After the fire: Piecing together the story of the 1937 AGA fire

Hood River’s fire department, aided by Bingen and White Salmon brigades, were able to hold conflagration within the high concrete walls of the Apple Growers Association’s packing plant, one of the largest in the country, after battling the blaze for more than seven hours. All concede that a large section of the business district had a narrow escape in what was Hood River’s most costly fire. — H.R.N. Photo-Engraving

Hood River News archives
Hood River’s fire department, aided by Bingen and White Salmon brigades, were able to hold conflagration within the high concrete walls of the Apple Growers Association’s packing plant, one of the largest in the country, after battling the blaze for more than seven hours. All concede that a large section of the business district had a narrow escape in what was Hood River’s most costly fire. — H.R.N. Photo-Engraving



At the close of December 1937 — 80 years ago — a special announcement and colorful insert caught my eye as I scanned for items for our weekly Yesteryears compilation: The celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Apple Growers Association (AGA).

Eye catching, because nothing was printed in color in those days, and photos were rare, as were inserts of any kind. So to find a three-colored insert in blue, red and silver was quite unexpected.

That was in the Dec. 24, 1937, issue.

In the next edition — Dec. 31, 1937 — was a lengthy account and black and white photo containing the biggest news of the year: The AGA plant on Cascade Avenue was destroyed by fire on Dec. 28. The edition also saw an article by AGA, thanking News staff for the “unusual Silver Anniversary greetings” (sic).

But then what happened?

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IN THIS historical photo by Alva Day, the packing plant is shown the morning after the fire.

In January, a photo ran of the blackened concrete outside, and in early February, AGA’s building plans for new fruit washing and packing houses were discussed at length, including this gem, buried on the second page: “The General Manager has stated that, in all probability, it would be the part of prudence to erect one of these packing houses on the site of the former so-called Cascade Packing house because of its close proximity to the Association owned fruit canner and the cold storage plants along the railroad tracks behind the cannery, and that another packing house of smaller size be erected adjacent to the large new fireproof cold storage plant on Industrial Street.”

I thought the story was taking an interesting turn when, the next week, an article ran about a paroled convict who had pleaded guilty to the burning a mill and lumber yard in Salem, but had “refused to admit they had any hand in the fire which, late in December, completely destroyed the Cascade Packing house in this city … Last week, information reached officers that one of the men under arrest had, in an unguarded moment, referred to the destruction of the packing plant in this city, and certain peculiarities about the blaze closely resembled those reported at the Salem fire.”

But that was the end of that.

The story turned back to rebuilding, as it was relayed in late April that an architect was planning the new AGA building at the fire site: “The plant is to rise on the site of the old washing and packing house and, of course, no excavation will be necessary. Also, the foundations are in and suffered no damage in the fire. Then, again, the walls are 50 percent good and usable and with reinforcing and repairing, they will be in every respect all right for the new building.”

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Even Adjusters Couldn’t Find Any Salvage: When insurance adjusters arrived to inspect the remains of the Cascade Packing plant for possible salvage, they readily agreed that the quarter million fire had taken about everything. So intense was the heat that sections of the concrete walls had been cooked and are of no value. News photo, published above, shows the interior of the building which, before the fire, was one of the largest apple and pear packing plants in the world. — H.R.N. Photo Engraving, January 14, 1938

Work stalled once, according to this late May note: “Because the people who made the highest bid on the saleable iron from the AGA Cascade packing plant failed to start work when required, it was necessary for General manager W.Q. Bateman to take the next best bid, which was from Wallace and James Gibson, of Odell, who bid by the ton.”

A rendering of the new building also appeared in that issue: “The building is to be erected on the same site as that on which the former fresh fruit packing house was destroyed by fire on December 28, 1937. This packing house will be modern in every respect, equipped with the most efficient new type washing machines and grading equipment and modern conveyor system for the economical handling of fruit.”

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A rendering of the new building as it appeared in the May 20, 1938 edition of the Hood River News.

Building sped up after Baldwin & Wheir, Hood River contractors, were awarded the project. Construction began May 31, with an expected completion date of Aug. 15.

Work was ahead of schedule; a July 15, 1938, article read, in part, “This week, work has progressed to such a point that now it can be safely predicted that the Cascade Packing House will begin operation on a full schedule as soon as the fruit is delivered.” Another article, dated July 29, 1938, mentioned work on the building was being rushed, and then … nothing.

No mention of opening day, no photo of the new building. I flipped through the rest of the year just to make sure. There was a Nov. 18, 1938, notice that the cannery had closed for the year …

And that was that.

You won’t find any recognizable building on this site today — the building burned again in the 1990s, and was razed to make room for what is now the Fifth and Columbia parking lot. But that, I’m afraid, is another story for another time. And I’m not just saying that because I haven’t been able to find mention of the ‘90s fire yet.

Okay, maybe I am. I’ll keep looking. We’ll mark this one “to be continued.”

