Thursday, April 28, 2022

Another Monument Needing Help


Don Porth, a retired, 28-year veteran of the Portland Fire Bureau, is on a mission.  He wants to restore the David Campbell Memorial at SW 18th Ave. and Alder Street and erect a wall honoring 34 other Portland firefighters who lost their lives on active duty.

 Simple though it sounds, Porth’s vision calls for a complex restructuring of the little triangle that bears the name Portland Firefighters Park.  He would relocate a restored Campbell Memorial to the southern tip of the triangle, which would require relocation of a gazebo that holds a 4,200 pound antique fire alarm bell. 

The large bell, used for nearly 40 years until 1913, reportedly could be heard as far away as Oregon City when it was used to alert fire crews.

According to Porth’s hand-drawn sketch, the memorial wall would be placed on western side of the triangle adjacent to SW 19th Ave.  The names of those firefighters are currently located on the floor of the memorial below the now-unused fountain.

 Porth wants an accurate and professional restoration of the Campbell Memorial, which dates to 1928.  The fountain and pool were designed by Paul Cret, an architect who was a professor for 34 years at the University of Pennsylvania, and a major figure in American Beaux-Arts designs of the era.  Campbell, who was killed fighting a fire in 1911, is memorialized in a five-foot tall bronze bas-relief by sculptor Avard Fairbanks.

 The wacky nature of Portland city government makes it difficult to know who’s in charge of the monument and small park.  Though bears the name of “Firefighters Park,” is doesn’t belong to the Parks Bureau.  Though the monument is about Portland Fire Bureau history, the Fire Bureau has no administrative responsibility.  For many years, maintenance of the memorial was provided by the volunteer David Campbell Memorial Association.  Porth is its current president.    

 The agency with ostensible control over the little triangle, Porth says, is the Portland Bureau of Transportation since it is considered part of the right-of-way between SW 18th and 19th Avenues.  Of course, PBOT isn’t in the business of attending to public parks OR to commemorative monuments.


Porth also believes the revamped memorial should add additional interpretive elements.  Indeed, given Campbell’s immense influence in Portland before his death, his history deserves fuller description.

 Campbell started his career as a firefighter at age 14 in 1878.  He was too young to be hired when the city switched to a paid staff in 1883, but was hired in 1885.  He served as fire chief from 1893 to 1896, and gain from 1898 until his death.  As an athlete, Campbell was a highly skilled boxer and taught boxing for 5 years at the Multnomah Athletic Club.  As fire chief, he began the transition from h9orse-drawn to motorized fire engines.  

 The day Campbell died, fire had broken out at a Union Oil distribution plant near the Willamette River in Southeast Portland.  As the fire raged, Campbell concluded that the best way to fight it was from inside the building.  He took two other firefighters in with him, but an explosion knocked two of them out of the building to safety.  Campbell never came out.

 His death led to a momentous outpouring of grief and respect.  Newspapers estimated that 150,000 people jammed the streets for a memorial.

 It doesn’t take an expert to see that the elegant memorial needs help.  Porth is gradually building constituencies of supporters before taking his plan to the City Council.  He knows the project would be expensive, but he said private funds could be added to the city government's share.  

In an era when Portlanders often seem not to care about history, one thinks of C.E.S. Wood’s words on the Skidmore Fountain late in the 19th Century:  “Good citizens are the riches of the city.”  True then; true now. 

 -----Fred Leeson

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  1. Thank you for sharing this effort with your followers Fred. It is an important project for so many reasons. 75 Portland Firefighters who have given their lives in service do not have proper recognition accessible to the citizens of Portland. Beyond that, the David Campbell Memorial has been an architectural and historic element of Portland for nearly a century. Restoring it and adding interpretation of Architect Paul Cret and the fallen firefighters is the right thing to do. I hope others agree.

  2. Great article Fred, thank you for posting! I thought that the Portland Firefighters Park was listed on the National Register many years ago when the Water Bureau wanted to dismantle the memorial and move the idea to the Eastside as a new memorial. Former Fire Bureau Commish Leonard was trying to move that direction... and instead, Portland got the new Fire Station as part of the East bank Promenade.

  3. Henry, it was not the Water Bureau that suggested that move, it was the David Campbell Memorial Association, perhaps with the support of Commissioner Leonard. What they failed to consider at the time was the significance of the David Campbell Memorial as an architectural tribute as well as a tribute to Chief Campbell. The Architectural Heritage Center did the right thing by nominating the David Campbell Memorial for the Registry of Historic Places with the National Parks Service. It remains on the registry today. It is certainly an aspect we would need to deal with in the renovation, but we are confident that can be done. We have support of community members who have been successful with other heritage sites that were listed with the NPS. Portland was going to get the new Fire Station 21 on the Eastbank regardless of the nature of the memorial project. The plaza to the north of the fire station had been set aside but being within a city E-Zone and floodplain, along with the proposed lighting scheme, rendered the project to difficult to further. By combining that project with the renovation of the David Campbell Memorial, we have an opportunity to accomplish both projects for the time and cost of either one alone. The goal is to create a plaza combining the David Campbell Memorial with the Fallen Firefighter Memorial to have one place of remembrance and interpretation for Portland Firefighters lost to service.

  4. Didn't the Admiral Randy-era city bureaucracy stick some sort of new memorial to fallen firefighters (and maybe cops) into Waterfront Park down by the west side of Hawthorne Bridge? You know, over by "Better Naito" [makes gagging gesture]? I know they were talking about it. It seemed a bit duplicative of this one.

  5. The Eastbank Esplanade plan died quietly because of several potential problems that Don raised above. Thus, he has followed up with the suggestions discussed in the post.

  6. The memorial in Waterfront Park is the Portland Police Memorial. Police and Fire have unique, but different roles in the protection of the city. While firefighters and police officers are all public servants, their service deserves recognition distinct to their sacrifice.