, and in the fall of 1993, email arrives.  All fire & rescue stations came on-line, and day-to-day business aspects become computerized, such as station journals, training, and other communications.

PF&R Station 1
PF&R Station 1