A novel by George Byron Wright
On August 7, 1959, at 1:14 a.m., a truckload of explosives blows up, gutting twelve square blocks of downtown Roseburg, Oregon. Ross Bagby stands at the edge the conflagration unaware that his so-called life has also just gone up in the flames. Ross’s often humiliating marriage to the granddaughter of timber baron Jonah Armbruster is already an exercise of placid endurance.
But when war hero Colonel Gordon Butler McKenzie, the figurehead director of the Armbruster charitable foundation, is with the wrong woman when the town explodes, Ross inherits complications he could never have imagined. A piece of shrapnel puts the Colonel in a coma and Ross, as his assistant, is appointed to replace him. Things immediately get messy when a belligerent board member accuses Ross of embezzling foundation funds.
While Ross vents his denial of the theft, the woman the Colonel was with turns up pregnant. Things darken further when Ross receives anonymous letters decrying the sexual exploitation of vulnerable women by men in positions of influence. The desperate letters are pleas for Ross to act on their behalf, to make the abuse go away so the women can have their lives back. Along with his own infatuation with a young waitress, Ross faces layers of adversity such as he has never known. In the days ahead, he will discover what he’s made of.
Behind the story
When I was ten years old, we moved to Roseburg in 1950 where my father went to work for the then Long & Orr Mortuary. Little could we have known that the mortuary, where I lived with my parents and younger brother in an upstairs apartment, would be hit by an axle spindle from an exploding powder truck seven years after our family had moved away in 1952. And yet my memories of the town have stayed with me, along with the shock our family felt when at 1:14 a.m. on August 7, 1959, the town in which we had once lived exploded. One family friend, William Unrath, owner of the Coca-Cola Bottling plant, was among those killed.
In 1947, our family moved from The Dalles, Oregon, my birthplace, so my father could begin his career as a mortician in Baker City. Then we moved on to Tillamook for a short time before moving to Roseburg where my father worked for Long & Orr Mortuary.
For years, I have been fascinated by shocking events and how they can change lives almost immediately. In each of the OREGON TRIO novels, painful events turn fictional characters’ realities around because something out of their control has plowed into their lives. In ROSEBURG 1959, at the time of the blast, a man readers will know as Ross Bagby stands at the edge of the conflagration unaware that his so-called life is about to go up in the flames. The story involves a local charitable foundation, a lumber empire, accusations of embezzlement all wrapped up in the travails of a man caught in the turmoil of the missing funds, a comatose local war hero wounded in the blast, abuses of power and decency and his own struggling marriage. But all the while, Roseburg is picking itself up determined to become whole again.
I spent several years researching ROSEBURG 1959, making many trips back to the town, walking and driving the streets, accessing the archives of the Douglas County Museum of Natural & Cultural History, the Douglas County Library’s records, and the News-Review’s blast retrospectives of 1994 and 1999. I also interviewed a number of persons who lived in Roseburg at the time of the blast and several others who had special knowledge that I needed for specific points of accuracy. I gave great attention to the facts of the blast and the culture of the town in 1959 so that while this is a novel I hope it has the ring of truth to it.
The Roseburg explosion is still a well-known episode in Oregon’s history, even 48 years later. Wherever I am, when the subject matter of my Roseburg novel comes up, I’ve been amazed by how often there is someone present who grew up in the town, was living there at the time of the blast or has friends or relatives who lived in Roseburg at the time.
Excerpt: The Prologue
Before the last floating piece of glass hit the ground in the early morning hours, Roseburg was a flash point broadcast around the world. Headlines from Los Angeles to Okinawa shouted that on August 7, 1959, in a place called Roseburg, Oregon, there had been a horrific explosion; people were dead, the town mangled. Within days, Movietone newsreels confirmed those headlines across the nation. The town that had been a town since 1852, was on its knees but unbowed. Now, instead of being known for having the largest reserve of uncut timber in the U.S. and for having the most logging employment of any county in America, Roseburg was the town that blew up. Fifty-eight percent of Douglas County’s residents worked in the woods and in the mills, but the visiting curious only saw the ugly hole in the ground. On the way back to where they came from, they dodged hurtling log trucks as numerous as taxis in New York City, but they just talked of the pungency of death and destruction. Roseburg was now famous for being maimed.
The powder truck had driven innocently into town on Thursday night and parked on Pine Street in front of Gerretsen Building & Supply. Signs on all sides of its aluminum body spelled out Explosives in five-inch-high letters. The bright red van carried a cocktail of dynamite and a blasting agent made up of ammonium nitrate pellets, ground walnut shells, and diesel oil; ten thousand pounds in all. But it was late; the dangerous cargo would be delivered to the powder magazine outside of town the next morning. The driver of the truck went to the Umpqua Hotel and to bed. While he slept fitfully, the Gerretsen building caught fire, the sirens screamed, the heat grew, and his red truck exploded.
In the days following, Roseburg became the subject of official study and public preoccupation. Curiosity seekers flooded in by car, planes flew over, and the streets were crowded with those wanting to see the disaster firsthand.
With the ceaseless sound of circling aircraft overhead, an entourage soon arrived from the state capital led by Oregon’s young governor in his summer-weight suit. A delegation consisting of the mayor, the police chief, the commander of the National Guard, and the news media trailed along with the man. They climbed over debris, inhaled the foul air, and stood above the bomb crater. They looked in, pursed their lips, and shook their heads, then said, My oh my. The governor encouraged people to support Roseburg’s recovery. He was sincere, and everyone was photographed.
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