Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Portland Firefighters' Park

Portland Firefighters Park

lantern, portland firefighters park

Some photos of tiny Portland Firefighters' Park, in downtown Portland at SW 19th & Burnside, right next to PGE Park and the shiny new Civic condo tower. It's kind of a weird little spot, but before we get to that, a (sorta) quick history lesson. If you'd rather go directly to the weirdness, click here.

View Larger Map


The main feature of the park is a fountain honoring David Campbell, an early 20th century fire chief who died in the line of duty. Next to the fountain are smaller plaques honoring all of the city's fallen firefighters.

There's surprisingly little about the park on the web. In particular, the city parks department barely mentions the place. It doesn't appear on their list of parks, and only gets a mention in passing on their 1921-1940 history page:

Funded by donations from the public at large through promotion by the Portland Telegram newspaper to honor Fire Chief David Campbell who lost his life in the line of duty, the Campbell Memorial Fountain was placed in the triangle at West 19 and Burnside. (It has since been dedicated as a memorial to all Portland firefighters killed in the line of duty.) The bronze plaque features a portrait of Campbell and was created by American artist Avard Fairbanks.

That's all they've got about the place. The fire bureau's history page has a bit more:

With a fleet of motorized fire apparatus and a force of proud firefighters, Portland Fire Department was at the top of its game on June 26th, 1911 when the second alarm came from E. Salmon and Water Street. A pump at the Union Oil distributing plant had thrown a spark, igniting gas accumulated in its motor pit. Chief Campbell was one of the first to respond. By 0830, every fire company in the City was at the scene.

As fumes expanded inside one of the half-empty, bulging oil tanks, it groaned, then finally exploded. Flames lashed out in a giant column, and smoke unfolded slowly against the Portland gray sky.

Campbell borrowed a turn out coat from one of his men, then he and two other officers entered the building to begin an interior attack. An ominous rumble from deep inside the basement warned that accumulated gases in the basement had reached their flashpoint. With the second tank explosion, a ball of fire hurled firefighters to the ground and lifted the roof off of the Union Oil Company. The officers with Chief Campbell retreated from the building, but Campbell never made it out. A fire lieutenant saw him silhouetted against the flames, holding his arms up to brace against the falling roof. At 1045, they found Chief Campbell, huddled dead in a front line firefighter’s turnout coat. You could still read “F.D” on one of the buttons.

To this day, Portland Firefighters honor bravery and sacrifice in the line of duty with the Campbell Memorial Ceremony, which takes place the third week in June every year.

The only other resource I've come across on the net is a pair of pages at Waymarking.com, one about the park, and another about Campbell's Fountain, both with good, recent photos. From the description of the place on both pages:

Campbell's Fountain (1927) is a memorial for David Campbell, Fire Chief 1893-1911, and other Portland courageous firefighters who died in the line of duty. The memorial is constructed of Caen stone, a light colored limestone imported from France. The memorial was designed by Paul Cret of Philadelphia with Earnest F. Tucker of Portland. The bronze relief was sculpted by University of Oregon Artist Avard Fairbanks. The fountain is turned on once each June.

The park surrounding the memorial was created in 1963 and 1964 by the Portland Chamber of Commerce with the assistance from a number of civic-minded businesses, the local labor unions, and the Oregon Chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

Since one of the architects was from Philadelphia, an organization called Philadelphia Architects and Buildings has a page about the fountain, and an image gallery with vintage photos, blueprints, and the works. If you want to see larger versions of the photos, you'll have to join PAB, which I haven't gotten around to just yet. It's $40/year, which would be tempting if I lived in Philadelphia, which I don't. The PAB pages call the fountain "Campbell Memorial Fountain". I'm not sure what the official name is, and I wouldn't care overly much except that knowing the right name might make Googling a little easier.

