Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Explosion, fire demolish Pendleton flour mill

A dust explosion on the second floor of the Western Milling Company flour mill on July 21, 1947, and the ensuing conflagration leveled the facility and caused fires that threatened a southeast Pendleton residential neighborhood and the county courthouse.

The explosion at 12:35 p.m. sent a super-plume of smoke into the air reminiscent, according to witnesses, of the mushroom cloud of an atomic bomb. The fire spread so fast that the entire mill complex was on fire within 15 minutes. The suction created by the flames, which shot hundreds of feet into the air, dispersed burning embers over several city blocks to the south and east, bringing residents outside to defend their homes with garden hoses. One grass fire raced up the south hill and threatened the city water reservoir before being doused by volunteers.

Fire Chief William Batchelor directed four fire trucks at the scene, including one from Pendleton Field, and brought the department’s entire supply of hoses — 13 lines — to bear, hooking up to two of Pendleton’s wells, a booster pump and an upriver intake, pouring enough water on the blaze to lower the level of the south hill reservoir by two feet. The heat was so intense for a time that firemen used solid wooden doors borrowed from the nearby Oregon Lumber Yard and other makeshift shields to protect them from the searing flames. Plate glass windows at Comrie Motors and the Leo Goar plant across Court Avenue were cracked from the heat. Utility poles burned, and some of the cable pairs melted, and Pacific Power and Light shut off power to the area until the fire was brought under control. Union Pacific Railroad lost some track at the mill property but rail cars were moved out of danger.

Fire crews battle a blaze at the Western Milling Company flour mill on July 21, 1947, on Southeast Court Avenue and Southeast Fifth Street in Pendleton. (EO file photo)

Traffic snarled as Court, Dorion and Emigrant avenues were shut down near the fire scene. But most of the problem was caused by gawkers who drove as near to the fire as they could and then abandoned their cars. Several thousand people surrounded the fire, and policemen with bullhorns kept the crowd out of danger. Hundreds of onlookers lent a hand as needed to help stamp out smaller fires so fire crews could focus on the main blaze. Prisoners in the Umatilla County Jail, located in the Umatilla County Courthouse across the street from the mill, were evacuated to the city jail for safety, and some volunteers moved files and furniture out of the courthouse while others battled spot fires on the roof.

The following day, firemen were still pouring water on what was left of the mill, and mill officials deemed it a total loss to the tune of more than $500,000. The main mill, two warehouses and an almost-finished wooden elevator were destroyed, along with 75,000 bushels of premium wheat and 700,000 pounds of flour. But not a single person died in the blaze — all the employees were out of the building for lunch. And Chief Batchelor said his crews suffered only minor burns, cuts and bruises.

The only fatality, in fact, was nowhere near the mill at all. Sister Mary Doreen, 29, of the Order of St. Francis, a lab assistant at St. Anthony Hospital, rushed to the outside balcony of the hospital to watch the fire, lost her balance and fell 35 feet to the pavement below. She died of head and internal injuries about three hours later.

This was not the first fire at the mill site, either. The original stone mill, then known as Byers Mill, burned to the ground almost 50 years before the 1947 fire, and that blaze almost took the courthouse with it. The stone building at one time was used as a fort during an Indian scare in Pendleton’s earliest days.

A special thanks to Larry McMillan of Pendleton, who consulted an online inflation calculator and determined the loss in 2016 dollars to be about $5.4 million.

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