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A Guide to Oregon's Greatest Explosions



BROADLY SPEAKING, Oregon history begins with dysentery-ridden pioneers, and ends with some very nice urban planning. The interim years are marked by, among other things, a series of significant explosions. Ever since Oregon became findable on the map, objects in the state have had the troublesome habit of going ka-boom. Trucks, aquatic mammals, pieces of infrastructure, and whole swaths of geography have been blasted into fast-moving particles over the years—though tragically many Oregonians are not aware of this. Allow us to remedy that.

Long Ago, in the Before Time: Mount Mazama

Long before any pioneers actually made it to Oregon, a substantial amount of geology known as Mount Mazama towered over the southern part of the region. At some point, Mazama decided it didn't need a summit anymore, and ka-boomed itself into a giant column of smoke and volcanic debris, expectorating approximately 12 cubic miles of magma. The wreckage still remains, and some years ago Oregon decided to put the broken remnants of this immense blast—a lonely, watery ruin now called Crater Lake—onto our state quarter.

1854: The Sudden Death of the Steamship Gazelle

Back in 1854, steamships were a big deal. Unlike previous vessels that relied on fickle forces like "wind" and "currents" to get them from point A to point B, steamers were able to burn fossil fuels and turn that into movement. The Gazelle was a sidewheeler that shoved out from what is now known as West Linn, and less than a month after its trial voyage its engines filled up with too much steam and not enough water. It blew up.

Twenty people were instantly killed, and several more wounded. Four would later die of their injuries, and the nearby vessel Wallamet was seriously damaged. A jury later determined that the engineer was guilty of "gross and culpable negligence in keeping too much steam and allowing the water level in the boilers to get too low." A widely held belief is that he fled town to escape punishment.

1873: Portland Reduced to a Pile of Warmish Ashes

In August of 1873, Portland burned. Flames swept through what we now call downtown, ultimately consuming over 20 blocks. Portland's fire companies were insufficient to fight the gigantic blaze, so firefighters from Salem and Vancouver had to be brought in to help. Had the fire departments been more coordinated in their efforts, perhaps the blaze would not have gotten out of control. However, they acted as autonomous units, and the inferno raged for over 24 hours. Rather frustratingly, no one has any idea what caused one of the biggest disasters in Portland's history.

1890 and Later: The Battleship Oregon

If you've walked at all in the vicinity of Waterfront Park, you've probably noticed a substantial piece of boat sticking out of it. That's the mast of the battleship Oregon, originally commissioned in 1890. The ship saw action in the Spanish-American War around the Philippines and Guam, where it undoubtedly reduced several objects and people into a fine spray of debris.

Most notably, the Oregon and another ship, the Brooklyn, ran down and captured a Spanish armored cruiser called the Cristóbal Colón. From then on the Oregon was known as the "Bulldog of the Navy." After its service valiantly destroying things of and relating to Spain, the Oregon performed naval patrols in the Pacific.

When it was decommissioned, the Oregon was converted into a floating museum that sat in the Willamette River, near where the South Waterfront is today. When WWII rolled around, though, the US Navy said, "Um, we could really use that thing," and dragged our boat museum away. The hull was converted into an ammunition barge that they dragged out to the Pacific, and the Oregon returned to Guam one last time laden with bullets and bombs for other ships. Portland did get a little bit of its old floating museum back—that would be the mast, one of the only bits of the boat that wasn't scrapped.

WWII: The Japanese Bomb Oregon (Sort of)

During WWII, Japan decided to bomb the US, even if it meant they had to attach explosives to balloons and float them across the ocean. In a scheme most Bond villains would find far-fetched, Japan made several genius/insane balloon bombs that were to float across the Pacific and rain explosive death on the US of A. Remarkably, this kind of worked. Several of the floating death-bags actually got here, causing incendiary blasts across the state, including a gigantic 30-foot flame near Medford.

The bombs had deadly consequences. Reverend Archie Mitchell was picnicking with his family near Bly when they found a downed, undetonated bomb, and unfortunately set off the explosive device. It killed all of the picnic-goers except Reverend Mitchell himself. The six Oregonians who died were the only WWII casualties to occur on US mainland soil. The site now holds a small memorial.

The Japanese didn't limit themselves to balloon bombs, though. A pilot named Nobuo Fujita managed to bomb Oregon, dropping his payload near Brookings. It started a small fire in the woods, which was the intended effect, but nothing much else happened. Besides the shelling of Fort Stevens and an oil field in California, Fujita's bombs and the balloons were the only direct hits Japan made against the US in WWII.

In 1962 the city of Brookings decided they wanted to know Fujita, and invited him to a local azalea festival. The visit went well, and Fujita actually became quite fond of the town whose forest he'd once tried to blast into oblivion. Fujita ended up returning several times, helped establish an exchange student program between Japan and Oregon, and set up a library fund. After his death, the city of Brookings honored Fujita by declaring him an honorary citizen, completely forgiving his earlier efforts to turn the surrounding forests into a fiery inferno.

1948: The Columbia River Tells Vanport to Stop Existing

Portland once had a northern suburb that was not Vancouver. It was called Vanport, and it was once the second largest town in Oregon. Vanport functioned as an industrial shipbuilding town until 1948, when a watery explosion wiped it out. The area north of Portland (now occupied by Delta Park and its surrounding environs) was and is a floodplain. Vanport was situated behind a levee, and in May of 1948 the Columbia River said "screw you" to civil engineering, and blasted itself through the walls. The rushing water ripped houses and infrastructure from their foundations, and ultimately wiped the state's number-two town off the planet. The next time you look out on the idyllic Columbia River, remember: That river killed a town.