The Multnomah County Library comes to the rescue, a little, with their full-text search of the Oregonian dating back to 1988. A search brings up newspaper stories about the Fire Bureau's annual David Campbell Memorial Service in 1989, 1990, 1991, and 1992, 2002, and 2005. Also, stories from 1999 and 2000 about the old 1873 fire bell that's now on display in the park. It's over two tons of bronze and silver. I won't tell the meth tweakers about it if you won't.





So the last section explains why the fountain's here, but it doesn't explain why the fountain is the way it is. You can walk or drive right by and pay no attention to the place, but the closer you look, the weirder the place gets. I don't really see how the quasi-Egyptian fountain with the goat head relates to firefighting, and the lion heads and horned pagan gods don't offer a lot of clues either. The details look quite similar to those at Ankeny Park, also on Burnside, about 10 blocks due East. So probably both had the same designer, or this was just the trendy look back then, at the tail end of the Beaux-Arts era. I mean, if we're looking for mundane explanations.

I like to think this blog plays a small role in demythologizing all the made-up weird crap people in this city like to believe about the place, but sometimes it can be tempting to switch sides for a while and start making myths instead of debunking them. This is one of those times. Here are a few uncanny "facts" about the place, and I'll let you draw your own conclusions:
  • As I mentioned, this park and Ankeny Park have certain similarities: For starters, both are situated just south of Burnside, along the line where the city's magnetic-north and true-north street grids collide.
  • Both parks center around altar-like fountains featuring horned gods and other pagan symbols. Both fountains face north. I'm not sure whether it's true north, magnetic north (circa either 1845 or 1927), or something. I'm not a surveyor by trade and I couldn't really say one way or the other -- but either pole will work just fine, since we're making myths here. Perhaps the fountains define lines that intersect at some obscure mystical point in the far northern wastes, and they don't really point at the pole at all. You can come up with a variety of convincing variations on this, if you like.
  • Burnside marks the city's north-south dividing line, and IIRC it's an old survey line, so we can probably work in something about milestones, ley lines, and so forth.
  • The goat-headed fountain is turned on just once a year at present, for a fire-related ceremony that occurs suspiciously close to the summer solstice. Coincidence? I was going to go off on a tangent somewhere in this post about how both fountains ought to be restored and run continuously during the summer months, but I'm starting to worry about the potential costs, and I don't mean the water bill. So what happens when the new condo owners in the new ritzy building next door start demanding a year-round fountain? That could upset the cosmic balance. I can't even begin to imagine all the possible consequences.
  • There are at least 3 other public fountains on the same alignment, all just south of Burnside: Skidmore Fountain between Naito & 1st Avenue, the "Car Wash" fountain on 5th, and the smallish black Art Deco piece at the Burnside entrance to Washington Park, up around 24th Ave. The latter two could be said to be facing north, but otherwise the three don't really look the part, so including them may be somewhat of a stretch. Surely there's got to be some way to work them in, if you're creative enough.
  • The rationales for the two parks, firefighting and restrooms, are so uncontroversial and middle-of-the-road that they've just got to be cover stories, and the fact that nobody's blown that cover for close to 100 years now just proves there's a conspiracy of silence going on. Those firefighters are up to something, mark my words. But what could it be?
  • If we're making up myths, we may as well make the firefighters the good guys. Just maybe, the fire bureau is all that stands between our world and an unholy, all-consuming conflagration of mystical flame, emanating from some weird demonic plane of existence. There are strange rituals to be performed, and dark secrets to be kept, but in the end it's all part of the job, protecting the public from fire in all its forms.
Ok, maybe I'm getting a little carried away. I've been reading too much Lovecraft lately, so that's probably where the blame lies. But feel free to repeat as gospel whatever subset of this you think your audience is likely to believe. Especially if they're tourists, and they're planning to come here and spend lots of money and then (here's the key part) go back where they came from. They tell their friends, who come here, spend lots of money, and go back where they came from, and so on, and so forth. Updated 8/31/10: We have linkage from the "Save Portland Firefighters Memorial" group on Facebook.

No comments :