The World's Largest Log Cabin

Sep 20, 2021 0 comments

At the turn of the 20th century, the city of Portland, in Oregon, United States, was a major economic center, with a flourishing wheat and flour industry, an unparalleled timber industry, and a rapidly growing shipping port. Portland boasted of the largest flour mill on the Pacific coast. Its lumber industry was significant due to Oregon’s vast forest of Douglas fir, western hemlock, red cedar, and big leaf maple trees. Portland’s location at the Willamette's confluence with the Columbia River, afforded it a deep port accessible to large vessels.

Forestry Building portland

The Forestry Building in 1956 in Portland. Photo: City of Portland

Despite the many positives, Oregon was not unaffected by the nationwide Long Depression towards the end of the 19th century. Jobs were lost across the country as railroads grew too fast on a weak banking system and agricultural values fell. In an attempt to boost the economy, some of Portland's most wealthy and powerful business leaders decided to create a fair of unmatched grandeur and power. This resulted in the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition in 1905. Held over a period of four months, the exposition drew over 1.6 million visitors and saw the participation of 21 countries. The exhibition ground spouted dozens of buildings decorated with architectural flourishes such as domes, cupolas, arched doorways and red-colored roofs. Italy had the biggest pavilion with a large collection of marble statues. Germany and France also spent enormous sums on their exhibits, the latter providing a replica of the drawing room of King Louis XIV.

The majority of the buildings erected on the fair grounds were temporary, constructed of plaster over wooden frames. The Forestry Building was an exception. It was an enormous structure, measuring 206 feet long by 102 feet wide and 72 feet high. Organizers of the exposition boasted that the Forestry Building was the world's largest log cabin, and indeed it was, being constructed out of whole logs with the bark still in place. Most of the giant logs that comprised the building, came from old-growth trees in Columbia County, Oregon. Some of these logs were six feet across. The interior of the Forestry Building featured colonnades of 54 massive, unpeeled Douglas Fir logs. The logs supported a 2-story center aisle, cruciform in plan, and lit by skylights.

Forestry Building portland

A vintage postcard showing n interior scene in the Forestry Building.

The Forestry Building housed exhibits that highlighted the timber industry, local flora and fauna and Native American photos and artifacts. There were exhibits showing Oregon’s abundant Natural Resources and there were taxidermy displays of animals native to the region.

After the exposition ended, the Forestry Building was purchased by the city of Portland, and for many years the building stood uncared and in disrepair. The building was almost lost to fire in 1914, when the California Building caught fire and burning embers fell on the roof of the Forestry Building, but a quick response by the fire department prevented the conflagration from spreading.

Forestry Building portland

In the 1920s, talks began about dismantling the building and salvaging the valuable logs, but the proposal was rejected. However, the state also refused to pay for repairs. By then, the building had turned into a safety hazard and was closed to the public. In the late 1940s, there was another fire started by sparks from a caretaker’s stove. It burned a hole in the roof about 15 feet in diameter.

Finally, in the 1950’s the Chamber of Commerce raised enough money to began repairing the aging structure. An old Logging Train and other equipment used in the forests were added to the grounds. Pretty soon, the Forestry Building became a favorite field trip destination for local school children. It was also a favorite spot to bring out-of-town guests.

On August 17, 1964, the Forestry Building caught fire from a bad electrical wiring and burned to the ground.

Forestry Building portland

The Forestry Building as it appeared around dusk on the night of the fire, after the flames had died down a little. Photo: Portland Fire Department

“The flames were almost ten stories high,” reported an eye-witness. “The fire illuminated the sky for miles, the neighborhood was an orange glow. The windows on the entire south side of the Montgomery Park Building were blown out. The heat was so intense that the windows were popping out. Glass was falling down to the street below. Ashes the sizes of large snowflakes fell to the ground within a mile of the structure. It was surreal, an amazing sight.”

After the fire, a group of citizens got together with timber-industry leaders to create the Western Forestry Institute to fill the void. A new, more fire-resistant forestry building designed by Oregon architect John Storrs was built in Washington Park. It opened to the public in 1971. Its name was changed to "World Forestry Center" in 1986 to reflect the center's revised focus on forestry on a global scale.

Forestry Building portland

The Forestry Building in 1959.

Forestry Building portland

Two women on upper balcony of Forestry Building. Photo: City of Portland

Forestry Building portland

Interior of Forestry Building at the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition, Portland

Forestry Building portland

Display of stuffed animals in Forestry Building at Lewis and Clark Exposition, 1905. Photo: Oregon Historical Society

# Finn J.D. John, Oregon lost world’s biggest log cabin in spectacular 1964 fire, Offbeat Oregon
# Wikipedia


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