Character Deep and Fine:
Floyd McMullen '37 and the Great Capitol Fire
By Erik Schmidt '05
Flames screamed skyward, tearing the building apart from inside. By the time darkness fell in Salem, the Oregon Capitol had been burning for hours, fire walking up through hollow wooden columns from its electrical origin in the basement. These columns had behaved like kindling, providing wood starter and a vertical airway to feed the blaze, and there was no hope to save the building now. At this point it was about saving at least some of what was still inside it: documents, flags, artifacts.
One group of firefighters fought to quell the flames near the west entrance of the Capitol. They stood below the radiating copper dome and struggled against the heat and fatigue and the threat of strewn debris. A second group of men stood nearby, ready to move in and relieve the first team whenever the order came.
A young Willamette man named Floyd McMullen was in this relief group.
Masonry and studs were already toppling, and maybe, as he looked on, McMullen knew that they were nearing the end: the point after which further attempts to minimize damage would be fruitless and the best thing to do would be to fall back and prevent the fire from spreading to nearby structures. Like Eaton Hall.
He and his teammates got their order and headed in, but as they did, somewhere, communication broke down. They were being urgently called back away from the building, but the message never arrived. They reached the blaze and began doing what they could with their water and their aim, but by now even the brick cornices that protruded on that side of the building had been weakened.
It’s impossible to say whether McMullen could see the brickwork falling toward him. He was unconscious before anyone could help him.
That night, April 25, 1935, the affable, wiry, bespectacled volunteer from Hermiston became the first and only Salem firefighter to die doing his work.
He had fought as a volunteer to preserve pieces of Oregon’s history, but this wasn’t just a call to duty. It was a sign of who he was and who he hoped to become.
McMullen had grown up in Hermiston, Ore., as the first child of enterprising farmers. His homesteading father had come west from the Pennsylvania mines — alone — when he was just 15 years old. He crafted himself a new life and a new way of making a living, holding on even as the Great Depression made its way to Oregon.
“Our parents ran a 25-acre farm,” says Floyd’s sister, Margaret, now 95. The former teacher recalls the early days thoughtfully, as if inspecting her memories for more lessons to extract. Cash came in from chicken eggs and asparagus, she says. “Eggs were moneyraisers then. I remember feeling like those chickens had better houses than we did!”
Her parents knew that education could give their children mobility. A lawyer uncle in Portland, Albert Knight, had recommended that Floyd consider the discipline and apply to Willamette. Soon, McMullen made his own solo trip west and signed up to be a “boarder” — a full-time undergraduate working off his room and board by volunteering for the local fire brigade. He even lived at the station.
He soaked up the variety of the experience and reported home in long, conversational letters. He always took time to address each of his younger siblings and their interests, and his correspondence suggests care and competence. As his family would say later on, this was one young man who had done a lot of growing up by age 19.
Naturally, he wrote of the typical challenges of student life. “Seems as though all I can think of tonight is questions,” he wrote one spring. He had discovered debate, which made sense to his sister Esther, who would laugh later when she told people how “he would take the opposite side at the drop of a hat.”
But he never saw his interest through. His last — and most wrenching — letter was dated April 21, four days before the fire.
“So far this month there has not been much in the way of fires,” he wrote. But “the wind is blowing almost in Eastern Oregon style. Ought to have some...if it keeps up.”
After the tragedy, local officials spoke up. The adoring head of Willamette’s Forensic Council, Prof. Herbert Rahe, sent Mr. and Mrs. McMullen a letter supposing that “you, as well as I, cannot fully realize that Floyd is gone.” Harry Hutton, chief of the Salem Fire Department, offered lengthy condolences in praise of a young man of such “sterling worth.”
Perhaps the most poignant note came from the Associated Students themselves:
“In life Floyd McMullen was unassuming, conscientious, friendly; a quiet student whose character stood out deep and fine. To those who knew him well his death emphasizes his devotion to duty, his courage and his sacrifice for the life which he was building for himself. To all, his personality stands as a direct repudiation of all that is shallow and unworthy.”
In the years since, nevertheless, McMullen’s story has shown up only periodically in Salem’s social consciousness. The Salem Fire Department named Station 7 after McMullen in 2009; visitors today discover cover a tidy collection of memorabilia and more fine words. But while those in the know have paid their respects, the story, like the footprint of the long-gone Capitol
Building, has faded from view. But now it’s come back, appropriately enough, in the halls of the new Capitol Building.
The Floyd McMullen Fire Brigade
In the Capitol today, clerks and many other non-elected staffers guard their political neutrality. They have to, since partisanship could prevent them from doing their jobs of editing bill copy, giving floor readings and otherwise orchestrating the Capitol’s business while the Democrats and Republicans do their jousting.
But in the 2001 session, Sen. Jason Atkinson MBA’99 (R) realized that it’d be worthwhile to give staffers a safe outlet, a discursive forum in which they could inform themselves politically and debate policies more openly. Well versed in running almost-secret groups (in college it had been The Dead Squirrel Society), he created another comprised of interns and clerks and other young workers.
It was called the Floyd McMullen Fire Brigade.
James Goulding, the senate reading and journal clerk, came up with the name. “Sen. Atkinson charged us with coming up with a name, and, knowing he was a history buff, I decided to look at Oregon history to find something appropriate,” he says. “This story of a young firefighter doing the best he could in an impossible situation just resonated.”
Together they would trade ideas and make better sense of the Capitol’s machinations. Atkinson even administered a test each session: “Agree or disagree: The 10 percent keeps the other 90 percent together.” It was a simple statement on an index card, and there was no wrong answer, he says. But after lectures and speech reviews and guest speakers, everyone had something to say about it.
Eventually, Atkinson began referring to individual members as “Floyds,” and it caught on. The Floyds, in solidarity, came up with lapel pins for each legislative session but wore them on the inside of their lapels, only to be flashed when another Floyd passed by.
Amusingly, the Floyd McMullen Fire Brigade went mostly unnoticed among the other lawmakers, even when it was right in front of them.
During announcements on the senate floor, for instance, Atkinson would throw in cryptic reminders that “the Floyd McMullen Fire Brigade will meet today at 2 p.m. in the secret lair,” and people would hardly pay attention.
Still, the group flourished, and by 2009 there really was a lair. A conference room near the secretary of the senate’s office — a tiny, spare, wood-hued space that seems at the same time regal and governmental — was officially renamed in honor of the fallen firefighter, and a modest tribute was tacked up on its north wall. There is now an old photo of the blaze engulfing the Capitol dome, a placard that gives a short description of the event and McMullen’s role, and a photo of the grass creeping over his old gravestone in Hermiston. The Floyds’ elusive pins are hung publicly in a row.
Despite the quiet with which the Floyds did their work, people gradually came to understand the appropriateness of the group. A spirit of reasonable debate echoed in its mission, however informally it was defined, and today McMullen’s family knows how his story was revived by a group of young people who wanted to consider the issues from all sides.
For Goulding, all of this says something about history itself. “It’s rare to study history and then come face-to-face with it,” he says. “It’s a great experience to encounter someone who could have ended up a footnote and see a legacy revived.
“It really makes you wonder, though: How many stories like this just disappear?”
Harry Hutton, chief of the Salem Fire Department, surveys the rubble, no doubt contemplating the loss of a man of “sterling worth.”
The Floyds, in solidarity, came up with lapel pins for each legislative session but wore them on the inside of their lapels, only to be flashed when another Floyd passed by.