Abandoned Wheeler-Osgood Company mill in Tacoma burns on July 18, 1959.

  • By Daryl C. McClary
  • Posted 6/07/2009
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9022
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On July 18, 1959, a massive fire destroys the abandoned Wheeler-Osgood Company mill in the industrial area of Tacoma’s waterfront. No one is killed, but five firefighters are hospitalized, suffering from exhaustion, smoke inhalation, and minor injuries. Losses, which include damage to nearby buildings and the destruction of 12 railroad freight cars, are estimated at $500,000.

A Thriving Mill

In 1889, William C. Wheeler and George R. Osgood, both from Iowa, established a mill in Tacoma to produce sashes, doors, and miscellaneous millwork for the burgeoning building trade in the Puget Sound area. Wheeler, Osgood & Company grew rapidly, and by 1893 employed 150 workers in its 29,500 square-foot manufacturing plant. Then came a serious economic depression, known as the Panic of 1893, caused by railroad bankruptcies and bank failures. This led to a run on the U.S. gold reserves, and much of the nation’s industrial production came to a standstill.

The company’s secretary, Thomas E. Ripley, headed to New England and sold enough orders to keep the plant operational. Over the next 10 years, Ripley established a national market for the company’s quality products, manufactured from cedar and Douglas fir, and by 1902 Wheeler, Osgood & Company had become one of the largest sash and door manufacturers on the West Coast.

Doors to Success

On September 25, 1902, Wheeler, Osgood & Company suffered a major fire, which destroyed the entire mill and put some 285 persons out of work. In 1903, an efficient new manufacturing plant was built on the site, and the business was reincorporated as The Wheeler-Osgood Company. Shortly thereafter, the company began making doors from plywood panels, which they purchased from the Portland Manufacturing Company. When the Portland Manufacturing mill was destroyed by fire in February 1910, Wheeler-Osgood went forward with plans to make its own veneer panels. Construction of a new plywood-manufacturing plant was completed in early 1912. As part of the project, the company dredged a waterway and log pond adjacent to Tacoma's City Waterway to store the rafts of logs needed to supply the veneer mill. 

In 1918, The Wheeler-Osgood Company decided to limit its production to plywood and to its Laminex-brand doors and discontinued all other millwork. The door- manufacturing plant was completely renovated and was soon producing 10,000 doors per day. By 1927, the company was the largest door manufacturer in the world. The plant covered 14 acres, from St. Paul Avenue to the City Waterway, and employed some 1,500 workers. Most of the plywood the company produced was used to make doors, but during the 1920s plywood manufacturing grew from a sideline into an industry in its own right. A lucrative world market emerged, and soon several West Coast mills were making plywood.

From Depression to Prosperity

Plywood production came to a sudden halt soon after the collapse of the stock market on October 29, 1929. Early in the Great Depression (1929-1939), home construction and the demand for building materials slowed to a standstill. By 1932, economic conditions forced The Wheeler-Osgood Company to close the entire plant. By 1934, however, there was an upturn in the demand for both plywood and doors. The company, which had defaulted on its obligations, incorporated anew as the Wheeler-Osgood Sales Corporation, gained new financing, and resumed production. In 1939, the company was allowed to reorganize and merge the sales corporation into the original Wheeler-Osgood Company.

The Wheeler-Osgood plant had serious fires in 1935 and 1942, both occurring in the Laminex manufacturing building. Each time, the plant was immediately rebuilt. The company prospered during World War II (U.S. involvement, 1941-1945) and continued to prosper through the housing boom of the 1940s.

Leaving Tacoma

Local sources of the old-growth Douglas fir used in plywood manufacturing soon became depleted, however, and mills began looking to Oregon and Northern California for timber. In 1947, Wheeler-Osgood merged with the Fir Manufacturing Company in Oregon, which had purchased a large block of timber. It built a new sawmill and plywood plant at Myrtle Creek in Douglas County. Oregon.

In 1950, Wheeler-Osgood decided that the Tacoma plant was antiquated and not worth replacing. Its assets were liquidated, and in November 1951 the entire operation on the Tacoma waterfront was closed and dismantled. All the machinery and equipment, valued at $6 million, was auctioned off. Some of the empty buildings were leased to other businesses for warehousing, and others were slated for eventual demolition.

Explosion and Fire

At 2:42 p.m. on Saturday, July 18, 1959, the Tacoma Fire Department received a report of a grass fire near the old Wheeler-Osgood plant at 1216 Saint Paul Avenue, and a fire crew was immediately dispatched. Tacoma Fire Chief and City Harbormaster Harold C. Fisk (1904-1989), who was driving to Seattle with his wife, Margaret, to visit his daughter, Joan, was nearby and drove to the scene. He was there only a few minutes when the old mill “blew up like a bomb” (Tacoma News Tribune).