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THE OLD AGA Cascade Packing Plant site is now home to the Fifth and Columbia parking lot, across the street from Full Sail. The lot is home to the Gorge Grown Farmers’ Market on Saturdays, May through November.

VERBATIM: Yuletide Greetings In Three Colors

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A very rare, three color insert appeared in the Dec. 24, 1937 issue of the Hood River News celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Apple Growers Association. The very next week, on Dec. 31, 1937, the News ran a story about a fire that wiped out one of the AGA's warehouses.

AGA Supplement This Week Something Novel In Newspaper Production

Cooperating with the Apple Growers Association, which is attaining its 25th anniversary, the Hood River News is extending the Christmas greetings of the Association to its many hundreds of members in three colors in this issue. Appropriately the colors are silver, red and blue.

It is believed that this is the first time that a weekly newspaper in Oregon has undertaken a printing job of this nature in production of its regular issue.

Copies of this week’s News, besides being sent to its 2,400 regular subscribers, which include practically all members of the Apple Growers Association, will also be sent to all buyers of Diamond brand fruit to convey the message that the Apple Growers Association is now entering its 25th year of operation as one of the largest deciduous fruit cooperatives in the world, owning the largest exclusively fruit cold storage plant so far built anywhere.

Readers of the News and members of the Apple Growers Association are urged to send copies of this week’s paper to their friends at distant points to notify them that the Association is now entering its 25th year of operation. Extra copies can be obtained at the Apple Growers Association or at the News’ office.

The color supplement was made possible through the cooperation of business houses with the AGA and the News.

— Hood River News, Friday, December 24, 1937

Extends Thanks For Special Edition: Apple Growers Association Greets Newspaper Staff For “Unusual Silver Anniversary Issue”

In recognition of the effort contributed by the staff of the Hood River News in its Christmas greetings supplement, commemorating the Silver Jubilee of the Apple Growers Association, the following letter of appreciation, signed by General Manager W.Q. Bateman, was entirely appreciated by owners and staff of the News:

“Dear Friends: Christmas is a time when everyone feels happy and our feelings for our fellow men is genuine. On behalf of the Apple Growers Association, its members, directors, officers and the entire organization, I am taking this opportunity to thank you and your organization for the production of the most unusual Silver Anniversary greetings I have ever seen as a supplement to your newspaper. We sincerely wish the Hood River News, its publishers and organization a Very Happy Christmas and also that the New Year will bring us out of the present recession and that all of you will experience a greater prosperity than you have had in years.”

— Hood River News, Friday, December 31, 1937

VERBATIM: Fire Completely Destroys Cascade Plant With Loss Of $240,000

Hood River’s Most Disastrous Fire Wipes Out Cascade House Tuesday Night — Losses Covered

Of undetermined origin, the fire which swept the AGA Cascade packing plant late Tuesday night of this week proved to be the most costly in the history of Hood River. The alarm was turned in shortly before nine o’clock, and for more than seven hours, Hood River’s volunteer fire department, aided by fire brigades from Bingen and White Salmon, stubbornly fought devouring flames, which time and again seemed to be determined to engulf the cannery to the north and the Tum-A-Lum lumber yard to the south.

Had it not been for the heavy rain and the almost entire absence of wind, it is doubtful if the business section of Hood River could have survived, for large masses of flaming debris were carried on to roofs of residences half a mile beyond Oak Street, only to be extinguished by the pelting rain.

In less than an hour after the fire was first noticed, the huge concrete packing plant, covering a full city block, was a blazing inferno and as the several floors crashed into the flaming pit, two of the high walls developed distinct bulges. However, strongly reinforced pillars and panels held and firemen were spared one serious hazard.

The losses, as computed yesterday, are between $230,000 and $240,000, most of which is covered by insurance. The building, one of the largest single apple packing plants in the world, was built about 11 years ago, at a cost of $90,000, and housed extensive washing and packing machinery, supplies and equipment, besides a quantity of brined cherries, which were stored in the huge building.

Smoke and flame from one of the windows on the ground floor of the east side of the building gave the first intimation that a conflagration was impending, and Hood River’s fire department responded immediately (when) the alarm was turned in. The firemen immediately turned water under high pressure on what was believed to be the center of the blaze and, with the dying down of the flame, it was thought that the blaze might be controlled.

But even while more hose lines were being hooked up and the big pumper was warming to its work, billows of smoke were rolling from every window in the building and were increasing in volume. Then it was that Fire Chief Volstroff recognized that his men had a major conflagration on their hands, and calls for aid were rushed to Bingen and White Salon through the local telephone station, operators of which cooperated to the utmost in aiding the Hood River fire department.

