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Holocaust of flame sears Forest Grove

by: COURTESY PHOTO: FOREST GROVE FIRE & RESCUE - A horse and buggy stand next to whats left of the Forest Grove City Library, then located on the northeast corner of College Way and 21st Avenue. The librarys far east wall (nearest the buggy) survived and is now part of Pacific Universitys Rogers Building, which retains the outlines of the original windows.July 20, 1919, was a Sunday, and had the flames started that morning, they might have been spotted and stopped quickly. Unfortunately, the fire started about noon, “an hour when the streets of the city were more nearly deserted than at any other time,” lamented the Washington County News-Times in its July 24 edition.

Most churchgoers were home by then, and the Congregational Church’s heavy hand in the governing of early Forest Grove made certain that downtown merchants were home as well. Some 70 years before that Sunday’s “holocaust of flame,” as the News-Times would call it, church founders had deeded land to the city with significant covenants, including enforcement of the “Blue Laws” which kept businesses closed on Sundays.

By noon, only a few stragglers were visible downtown as they finished cleaning up from the morning service and left the church, located on 21st Avenue between College Way and Main Street (current site of its Congregationalist successor, the Forest Grove United Church of Christ).by: COURTESY PHOTO: FRIENDS OF HISTORIC FOREST GROVE - Before the 1919 fire destroyed 16 downtown buildings, Forest Groves Main Street (here looking south from 21st Avenue) was packed with businesses, including the Caples building, which survived the fire and still stands today. Among the fires victims were a music store, photography studio and livery stable.

One straggler, Mrs. Ernest Brown, thought she saw wisps of smoke emanating from the back of O.M. Sanford’s secondhand store across the street from her home near A Street and 21st (then known as First Ave.), but dismissed it.

“Imagine her surprise,” the News-Times story continued, “when H.W. Danielson knocked at the door and informed the family that the Sanford building was on fire ...”by: COURTESY PHOTO: FRIENDS OF HISTORIC FOREST GROVE - Before they became smoking ruins, these buildings along what is now 21st Avenue (here looking east toward Pacific Universitys Marsh Hall from Main Street) included the city library at the far end on the left and the Congregational Church on the right. After the 1919 fire, the only part of the church left standing was its tall, thin chimney.

Ernest Brown and H.W. Danielson leapt into action, breaking down the door of the Sanford building and lugging out the roll-top desk. Mrs. Brown ordered her small son, Wendall, to mount his bicycle and spread the news to neighbors that a holocaust of flames was threatening their neighborhood.

Little Wendall Brown pedaled furiously about the town of 1,900, and soon caught the eye of Dr. S.E. Todd, who listened to the boy’s harrowing tale and hastened to the fire bell several blocks away to summon the town’s gallant volunteer firefighters.

A few neighbors with telephones (then a rarity) had heard little Wendall’s cries for help and called operators at the Forest Grove Telephone Company on the corner of Ash Street and 19th Avenue.

A young T.M. VanDyke was at the telephone exchange, stopping on his way home from church to flirt with his girlfriend, one of two teenage operators manning the switchboard that sleepy Sunday afternoon. They’d taken a couple calls about the fire, but had no training on what to do in such an emergency.

VanDyke lived on a farm and was unfamiliar with city customs, but raced to the fire scene. He wrote about that day 55 years later in a history story for the News-Times: “I went back to the telephone office and told them what I saw, then went back to the fire.”

As he ran back to the fire the second time, VanDyke heard Dr. Todd frantically ringing the fire bell — which stood next to the telephone office. “Had I known,” he recalled years later, “I could have rung that bell at least 15 minutes sooner.”

By the time VanDyke saw the galloping horses pulling the fire cart toward the scene from their stables on Council Street, the flames were 30 feet high, he said.

A brisk, dry wind was hurling embers toward the new downtown commercial buildings on Main, Pacific and College streets.

Several of the older wooden buildings were already “goners,” so the volunteers decided to stop the holocaust’s advance by turning their hoses on the Caples Building, which was built to fireproof standards and would be a certain firewall against further damage.

The windows of the Caples Building exploded in the intense heat, but the structure held its ground. The light-green building still stands on Main Street, adjacent to the south side of Valley Art Gallery.

by: COURTESY PHOTO: FRIENDS OF HISTORIC FOREST GROVE - Unfortunately, while the small volunteer fire department assigned all its resources to defend the Caples Building, embers ignited a different Main Street building, Miss Belle Darling’s photography studio. Even worse, the yard of the Copeland-McCready Lumber Company (now Parr Lumber) was also ablaze.

The young telephone operators were in tears as their boss rushed up and told them to call the Cornelius Fire Department, the Hillsboro Fire Department and every other department east for 30 miles, all the way to Portland.

All the neighboring firefighters rushed to Forest Grove, even distant Portland’s department — though not before its chief totaled his car along the way.

But their efforts weren’t enough to keep building after building from erupting in flame, including Forest Grove’s library on the corner of College and 21st.

Across from the library, crews poured every ounce of water they could muster on the beloved Congregational Church, but swirling embers soon entered the exploding windows of that structure as well. As crews watched helplessly, the church burst into flames for the second time in 20 years.

“When the fire burned the rope on the faithful old bell of the Congregational Church Sunday, it rang its own funeral knell,” the News-Times reported.

The next morning, former Forest Grove Mayor George Paterson opened his mail. One envelope contained a letter written two days earlier from an anonymous writer, seething with anger over the treatment of German-Americans during the recently concluded World War I. “Your business and all the rest will go up in smoke,” the letter warned.

The day after those words were written, Forest Grove lost most of its downtown in what appeared to be the latest in a long line of politically motivated arson fires that marked the city’s early history.

Ken and Kris Bilderback write a history column for the News-Times every other week.



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