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How the fire service began in Sellwood and Brooklyn

by: Courtesy of Portland Fire and Rescue This angled photo, taken late in the last decade of the 19th Century, reveals the formidable false front built onto the original Sellwood firehouse at 13th and Tenino, with its even-more-formidable hose-drying tower in the rear.

In the 1890's, Sellwood residents witnessed an epidemic of fires breaking out on vacant lots and out-buildings in the neighborhood - and they pleaded to local leaders for help.

Gathering at the former Sellwood City Hall above Campbell's Grocery which was located on the south side of Umatilla between 11th and 13th Streets, a committee was formed to find a suitable fire fighting force. The committee accepted twenty gallant gents who stepped forward to offer their services.

J. E. Reinke was elected as the foreman to lead the men through their vigorous training exercise, and hone their fire fighting skills. On January 11th, 1895, the 'Sellwood Improvement Association', was proud to announce the establishment of the Sellwood Volunteer Fire Company #1.

The celebration was short-lived, as the volunteers had neither a fire station building nor adequate equipment available to combat the flames on any structure larger than two-story bungalow. The only available fire-fighting equipment was an assortment of metal buckets previously used in prior years by the 'bucket brigade'.

The then neighborhood association called on Portland city officials to help fund their newly- formed fire company. But the only money available was reserved for the Portland Fire Department, which serviced mainly the population on the west side of the Willamette.

As a consolation to Sellwood, Portland Fire Commissioner Sylvester Farrell presented the neighborhood with a Babcock fire extinguisher and a deep-toned bell that could be used to alert the town of any catastrophe.

Disappointed by this, committee members were determined to support their volunteers, and were successful in securing property for a fire station from the City of Portland. An unused lot on the S.E. corner of Tenino and 13th could be used for the construction of a fire house. But then the question arose - where will the money come from to build it?

Sellwood leaders asked for help from the community, and to the surprise of nobody, everyone pitched in.

Money was collected for the purchase of lumber supplied by the Eastside Mill, and masons and carpenters donated their time in the construction. Admission from dances, plays, and musical concerts, and other fund raisers, helped support the cause.

A Ladies Auxiliary was formed to aid the volunteer firemen obtain clothing, equipment, and the supplies needed to keep the new station up to date.

On April 10th, 1895, the new false-fronted two-story firehouse was complete. The main entrance was large enough to store a set of fire-fighting wagons and the needed equipment, and a spacious hall on the second floor was available for the dances held every Saturday night, and other events.

The most dramatic innovation for the new Sellwood Fire Station arrived in the form of firefighting horses. These gallant stallions replaced robust volunteers who, with grunts and groans, attempted to drag the heavy and cumbersome hose and ladder wagons down the streets towards fires - streets filled with rutted tracks and mud.

Once the Fire Station bell rang across the town, the community responded to the unexpected excitement. Like a scene from the then-latest cowboy flicks at the local theatres, anxious children, curious citizens, and concerned shop owners gathered along the streets to glimpse the galloping battalion on its way to a blazing fire.

From the sounding of the alarm bell, the trained staff of firefighters prepared to battle the flames as volunteers hurriedly arrived from nearby homes. The firemen dashed into action as they quickly dressed, swirled down the two-story brass pole, dropped a hanging harness over the horses, hitched the wagon, opened the double doors, and galloped down the street in less than 30 seconds.

The arrival of the fire wagon was the 'tops in free entertainment'. Crowds hovered around the scene of a house fire, reconnecting with neighbors, while others wondered how the fire fighters should fight the disaster. Youngsters would wait patiently back at the fire station after the call, for the 'privilege of walking the glamorous creatures to cool them off', after they returned from the sweaty race to the fire.

Maintenance of a fire department was expensive, as the vehicles and equipment had to be updated, horses fed and cared for, and paid experienced firemen hired as needed. In 1907, the City of Portland took control of the Sellwood Volunteer Fire House and finances. It was renamed as Portland Fire Station #20. The last horse-drawn vehicle was retired by the 1920's, and the editor of the 'Sellwood Bee' newspaper at the time advocated for public support in the construction of a new and more modern building.

The loyalty that the horses had provided over their lifetimes was forgotten, as motorized vehicles became the new mode of transportation. The editor stated that a new 'station for Sellwood should be built for autos, and not for horses. In the year 1914, 64 horses were replaced by 23 autos.'

It took another five years before a new single-level brick fire station was built in 1920, designed by Fire Chief Holden. Portland Fire Station 20 on 13th at Tenino Street would provide fire-fighting services for the next 39 years.

In 1959, Fire Station 20 was relocated to its current location at 22nd and S.E. Bybee Boulevard. For the next few years the former fire station was occupied by the Boys and Girls Club, until it moved up to Milwaukie Avenue in Westmoreland; and in 1990 the building in Sellwood was purchased and remodeled by the Sellwood-Moreland Improvement League neighborhood association (SMILE), and subsequently used for neighborhood meetings and events.

While the importance of a dependable fire department has been essential to the Sellwood and Westmoreland community, other neighborhoods have also established their own fire teams.

The Midway Volunteer Fire station was located south of Ramona Street next to the Yukon Tavern, in Westmoreland. Supported by subscriptions collected from the local residents, the fire house building had a fire bell on top, and housed the Midway Hose Company until it was disbanded in 1907. The station also provided a meeting place for the Midway and Westmoreland Improvement Club into the 1920's, and was later a Mission.

Further north, the Brooklyn neighborhood was protected by a beautifully-crafted two-story double-bayed fire house located on the north side of 13th and Powell. Built in 1907, it serviced the community for 21 years, until budget cuts forced its closure. The building was later home to the Brooklyn Library, and finally - like many wooden structures that become potential fire hazards - it was torn down and salvaged for its lumber.

Today, Brooklyn is protected by Station 23, on the north side of S.E. Powell Boulevard just north of the intersection with Milwaukie Avenue.

To step back in time, in the history of the fire services in Portland, visit the historic Belmont Fire House on the second Saturday of each month, and learn more about the Portland Fire Bureau. Or call 503/823-3615 for more details.