Uppertown Firefighters Museum
2968 Marine Drive, Astoria, Oregon
ASTORIA — A stout masonry structure dominates Uppertown’s streetscape, standing among Astoria’s few remaining wooden false-front commercial structures. Known as the Uppertown Firefighters Museum, the building holds both unique artifacts and tells the story of Astoria’s ever-evolving history.
The Clatsop County Historical Society (CCHS) operates it and three other museums: the Capt. George Flavel House, Heritage Museum and Oregon Film Museum. While the Firefighters Museum is the least known, it is nevertheless a gem.
“It is really a trifecta of elements coming together,” explained Mac Burns, executive director of CCHS. There are fire museums and there are fire stations converted to other uses. But it is rare to find a fire museum, in a fire station, with equipment used in that station and photographs of it being used in local fires.
Beer, milk, fire
Constructed in 1896, the building was first used by the North Pacific Brewing Co. John Kopp, its owner, hired Emil Schacht, a regional architect, to develop its plans. The popular brewery operated as such until Prohibition. Kopp, in an effort to keep the business alive, produced a non-alcoholic beer called Maltona. It was not successful. Then, The Far West Milk Co. reconstituted the building into a condensed milk plant. Unfortunately, milk proved to be as unpopular as non-alcoholic beer. The plant folded.
About that time, the city realized its wood-framed fire station, located just two blocks away, was no longer serviceable. In 1928, the city purchased the former brewery/milk plant and converted it to a fire station. Astoria architect John Wicks was in charge of the rehabilitation. It served as a fire station until 1977.
In 1989, CCHS reopened the building as the Uppertown Firefighters Museum.
When first constructed, the building stood on tideland. Consequently, the building — one of the few masonry buildings constructed over the water locally — has an uncommon foundation system.
Exterior masonry walls rest on 36” wide concrete footings, set deep into sand fill. At one time, old-timers claimed Kopp mixed beer — rather than water — into the concrete. This theory has yet to be proven. It was also claimed he mixed beer into the bricks’ mortar. There is no evidence of that, either.
What is known is that Wicks had enough confidence in the walls’ structural integrity that he replaced interior wooden columns with concrete beams. Those beams span from one side of the building to the other and rest on the masonry walls. The massive beams, by the way, were configured with water, not beer.
Artifacts of value
Over the years, various people at the city have suggested selling the firefighting equipment as a way to support a deficiency in the city’s budget. Fortunately, this idea will not come to fruition. When CCHS took over the fire station, it was agreed that any sale of equipment had to be approved by the society’s executive director.
Furthermore, if there was ever a time when selling the equipment made financial sense, its time has passed. There is no re-sale value in the trucks and firefighting paraphernalia. The value comes, not from their monetary value, but from their connection to the city and to that building.
One of the museum’s showstoppers is the La France: a hook and latter truck, constructed of wood and iron, dating to 1876. Its ladder extends 50 feet into the air and was last used in 1939 when the Louvre — Schacht’s Moorish-inspired saloon — was destroyed by fire.
The wagon’s stenciled designs remain in aged glory. These exquisite decorations were a point of personal pride for the department. Imagine: parades where one fire station competed against the other as to whom had the most elaborately painted equipment.
Importance of preservation
Last winter, students from Clatsop Community College’s Historic Preservation Program studied the building for a class project. Their work included documenting the structure, prioritizing basic restoration and making recommendations for its financial stability.
The students’ enthusiasm was inspiring. They were quick to grasp the building’s place in Astoria’s history. “We want to protect and maintain this building because from this place we had heroes. Heroes fighting with the fire to save lives,” explained Jose-Luis Roldan-Perez. “We want to value their hard and dangerous work.”
For more information about renovating an old home or commercial building, visit the Lower Columbia Preservation Society website at lcpsociety.org.