105 years ago tonight, Portland craned its neck and squinted to the east for a glimpse of a light atop Mt. Hood. Light rain fell in some places. But across Portland’s eastside at 10 o’clock p.m. many eyes were intently looking east.
During the previous week, an adventurous climbing party from the Portland YMCA had been making its way east first by interurban trolley car to Boring (along today’s Springwater Corridor) and then on foot and by automobile to Government Camp. It was no small task 105 years ago to reach the base of Mt. Hood—something we take for granted today—and the climbing party’s progress was noted in front page news coverage in The Oregonian.
The culmination of the group’s two weeks of hiking, camping and climbing, was to be a planned night-time ignition of 50 pounds of red flare powder atop Mt. Hood to signal all in Portland that the party had achieved its objective. The group carried bags of what reporters referred to as “redfire,” which was probably strontium nitrate powder, known to burn bright red: the same material as in modern road flares.
You have to read the build-up to this big event to appreciate the imaginativeness and chutzpah of this group, and the confusion and dueling stories that followed. Let’s start on July 15, before the group left for the mountain, as they were deciding that they would dig bunks atop the summit for a good night’s sleep.
From The Oregonian, July 15, 1913
The Oregon Journal sent reporters out across the eastside to talk to those who were watching. The next day, here’s what they reported, including eyewitness testimony from people who saw the redfire plainly.
From the Oregon Journal, July 22, 1913
But the real story of what happened, finally reported six days later when the group made it back to Portland, is a little more complicated, real and wonderful. Read on:
From The Oregonian, July 26, 1913 (click to enlarge)
With all the build up, neighbors were ready to see what they wanted to see, despite the sleet and the YMCA group’s turning back that night from the summit. Was it that people wanted to be part of something bigger than themselves, to close the distance between what was wild and the city? Or was it just the moon on a misty summer night?
Tonight at exactly 10 o’clock we’ll be watching.