On Tuesday, June 10, 1924, downtown Kalama is hit by a fire that causes an estimated $150,000 in damages. It is the third such fire in three weeks for the southwest Washington town, and by far the most costly in terms of property damage. Yet, despite these setbacks, the residents of Kalama rebound and move quickly to rebuilding their city. Kalama is located in Cowlitz County on the Columbia River.
Third Time’s the Charm
The June 10th fire appears to have started in either the Highway Café or in the wall between the Café and Taylor Brothers Barber Shop. First reported at 7:30 in the morning, the blaze grew so large so fast that local responders quickly called in backup from nearby Longview and Kelso. The fire crew from Longview was inexplicably delayed, arriving after the fire was out, but the Kelso firemen were crucial to helping contain the blaze. “The Kelso Department made a record run, and arrived in good time to save the entire town from destruction,” reported the Cowlitz County News. “Their promptness in responding and effective work was highly praised by Kalama people” (Cowlitz).
Firefighters were helped by favorable winds -- a normal “upstream” wind from the nearby Columbia River would have caused the fire to spread quicker and put much more property in danger. This bit of good fortune kept the Kalama blaze somewhat contained while firefighters worked -- by 10 am, the fire was completely extinguished.
The blaze capped a difficult couple of weeks for Kalama residents. In late May a local mill burned to the ground, representing a loss of $30,000. Shortly thereafter, the Doty Fish Company caught fire, its loss estimated at $100,000. The fires do not appear to have been connected.
Assessing the Damage
Approximately 10 businesses were destroyed by the third Kalama fire, including the Columbia Hotel, the old Town Hall, the Majestic Theatre, several grocery stores, a jewelry store, and a couple of restaurants. The fire also claimed several apartments and residences, leaving about 25 families homeless.
Most of the structures and businesses affected were under-insured or uninsured. Art Comer, owner of a small grocery, had $1,000 in insurance but lost most of his $3,000+ inventory, while Charles Hettum of the Majestic Theatre had a $5,000 policy that covered only the house’s pipe organ. Even so, Comer and Hettum were considered fortunate -- according to the Kalama Bulletin, the insurance policy on the two-story Sauriol Building had lapsed only a few days before the fire (Kalama Bulletin).
Rising From the Ashes
Kalama Mayor Gaither held an emergency public meeting on the night of June 10, and put together a pair of committees to address issues stemming from the fire. A committee of five began drafting resolutions of thanks to the fire departments of Kelso and Longview for their help in extinguishing the blaze. A committee of seven was tasked with assessing the community’s need for relief, both temporary and long-term.
But local citizens didn’t wait for relief to come -- rebuilding efforts began immediately. Art Comer, the grocer who had lost most of his inventory, quickly set up a makeshift store in Kalama’s old post office building. He was not alone: the Little Bohemian Restaurant and Taylor Brothers Barber Shop also relocated to temporary quarters within days of the event (Kalama Bulletin).