A crowd of 1,500 people was watching the game when smoke was first detected in the east side of the grandstand. According to reports, the fire started in a storeroom used by the visiting team as a changing room, and was originally thought to have been ignited by a discarded cigarette. But police later learned a young boy came into the Nirschl service station two blocks from the grounds, “unstrung and sobbing,” to report he had seen a man start the fire.
As the fire spread, fans climbed over seat backs and railings to flee across the grass infield, escaping through the gates near the bucking chutes on the north side of the grounds. Many ran for the Umatilla River, wading across and climbing the far bank. Someone also turned a score of riding horses loose from the barns on the property, and the animals ran wild, trampling Clarence Ogren, 25, and knocking down Mrs. W.C. O’Rourke.
Nine people were injured during the fire, though none seriously, including Clarence Horn, blistered badly while carrying his wife, who had fainted in the panic. Joe Caglione, the watchman for the Round-Up Grounds, said he had paused in his security rounds to watch the game when he smelled the smoke. When he investigated, the fire was already well underway, and he rushed to evacuate his wife and daughter from their living quarters just 20 feet from the storeroom where the fire started. Others risked their lives to help evacuate the stands, finally driven out by the intense heat of the fire as the last of the crowd escaped.
Within 15 minutes of the fire bell sounding at 9:30 p.m., a crowd of 5,000 people had arrived to watch the destruction, not only of the grandstand but of the historic stage coaches, covered wagons, buggies, surries, buckboards and prairie schooners stored beneath.
|The grandstand at the Pendleton Round-Up Grounds burns on Aug. 15, 1940 (EO file photo)|
A man was questioned by police after they were told he had been seen in Pendleton the day prior to the fire, and that he had threatened to burn the grandstand after his request to take part in the Westward Ho! Parade was denied. He was given an alibi by friends, and his name was not released to the media.
Round-Up officials declared the show would go on, despite a time frame of less than a month for rebuildiing. Fundraising efforts raised $23,000 and crews worked day and night for three weeks to build the new 3,000-seat grandstand. Contractors worked at cost, and an architect drew up the plans for free. The Westward Ho! Parade was staged using antique vehicles donated from around the region.
The brand new seating was ready for Round-Up fans just in time for the iconic rodeo’s Sept. 11 opening day.