Oregon Trails: Bonanza Fires

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BONANZA, Ore. — Looking back over the past 150 years, there’s hardly a town or city in Oregon that has not had at least one catastrophic fire. A few have leveled some or most of the business district or even the whole town, but few have had as many major fires that caused as much damage as those that leveled much of the small Klamath County town of Bonanza.

This year marks the 140th anniversary of the establishment of Bonanza, near the big springs where Native Americans often camped and gathered in the sucker fish from Lost River. Looking around the town today, there’s not much to tell that Bonanza has seen a lot of history in more than a century. Maybe that’s because it’s burned down; at least the business district has – several times, especially in the early 20th century.

“I know they rebuilt after the fire in 1910, which was a devastating fire and destroyed much of the city. There was another fire in 1912,” said former Bonanza resident Fred Bechdoldt.

There was another fire in 1914 and another in 1930. In fact, Bonanza has probably had more disastrous fires than any other town of its size in Oregon. The first broke out in September of 1910. No contemporary newspaper records remain, but we have these “after” photos, and old timers reported that several stores, barns, shops, a hotel or two and other businesses all went up in smoke at a time when there was no real way to fight a big fire, and there were few people in town to man the bucket brigade.

Fire hit again in 1913. Klamath Herald headlines announced, “Bonanza Blaze Causes Great Loss To Town,” and, “Hotel And 5 Stores Are Gone.” This time, electrical wiring got the blame, and despite the burning of the hotel, no one was injured. Losses were listed about about 20-thousand dollars. When another fire broke out a year later, in 1914, the Evening Herald proclaimed, “Bonanza Fire Loss Is Close To 9,000!” That would be $9,000 for all the buildings. “Insurance Less Than 3,000 Dollars.”

The fire apparently started at the post office. The paper reported that, “when discovered, post office was in a mass of flames, and with no firefighting equipment, citizens were unable to check it’s spread to other structures. The only insurance was on the hotel.

Apparently no one thought to take pictures either, until after the ashes had mostly cooled. At least none are known today. There was apparently some suspicion the fire was intentionally set, and two people were arrested, but there’s no record anything came of the case.

It was nearly fifteen years until the next big fire swept through the business district. That was in may of 1930. It apparently started in the blacksmith shop about noon on may 20th. For nearly two hours, high winds blew the flames through the bank, post office, a restaurant, drug store and general store. The bank, which most thought was “fireproof” because of it’s brick construction, was in ashes. The herald headlines revealed the impact the fire on the town following it’s fourth major fire in two decades.

“It wasn’t until probably, my goodness! I think the late ’40’s or ealy ’50’s before they ever really got a fire department,” Fred says. “So the people that were on the city council went around Langell valley and different places collecting money and the first fire truck as a 1934 Ford with a small tank on the back!”

That was about 1948. Very few communities in our area, even all the state of Oregon have suffered as many devastating fires as has Bonanza. but because of it’s strategic location in south Central Oregon, it remains a vital part of the community.

“There are three major valleys where all the farming and so forth exist today,” said Bonanza resident Ken McCoy. “And one is Langell valley off that way. one is Poe valley out south. And then one going out of town, that is Yonna valley. None of those areas ever had any, commercial establishment. All of them are here. And even today, all of the people which amounts to about 11,000 people actually come in here for their school, post office, churches, whatever, and commercial stuff for whatever they need, they come into town. And so they sorta come in here. But euphemistically it was referred to, never officially, but euphemistically referred to as the “Clover Leaf country, and this was the ‘Clover Leaf City'”.

Today, there’s not much left to recall those boom days when early settlers saw this as a “Bonanza” kind of place. But it’s location at the crossroads of three farming and ranching valleys means the stores and shops, post office and school will always be a place to come and trade, or call home.

At one time, Bonanza was even in the running to become county seat for Klamath County, when it was first created. When first established, Bonanza was part of Jackson County, then Lake County, and finally, Klamath County.