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Link to Web site for Wicked Portland: The Wild and Lusty Underworld of a Frontier Seaport Town z

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Offbeat Oregon History: Album cover art

Little-known hero of Silver Lake fire died saving dozens of lives

When the packed community center caught fire, Lucinda Schroder ran back inside and blocked the door open with her body, enabling dozens who otherwise would have been pinned and crushed against the closed door to escape.

Being a real hero has a lot to do with luck — bad luck.

After all, if everything is peaches and cream, a hero's services are not usually needed. It's only when something awful happens that ordinary people find themselves suddenly forced to make an extraordinary choice — to try to save themselves, or to try to save others.

Sometimes these heroes die and few others ever know what they really did.

And that's more or less what happened to the woman who was probably the most significant hero in the history of the community of Silver Lake.

Here's the story — much of which you'll already be familiar with if you've ever lived in central Oregon:

Downtown Silver Lake in the early 1920s.
Silver Lake area ranchers gather in downtown Silver Lake for their annual spring town clean-up in the
early 1920s. They graded and leveled streets and carted off debris left from the winter each year. (Photo: OSU
Archives) [Larger image: 1200 x 462]

Fire at the Christmas program

On Christmas Eve, 1894, nearly the entire population of Silver Lake and surrounding ranches was crammed into a 1,200-square-foot room above Chrisman Brothers Mercantile. There were a total of 175 to 200 people in the hall. The night was bitter cold — about 20 degrees below zero — but the room was nice and toasty. The "Christmas Tree Program" was being staged, starring the kids of the community and centering around a big Christmas tree piled with presents.


An interactive embedded Google Maps image of Silver Lake. [View
larger map
]

Benches made of planks perched on chunks of wood had been set up so audience members could sit down and watch. Around 8 p.m., one of the men in attendance got up to go outside and, finding his way blocked, hopped up on one of those benches to get around the crowd. As he made his way to the door, his head clipped one of the hanging kerosene lamps.

Burning oil sloshed out, covered the lamp and dripped to the floor. Fire surged to the ceiling.

The first of the evening's heroes leaped into action. Francis Chrisman, the owner of the place, leaped up and grabbed the lamp — remember, it was essentially a fireball at the time — and, ignoring the burning oil blistering his hands and arms, started for the exit with it.

But there were many people in the hall, and some of them were trying to do something too. People batted at Chrisman's arms with coats trying to smother the flames, knocking the lamp from his hands — where, of course, it emptied the rest of its oil onto the floor, burning fiercely, and there was no stopping the fire after that.

The worst possible exit layout

People started for the exit. But there was only one exit, and it was at the bottom of a narrow corridor with a door that opened inward. As panic rose in the room above, people at the top of the stairs started shoving, desperate to leave. The pressure threatened to force the door closed and pin people against it, like water fetching up against the check valve in a pump.

And that certainly would have happened were it not for the major hero of the evening, a woman named Lucinda Schroder. This intrepid woman, having escaped early, recognized the danger and forced her way up into the doorway, where she blocked the door open with her body, grabbing people as they came by and shoving them toward the street.

At least 100 people escaped from the blaze through the front door. Given how the exit was set up and the rising panic in the people still trapped inside, it's hard to imagine how more than a dozen or two of these lucky souls would have escaped without her help.

It's not clear how Schroder died. She may have been trampled to death. She may also have tried to go upstairs, into the burning building, thinking her husband was inside and hoping to help him get out — although she certainly couldn't have made any headway against the crush of people trying to come down the stairs, she might have gotten far enough along for the door to close behind her and seal her doom. In any event, survivors in the street at one point looked up and saw the door closed and no sign of her.

When the end came, the death toll was staggering in percentage terms. Out of a population in Silver Lake Valley of a little more than 200, 40 people were dead and another several dozen badly burned.

Another hero: Ed O'Farrell's all-night ride

By this time, another hero of the moment was already in action. Local cowboy Ed O'Farrell, well before the fire had burned out, was on his horse and galloping through the snow and freezing weather toward Lakeview, 100 miles away, to get Dr. Bernard Daly.

O'Farrell left well before midnight on Christmas eve and, after a 19-hour ride through snow that sometimes got quite deep, got to Lakeview at around 4 p.m. Christmas afternoon. One source reports that O'Farrell actually ruined the horse he was riding because he was pushing it so hard. Daly, within an hour, was on his way in a buggy pulled by the best horses in town. They stopped for fresh teams at Paisley and Summer Lake — O'Farrell had made the arrangements on the way — so Daly and O'Farrell were able to get back to Silver Lake in just 13 hours, arriving at 6 a.m.

Daly was able to save the lives of all but three of the burn victims. His quick action and success won him statewide recognition and a medical journal published his account of how he treated the victims.

After the fire

It was ten full years before the community of Silver Lake held another Christmas celebration. Almost every family in the town and surrounding ranches had lost at least one member.

Four years later, a monument was installed in the town's cemetery, commemorating those who died in the fire. Lucinda Schroder's name is on it, along with that of her two-year-old son Eston, who disobediently followed his mother back into the building when she went to block the door open.

By the way, it was Central Oregon journalist Melany Tupper who unearthed the story of Schroder's heroism; without her work, the story might have quietly disappeared into the archives of various small-town newspapers.

But then, given the way true heroes so often feel about their actions, that might have suited Lucinda Schroder just fine.

(Sources: Tupper, Melany. High Desert Roses: Significant Stories from Central Oregon. Fairfield, Calif.: 1stBooks, 2003; Jackman, E.R. & al. The Oregon Desert. Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton, 1964; Allen, Barbara. Homesteading the High Desert. Salt Lake City: Univ. of Utah Press, 1987)