Chief Fisk immediately radioed for reinforcements, and numerous fire companies from Tacoma and Pierce County, totaling more than 200 firefighters, were dispatched to the three-alarm blaze. The flames, fanned by a hot summer wind and burning out of control for five hours, spread acrid smoke and embers southward across the city.  After a Foss Maritime Company tugboat towed away a log boom, Tacoma Fireboat No. 1 entered the Wheeler-Osgood Waterway to within 100 feet of the blaze and used its seven monitors (water cannons) to pump 10,000 gallons-per-minute of salt water onto the inferno. The fireboat was soon joined by a U.S. Coast Guard cutter and a Foss tug with firefighting equipment, and both doused the blaze with tons of water.

Of major concern to firefighters were the buildings and property across St. Paul Avenue and 15th Street from the Wheeler-Osgood plant. These included the Far West Plywood Company, Suburban Propane, Standard Oil Company, Carstens Hygrade Food Products (one of the largest meat-packing plants on the West Coast), and Northern Pacific Railway facilities and freight cars. Three-hundred-degree temperatures cracked window glass, blistered paint, and threatened a 5,000-gallon storage tank at Suburban Propane. Firefighters were positioned to stream cold water over the tank, hoping to prevent a catastrophic explosion. Other fire crews worked to prevent the blaze from spreading, spraying water onto the rooftops of nearby buildings.

Injury and Destruction

By the time the situation was fully under control, fire crews had used more than four million gallons of city water in the battle. Five firefighters were hospitalized with smoke inhalation, exhaustion, and minor injuries. Dozens of firefighters remained at the scene with their equipment throughout the night to prevent a rekindling of the fire.

An investigation later determined that the blaze, which destroyed four of the plant’s huge buildings, had been started by embers from a scrap-lumber fire in the old tinder-dry mill, which was being torn down. The fire also destroyed $40,000 worth of plywood and 60,000 bushels of wheat, which had been stored on the premises, as well as 12 freight cars of grain on a nearby siding. The heat badly scorched one side of the Rusdick Lumber Sales Company on St. Paul Avenue, but firefighters were able to save the building. Fortunately, the old Eleventh Street Bridge across the City Waterway (renamed Thea Foss Waterway) connecting downtown to the Tacoma tideflats was not damaged.

The Land, the Fireboat, the Bridge

Today, the acreage where the Wheeler-Osgood Company stood is occupied by the Premier Plastics manufacturing plant, First Student, Inc., which operates and maintains a fleet of buses for the Tacoma Public Schools, and an odd assortment of warehouses.

On December 2, 1983, Tacoma Fireboat No. 1, built in 1929 by the Coastline Shipbuilding Company of Tacoma, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places (Reference No. 83004254) and was designated a National Historic Landmark on June 30, 1989. Owned by the city of Tacoma, the 96.6-foot-long vessel is permanently displayed in a dry-berth in Marine Park, adjacent to Duke’s Chowder House at 3327 Ruston Way.

The Eleventh Street Bridge, also called the City Waterway Bridge, opened in 1913 and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the Washington Heritage Register on July 16, 1982 (Reference No. 82004278). On May 21, 1997, the Washington State Transportation Commission renamed the 1,748-foot vertical lift-span bridge the Murray Morgan Bridge in honor of historian and Tacoma native Murray Cromwell Morgan (1916-2000).

Revitalizing the Waterways

The adjacent Thea Foss and Wheeler-Osgood waterways were declared Superfund sites by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1981. Once considered to be two of the most polluted sites in the nation, the waterways were cleaned up at a cost of $1.5 million. In 1991, the City of Tacoma and the Metropolitan Parks District purchased 27 acres of property along the 1.5-mile Thea Foss Waterway, intending to convert the land to commercial and recreational uses.

In 1996, the Tacoma City Council created the seven-member Foss Waterway Development Authority Board (FWDA) to oversee marketing and development of the publicly owned land. As part of a plan to revitalize downtown Tacoma, the city council permitted two large marinas to be built on the property (Foss Harbor Marina and the Dock Street Marina), expecting developers to construct large condominium complexes nearby.

Sources: “Four Waterfront Buildings Razed,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 20, 1959, p. 1; “Tacoma Waterfront Fire Loss $300,000,” The Seattle Times, July 20, 1959, p. 9; “$300,000 Fire Hits Tacoma Waterfront,” Port Angeles Evening News, July 20, 1959, p. 1; “Five Firemen Hurt; Loss $300,000,” Tacoma News Tribune, July 20, 1959, p. 1; “The Wheeler Osgood Company,” Plywood Pioneers Association website accessed January 30, 2009 (www.apawood.org/plywoodpioneers/monographs.htm); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History,Washington renames Tacoma’s Eleventh Street Bridge as Murray Morgan Bridge on May 21, 1997” (by Priscilla Long), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed February 3, 2009); “Historic Places in Washington,” State of Washington, Office of Archeology and Historic Preservation website accessed February 3, 2009 (www.dahp.wa.gov); “National Register of Historic Places: Washington -- Pierce County,” National Register of Historic Places website accessed February 3, 2009 (http://www.nationalregisterofhistoricplaces.com/WA/Pierce/state.html); “National Register Information System,” National Park Service website accessed February 3, 2009 (www.nr.nps.gov).

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