1950s: Portland's Cold War Paranoia Is Hugely Efficient

After the Japanese bombed Oregon, the city of Portland worried that the Soviet Union would attempt to transform it into an irradiated pile of nuclear death. Putting fear and nuclear paranoia to somewhat productive use, Portland passed a popular referendum to give it one of the highest civil defense budgets in the country. There was some reason for this: Portland was indeed in range of Soviet air bases in Eastern Siberia.

The civil defense system included an evacuation plan that would have allowed downtown Portland to be cleared in less than 40 minutes in the event of a nuclear assault. That figure may sound unrealistically low, but it wasn't an estimate—city authorities actually tested the evacuation system in 1955, in an exercise called Operation Greenlight. The entire central business district was successfully abandoned in 34 minutes.

There was even a nationally broadcast TV movie made about it, starring local city officials. Titled A Day Called X, it highlighted Portland's nuclear readiness in the event of a full-scale war. For a brief time, Stumptown was nationally recognized as having the best civil defense in the nation. Nowadays, little remains of what was once a defining characteristic of the city. Civil defense was costly, and the city eventually stopped paying for regular drills and evacuation exercises. The only real remnant of Cold War fear and paranoia is the ruins of a fallout shelter in the Kelley Butte Natural Area. The shelter was to be an underground city hall, the first and largest of its kind in the US. There, the leaders of Portland could live on as entombed mole people, even as their city was reduced to a burning hellscape.

1955: Meier and Frank Explodes with Savings. And Explosives.

In April of 1955, Aaron Frank, president of downtown Portland's Meier and Frank department store, opened an unsigned note addressed to him. The note stated that there were two bombs in his building. One was set to blow the next day, but the other would go off "by the time you receive this message." Right after that, the third floor of downtown's biggest department store exploded. The blast flung glass 30 feet across the street, injured two people, and caused over $5,000 in damages (adjusted for inflation, that's over $40,000 in today's money). Fortunately, no one was killed.

The bombing was the first step in an elaborate extortion scheme aimed at Frank. He was told to pay up, or a second bomb would go off before noon the next day. Frank put $50,000 (over $400,000 in nowadays cash) in small, unmarked bills into an easily recognizable light-colored suitcase, just as the bomber had demanded. It was the first in a series of needlessly complicated instructions. 

An emissary was to hold the distinctive suitcase while wearing an equally distinctive carnation on the corner of SW Stark and Broadway. At 7 pm, the flower-sporting bagman was to enter a nearby phone booth, answer the phone, and then wait for instructions. A voice told him to go to yet another phone booth, and look under its seat. There, he found a key to a public locker at Union Station. He went to the station, opened said locker, and found a note telling him to hire a Yellow Cab that did not have a two-way radio. The bagman and the money were to head to Eugene at a speed not exceeding 25 MPH. The cab would be followed, and when the car behind them flashed its lights three times, he was to fling the suitcase of cash out the window.

No lights flashed, however, and the bagman never actually made the drop. The taxi returned to Portland with money still in hand, and no second bomb was ever found.

1959: The Most Exciting Thing to Ever Happen in Roseburg

Just after 1 am on August 7, 1959 in Roseburg, a building supply company caught fire. The blaze would have been your run-of-the-mill inferno, but for a truck laden with several tons of dynamite and nitro-carbo-nitrate parked nearby. The fire ignited the truck's hugely explosive cargo, and the resulting blast shook the town from its sleep. Eight blocks were severely damaged, 14 people were killed, windows as far as nine miles away were broken, and the blast left a smoking crater over 50 feet in diameter. The damages totaled $12 million in 1959, which is approximately infinity dollars in today's money.

1970: American History and Sea Mammals Go "Boom"

At some point you may have noticed a Liberty Bell replica outside Portland City Hall. The replica is actually the second one to grace the seat of Portland's governance. The original replica (if such a thing can exist) originally rested inside the building. For reasons still unknown, someone decided to blast the hell out of a cherished symbol of American freedom, and in 1970, shards of bell went everywhere through the main portico. Remarkably, no one was hurt or killed, though city hall did have a few chunks taken out of it by the attack. When Portland got itself a new Liberty Bell, the city decided to put this one on the outside, just to be sure.

That same year a dead whale washed up on the beach just outside Florence. The Oregon Highway Division decided the aquatic mammal was too gigantic to bury, and instead of cutting it into smaller, more buriable pieces, they decided to blow the dead beast to smithereens. A half-ton of dynamite was shoved into the whale's guts, and the whole thing went up in a spray of blood and blubber that makes most horror movies look subtle.

The problem with blasting huge amounts of whale bits into the air is gravity. A prodigious amount of blood and body parts fell onto nearby structures, people, and cars. The surrounding area was sprayed with a fine red mist, as if it had just played host to a GWAR concert. One of the larger chunks of blubber fell onto a car, destroying the hood and windshield. Even after the explosion, most of the eight-ton leviathan remained on the beach. The Oregon Highway Division ended up having to cut it up and clear it out in a more conventional fashion.

DEPT. OF CORRECTIONS: The article originally stated that Fujita's bombs and the balloons were the "only direct hits Japan made against the U.S. in WWII." In fact, the Japanese also shelled Fort Stevens, near Astoria, and a California oil field.

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