History of Portland Oregon’s Fire Department

In 1866 the offices were Thos. G. Young, W. H. Weed and Win. T. Patterson. In 1867, Thos. G. Young, W. H. Weed, Wm. W. Witsell. The latter Chiefs are found in the list of the city officers, given above.

As the city grew larger and the years passed, it was deemed better not to depend upon volunteer companies, but to maintain a regular paid fire department. In 1882 this was organized, and in 1883 H. D. Morgan, who still serves, was appointed Chief. Under this management the loss by fire has been greatly reduced, as shown by the following: 1883, the total loss by fire was $319,092.20; 1884, $403,851.90;. 1885, $59,329.73; 1886, $98,146.16; 1887, $84,173.72; 1888, $54,347.70. In 1889, but little over $20,000. The city is well supplied with alarm boxes and the alarm telegraph. It has 123 hydrants (1888) connecting both with the Water Works and the mains of the Hydraulic Elevator Company; it has 71 cisterns, aggregating a capacity of 1,312,000 gallons, and 6,200 feet of hose and 22 horses. Engines and trucks fully sufficient for each company are supplied. There are two hose companies, two hook and ladder companies, and four engine companies, numbering 22 of the permanent uniformed force and 58 of the members at call, or 80 in all. The current expenses of 1888 were $58,034.79, of which $37,893.59 were spent for salaries; the Chief receiving $2,000, engineer of steamers, $1,200; Superintendent of Fire Alarm, $1,500; Secretary, $1,200; and the others from $900 down to $240 for members at call. The property held in trust by the Commissioners is valued at $202,277.60. Something like $70,000 per year is required to operate the Department. The great need of the present is a fire boat, and to require all buildings of three stories or more to be supplied with pipe stands and fire escapes-the latter being useful to the firemen as well as to the inmates.

The present Commissioners are James Lotan, T. B. Trevett and George L. Story. The Chief Engineer is H. D. Morgan, and the Superintendent of Fire Alarm Telegraph, J. A. Coffee, Jr.

Health Department

By city ordinance this is connected with the Police Department, every policeman being a health officer. A City Physician, with power to inspect all buildings, ships and trains, is employed, and necessary power of quarantine, as prescribed by charter, is exerted by the Council. A City Hospital is maintained. A Poor House and Farm for the indigent, incompetent and unable is provided. It is located a few miles west of the town, on a beautiful and salubrious site. The Chinese lepers-of which there have been a number, –have been kept at this place. A pest house, also n a proper place, is owned and operated.

Water Works

The necessity of a sufficient supply of pure water for the city was early recognized, and by the first charter the city was authorized to build and operate water works. In preference, however, to carrying on this work by supervision of the municipality, a water company was formed and invested with power to conduct the business. Works were erected in 1851, the supply of water being from the springs in hills near town, which were sufficient for all needs. Within a number of years the old wooden works were superceded by a capacious and well constructed reservoir of brick and stone on Fourth street. As the city increased in population and the consumption of water became great, the springs failed to meet the demand, and recourse was had to the Willamette, from which an increasingly large proportion has been pumped, until it is now practically the sole source. While in the Spring and Autumn the water of our river is remarkably pure and wholesome, it is very liable to pollution from the sewerage of towns from up the river, from the general drainage of the valley, and in the Summer freshet of the Columbia by the sewerage of Portland itself, as it is carried up the river by the backward-setting current, sometimes caused by the rapid rise of the stream below. Moreover, it is thick with mud during times of Winter freshets. The pumping apparatus has been placed some three miles above the city, and the water is drawn deep from the bed of the stream.

Some years since the reservoir on Tenth street was abandoned for a larger one, built on Seventh and Lincoln streets, near the foot of the hill, at a much greater elevation. The circle of buildings on the skirts of the hills, still above the reservoir, is supplied from small reservoirs which are fed by springs and located conveniently in the ravines.

