In a spectacular blaze which began as Salemites ate dinner,
the Oregon State Capitol was destroyed by fire a second time
on April 25, 1935. Smoke was discovered coming out of an elevator
shaft at about 6:30 that evening; the fire had apparently
started in the basement of the 59-year-old statehouse.
Firefighters up and down the valley rushed in to try to save
the brick and sandstone structure, but the fire had already
reached the dome when they arrived, and smoke poured out of
it. The flames moved quickly, spreading between walls, and
racing from the basement up through an elevator shaft to the
east wing roof and finally to the dome. The copper dome collapsed,
its exterior timbers giving way, its copper sheeting crumpling.
Three pumpers arrived from Portland, and Salem put nearly
all its available equipment at the scene. Firefighters cut
holes in floors in order to pour in water and chemicals, but
to no avail.
A north wind began to blow sparks toward Willamette University,
where college boys armed with hoses protected campus buildings.
A Willamette University sophomore, Floyd McMullen, was killed
while fighting the fire, felled shortly before midnight when
a cornice from the northwest corner of the building fell on
him, fracturing his skull and crushing his pelvis. McMullen,
who had worked his way through college as a "call"
fireman out of the East Salem Station, was rushed to the hospital
where he was later pronounced dead.
News of the fire spread quickly through Salem, and the statehouse
grounds were soon jammed with spectators, State officials
among them. With the dome in flames, the fire was visible
as far away as Silverton and Woodburn, and people drove in
from surrounding towns to get a look. The Capital Journal
estimated that a crowd equal the population of Salem, or 27,000,
crowded into the city to watch what columnist Don Upjohn called
"Salems worst holocaust."
Within hours, the once lovely Capitol had been devoured by
the flames, leaving only brick walls standing amid piles of
charred rubble. Built at a cost of $320,000 and valued at
$2,000,000, the structure was a total loss, with the State
carrying no insurance on it. All State offices on the second
and third floors, plus most of the first floor, had been destroyed.
Some records and treasures had been saved in frantic efforts
as the building burned, but many were lost, including oil
paintings of all the governors, and of Jason Lee and Dr. John
McLoughlin. Furnishings and files in the Governors Office
were lost, though his personal effects were saved.
The fire prompted many to remember ruefully that an earlier
Secretary of State had fought hard for construction of a $25,000
vault in which all State records could be safely held--only
to have his plan vetoed by Governor Julius Meier. Still, losses
of files and records were not as bad as was originally anticipated.
So much water was pumped out of the City system that citizens
worried about the quality of their drinking water--although
no problem was subsequently detected. The Capitol building
became something of a tourist attraction, with people coming
immediately from Portland and Eugene to view its skeletal
remains. Indeed, the Capital Journal reported that a party
from Seattle had flown into Salem the night of the disaster
just to see the conflagration.
State clerks spent the day after the fire sorting through
saved records and filing cabinets, removed to the armory during
the fire. The businessmen of Salem called a special session
of the Salem Chamber of Commerce to offer space for State
offices displaced by the fire, which were quickly set up at
various locations, including the Oregon Building and the Supreme
Court Building. President Franklin D. Roosevelt sent a cable
expressing his sympathies and offering federal aid in rebuilding.
Compiled and written by Kathleen Carlson Clements
Capital Journal, April 26-May 2, 1935
Oregon Statesman, April 26, 1935