By this time immense clouds of smoke were emerging from every crevice in the reinforced-concrete building, and a curious pulsating movement, as of forced draft, was noticed as the heavy smoke left the windows. Suddenly it seemed that the building could no longer withstand the pressure and the roof appeared to burst wide open, releasing a huge cloud of smoke, followed by great tongues of flame, which licked their way through the darkness many hundred feet into the air.

In less time than it takes to write the story, the intense heat began to exert its influence on adjoining buildings and, had it not been for the steady downpour of rain, the cannery, creamery and the Tum-A-Lum lumber yards must have been ignited, for the heat forced onlookers and firemen to give ground rapidly. Even as removed as is the Garrabrant garage, the roof became so hot that the tar softened and stuck to the shoes of those who scuffed out blazing embers which fell in a continuous shower for an hour or more.

As the flames licked their way deeper towards the rear of the big plant, Association employees and officials sensed the growing danger to the cannery, which is connected to the packing plant by a tunnel, and several nozzles were detailed to fight the flames as they tried to lick the wooden tunnel and cross Columbia Street to the cannery. It was at this point that the firemen encountered their most difficult problem, for not only was the fire most intense at this point, but the street which divided the blazing packing plant from the cannery building appeared to be pitifully narrow. But they stayed with it, and while the flames shot out and reached for the tunnel from several angles, there was always one or more streams of water under high pressure to beat them back into the now doomed packing plant. A large bank of power transformers at this point were also saved by the firemen.

Bingen and White Salmon sent men and hose, with nozzles, and when the fire was at its height, it is stated that 21 streams of water were being projected into the blazing plant.

As the huge beams on the top floor and roof began to curl under the flames and were poised for their long plunge to the ground floor, two of the walls began to bulge, but held when the blazing beams dropped into the blazing inferno below.

By one o’clock it was evident that the work of the firefighters to hold the conflagration to the packing plant were to be successful, and although the fight continued at the northeast corner, where the tunnel was still attracting the flames, it was generally conceded that the worst was over and that all fears of a general conflagration involving the business section and other fruit plants were at an end.

The losses involve the huge building, a battery of 12 washing and packing machines, four of them being the latest tub type, large quantities of conveyor, paper supplies, loose boxes and other materials and 800 barrels of brined cherries, stored in the building and estimated to be worth an estimated $30 a barrel.

Fire Chief Volstroff stated, Wednesday morning, that the community owes a vote of thanks to the whole-hearted cooperation of many of the men who fought the fire side by side with the firemen of Bingen, White Salmon and Hood River. All of these men were, within a few minutes after taking their places on the hose lines or at the nozzles, wet through to the skin, yet they stayed on the job, hour after hour, until all danger was over. “Had it not been for the heavy rain and absence of wind, it would not have been humanly possible for the firefighters to have saved the business section of Hood River. As a fire chief, I am all for rain when fires have to be fought,” declared Volstorff.

Flaming debris was reported to have fallen into yards at such widely distant points as the Rand place at the western edge of town, on the W.E. Nichol’s home on upper Ninth Street and in the yard of a home at the top of Serpentine Road. For more than an hour, business houses over an area of 10 or more blocks and houses on all of the streets under the hill were subjected to an almost continuous rain of flaming debris, some of it several inches in diameter.

The Eastern Stars, in session on Tuesday night, adjourned their meeting and carried large quantities of coffee and cake to the fire hall for the benefit of overworked firemen.

Members of the board of directors of the Apple Growers Association, General Manager W.Q. Bateman and other officials, and a large number of employees were early on the scene and gave the firemen all information available to help them fight the blaze.

When asked yesterday as to plans for rebuilding, President Scott Aitken and General Manger Bateman stated that it is yet too early to make any statement as to replacement of the destroyed packing plant. “Without any question it will be replaced,” said Bateman, “for a large crop is anticipated in the coming year and we must have packing facilities. However, since the Cascade house was built and put into operation, we have learned many things about packing, and in the interest of the growers, this knowledge will be carefully analyzed and checked before any plans for replacement of the packing and washing facilities of the Cascade house are decided upon. The building and its contents were fully insured against fire losses, and our growers are not going to be penalized as a result of this unfortunate conflagration. But the board of directors decided almost as soon as they were forced to recognize that the Cascade plant was doomed, that they will give adequate study to the many problems involved before undertaking to submit plans for replacement.”

The downtown area was without power and light service for several hours, as wiremen cut out circuits to avoid danger to the public through burned wires. The city street lights were cut out in order to make full supply of water available to the firefighters. While some sections of long distance telephone service were interrupted by the fire, the local telephone company maintained excellent service during the several hours of wild night.

Theater audiences left when the power and lights failed, and secured unexpected and lasting thrills at the fire. Several of the restaurants, using oil or gas illumination, did a heavy business until the blaze had died down at about 4 a.m.

At the News office films of the fire were destroyed by touch system, no light of any kind being available. But, as readers will notice, excellent pictures of Hood River’s most costly fire were taken and reproduced.

— Hood River News, Friday, December 31, 1937



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