Thursday, July 18, 2013

A look back at firefighting in the 1890s

Looking back at local history has been a feature of the East Oregonian almost as long as there have been newspapers to look back to. One such story, in the July 17, 1913 edition of the EO, revisited the destruction of the Villard House on that date 20 years prior, in 1893.
The Villard House, built in 1880 by David Horn at a cost of $10,000, was for many years Pendleton’s chief hostelry. The two-story frame structure was located on the corner of Main and Court streets where the Judd Building now stands (which now houses Maverick Spa & Boutique, Pendleton Book Company, Miss Joni’s Florals and others).

At about 1 p.m. a fire broke out near the flue at the north end of the building and the entire structure went up in a very short time. The EO reported that Fire Chief Ell and H.J. Stillman fought the flames alone with Babcock fire extinguishers until the fire engine and hose companies arrived. The two hose companies had “but 1500 feet of good hose and 350 feet of poor hose” but managed to have six streams on the fire in short order. Keep in mind at the time Pendleton had only 4-inch water mains, so the firemen mainly were battling to save adjacent buildings from catching fire. One company fought the fire at close range from the top of the Despain Building. The fire engine used so much water from the nearest cistern at the corner of Court and Garden (S.W. First) streets that by the time the fire was out an hour and a half later only 16 inches of water remained. The article concluded with the report that the two hose companies engaged in a water fight after the fire was out, something that happened quite frequently in the early days of Pendleton.

I like this story for a couple of reasons. The contrast between firefighting equipment and techniques then and now is stark, and the fact that originally most of Pendleton’s downtown buildings were made of wood and situated cheek-by-jowl along the main thoroughfares meant a fire in one building could easily take down an entire block if firefighters were delayed or the fire was very large. There is a good reason that all the buildings in downtown Pendleton are now constructed of brick or other fire-resistant materials.

I also like the idea of the firefighters capping off a hot, dirty, stressful day’s work by letting off some steam, having a little fun and cleaning up at the same time.

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