Great efforts have been made to provide for bringing an inexhaustible supply of presumably fresh and pure water from some one of the many streams of the Cascade mountains. The enterprise which calls for an expenditure of not less than $5,000,000 has met with temporary reverses, but will not be much longer delayed.

After many years trial of the method of water supply by a private company, it was seen that this was not the most economical. It was also generally recognized that an article like water, an absolute necessity of life, ought not to be subject to private monopoly. Accordingly, by legislative act, in 1885, the city was fully empowered to provide water works of its own. A committee was appointed by this act, consisting of the following men, then residents of Portland : John Gates, F. C. Smith, C. H. Lewis, Henry Failing, W. S. Ladd, Frank Dekum, L. Fleischner, H. W. Corbett, W. L. K. Smith, J. Loewenberg, S. G. Reed, R. B. Knapp, L. Therkelson, Thomas M Richardson and A. H. Johnson. They were to be a permanent body, with plenary power, and independent of all others, filling vacancies in their number by their own act. Bonds to the amount of $500,000 might be issued by them for purchasing or building works, and laying mains and pipes. The plant of the old company was acquired with the new reservoir on Lincoln and Seventh streets. Under the present management it is intended to charge rates only sufficient to meet expenses. The receipts for 1888 were $79,530.09 and disbursements, $78,524,. 85, including $25,000 interest on $500,000 bonds. The management is efficient and economical. Mr. Henry Failing is president and Mr. P. C. Schuyler, clerk of the committee.


The buildings belonging to the city are not imposing, having been erected some time ago, before the best structures in the city were built.

To the Fire Department belong ten houses, ordinarily good. They are as follows: That of Engine Co. No. 1, south side of Morrison street, between First, and Second, valued at $40,000 (house and lot); that of Engine Co. No. 2, west side of Second between Oak and Pine, valued at $20,000 (house and lot); that of Engine Co. No. 3, south side of B, at intersection of Fifteenth street, valued at $10,000 (house and lot); that of Engine Co. No. 4 and Hook and Ladder Co. No. 2, between Montgomery and Mill streets, valued at-$10,000 (house and lot); that of Hook and Ladder Co. No. 1, east side of Fourth, supply building and bell tower, valued at $30,000; that of the old Couch Engine Co., valued at $5,000 (house and lot); that of Hose Co. No. 2, west side of First street between Madison and Jefferson streets, valued at $18,000 (house and lot).

The building used for city jail and police station, court house, etc., on Oak street between Second and Third, is a substantial structure of stone, iron and brick of two stories. It is somewhat grim and stern in general appearance, but very well answers its purpose.

The council chamber and the offices of the city government are in rented apartments on the corner of Washington and Third streets. Arrangements, however, for erecting a city hall to cost about $500,000, are already well advanced; a block on Fourth street, adjacent to Main-that now occupied by St. Helen’s Hall-having been purchased for the purpose.

From this brief sketch of the city government, it will be seen that it has been growing in complexity, and there has been a strong effort to arrange the duties and responsibilities in such a manner as to render the different departments measureably independent. To a degree this has been accomplished. The legislative body-council-has no dependence upon the executive or the judiciary. The judiciary-police judge-is connected rather with the mayor than with any other branch, while the military department or police are independent or directly responsible to the people. The mayor, by his power of appointment and veto of the council, exerts large influence; but being severed from the police, has no autocratic authority. His measures must prevail by reason of their wisdom or his personal influence. The treasurer is directly responsible to the people. The auditor is responsible to the council. The attorney, superintendent of streets and surveyor are responsible to the mayor. Combinations may, of course, be made between all these officers, but it is at least easy for the citizens to hold one impartial department against any combination. In case of rival parties or “rings,” it will usually happen, as has hitherto more than once occurred, that one will hold one department while another holds another. It is difficult, too, for the Police Department, Fire Department and mayor, all measurably equal, to yield priority, especially in ill or corrupt designs, and jealousy has a tendency to bring about exposure.

The politics of the city are principally upon local questions, from the ambitious designs of rival leaders, who find it advantageous to use municipal elections for the larger field of State politics, or from the supposed intents of special forms of business. Many of the citizens stand aloof entirely, and the city elections commonly show a light vote.

When national politics are involved, the city is Republican, and the municipal tickets are usually nominated under the captions of the two great parties.


Hugh D. 0′ Bryan, the first mayor of Portland, is described as ” a man of tried probity and great force of character, and brought to the discharge of the duties of the work-a-day world an ample reserve of clear hard sense.” He was born in Franklin County, Georgia, in 1813, and his boyhood was spent among the Cherokee Indians, among whom his father was a missionary. In the Spring of 1843 he started from Arkansas for the almost mythical coast of the Pacific Ocean, and reached Oregon City in October. There he engaged in business for two years and then removed to Portland. When the Whitman massacre in 1847 called the men of Oregon to the field of battle, he went out as first lieutenant and gave a good account of himself in the campaign against the Cayuses. Returning home, he was elected mayor in 1851, but in 1852 changed his residence to Douglas County, whence he was soon after sent to the Territorial Legislature as a joint representative for the counties of Douglas and Umpqua. In 1860 he removed to Walla Walla Valley, and after-wards represented his county in the Legislature of Washington Territory.

The second mayor of Portland, A. C. Bonnell, was born near Chatham, Morris county, New Jersey, in 1801. His father was a soldier of the Revolution. In 1848 he was engaged in mercantile pursuits in Cincinnati, but the tidal wave of popular excitement bore,.._ him away to San Francisco, where he landed November 1, 1849. He was recording clerk to Geary’s administration until August following, when he came to Portland and immediately became connected with its commercial interests. He afterwards returned to San Francisco, and was for many years the clerk and cashier of the Evening Bulletin Newspaper Company.

Simon B. Marye, who served a short time under change of election in 1852, was a Virginian, having been born at Marye Heights, in the Old Dominion State-a place which became noted during the war of the Rebellion as a battle field. He came to Portland in 1850, and within a few years was united in marriage with the eldest daughter of Col. Chapman. He was a lawyer of ability and a man of influence in the early days. Before 1860 he went to the South Atlantic States, and espoused the cause of his section during the political strife succeeding. After the war he lived at St. Louis, Mo., where he died upwards of twenty years ago.

Josiah Failing, the third mayor, elected in 1854, was one of the men of the early day in our city who had the qualities to be among the number addressed in old Rome as “Conscript Fathers.” In his face, bearing and interest in the young city he was distinctly fatherly, and had his heart in the public improvement of the community. He was much in earnest in regard to religious matters, being the first member of the Baptist Church of Portland, and gave diligent attention to the matter of public schools, of which he was a director during many terms. The children of Portland will always speak his name, since the large public school building in Caruther’s Addition is called for him. He belonged to an old New York family that settled at an early period in the Mohawk Valley, among the six nations of Indians friendly to the English. He was born July 9, 1806, at Fort Plain, Montgomery Co., N. Y. In his youth he learned the trade of printing wall paper, and afterwards went to New York City to reside. There he married and remained until 1851, when he came out to Oregon. Reaching Portland he set up a mercantile business, importing goods direct from New York City, and laying the foundations of the present large firm of Corbett, Failing & Co. He was a very successful business man and enjoyed a most enviable reputation for integrity and uprightness. He died in Portland.

W. S. Ladd, who was elected in 1854, has occupied so many positions, and has been for so long a central figure of our public and commercial development, that for a full account of his life we must refer the reader to other parts of this book. His early years were spent in New Hampshire, and he improved all means of education and acquiring information, so that when in 1850 he came to Portland it was with broad business ideas that he began his operations.


Harvey Whitefield Scott. History of Portland, Oregon: with Illustrations and Biographical Sketches of Prominent Citizens and Pioneers. Portland, Oregon. D. Mason & Company, 1890.

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