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Imagination stoked by past as much as future

Forest Grove hotel was a hot spot, literally and figuratively, a century ago


Flip through Ken Bilderback's books, scan his Facebook page or listen to his community-access TV shows on pioneer cemeteries and you'll find the same thing over and over: Fascinating, quirky, poignant stories of western Washington County's past.

You'll learn that Tofurky was invented at Dundee Lodge in Gaston, for example, or that 40 years ago, a grieving Glenwood man used a delivery van to start a volunteer first-aid service for the remote area after his granddaughter died in an accident at his home.

A former journalist, Bilderback and his wife (and fellow history sleuth), Kris Bilderback, are cranking out local-history books and programs at a furious rate.

The Gaston couple has already published two books on western Washington County history and will release a third next month, with two more planned.

We at the News-Times think the Bilderbacks deserve a broader audience for their intriguing material. With this issue, we will be offering their regular, every-other-week column, "Now and Then."

Today's piece features a timely look at one of Forest Grove's most controversial properties, which faces some momentous decisions over the next few months.

For more on the Bilderbacks and their books, including excerpts and purchase information, visit kenbilderback.com. Post comments or questions after the story on our Facebook page or send them to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

--Jill Rehkopf Smith

by: COURTESY PHOTO: KEN BILDERBACK - Ken and Kris Bilderback debut a new history column in the News-Times today.Imagine gliding along Pacific Avenue in downtown Forest Grove in a light-rail streetcar to the block where the abandoned Times Litho building now stands, then rounding the tracks onto A Street, where the streetcar lets you off at the steps of the largest and most modern hotel in Washington County. Entering the lobby, you see many of the city’s leading citizens, stopping for lunch at the hotel’s restaurant, the finest in town.

Today the city is looking for ideas to redevelop that block, which it purchased earlier this year, but the scenario above is not a vision of the block’s future. Instead, it is a glimpse of the lot’s storied past, more than a century ago.

The Hotel Laughlin was the dream of Bedford Laughlin, who made a fortune selling horses to dreamers headed to the Alaska Gold Rush. It was built in 1904 with hand-hewn timber from the banks of Gales Creek and quickly became the focal point of Forest Grove high society.

The hotel welcomed weary travelers visiting Pacific University or stopping to rest on their way from Portland to McMinnville on the Southern Pacific Railroad. It played host to countless wedding banquets, civic meetings, and other gala local events. When the town wanted to honor the first Forest Grove boys to enlist in World War I with the grandest send-off imaginable, a white tablecloth luncheon at the Laughlin was the obvious choice.

The Hotel Laughlin made headlines for less glamorous reasons as well. It was the scene of two of Forest Grove’s larger commercial fires, just a few months apart. The first was described in the November 12, 1914, Washington County News-Times, written in the reporting style of the day: “The fire bell aroused many sleepy denizens of Forest Grove from their flowery beds of ease Monday morning about 6:30 o’clock,” the story began. “Laughlin Hotel was on fire and quick strokes of the fire bell brought Forest Grove’s gallant volunteer fire department to the scene in short order, and the boys soon had three great streams of water plying on the maddening flames, quickly bringing them into subjugation, but not before the splendid three-story hotel was practically ruined, the whole upper story being burned off ...”

Laughlin vowed to rebuild. Within three months, reconstruction was nearly complete. But then tragedy struck again when another blaze swept through the structure. This time there was no doubt that the cause was arson, but the arsonist was never found.

Another frantic rebuilding effort began, and in April the News-Times ran a Page 1 story announcing the hotel’s grand reopening. On the same page was a story about the mysterious disappearance of L.O. Roark, the hotel’s previous manager, who had left town after the first fire. Later that summer, the News-Times carried another Page 1 story about Roark, this one from New York, where Roark had appeared and captivated East Coast reporters with grand tales of how he had been shanghaied to Peru.

By the time World War I ended, the saga of the Hotel Laughlin's troubles had faded. So had its status as a premier streetcar stop, as automobiles overtook trains and streetcars as the favored means of transportation. In 1922, Bedford Laughlin sold the property to new owners, who renamed it the Hotel Oregon.

The Hotel Oregon survived until 1959, when it burned again, this time intentionally, to clear the block to build the Times Litho printing plant. There’s nothing left of the fabled Hotel Laughlin — no signs that this block, which the city hopes will be the centerpiece of a rejuvenated downtown, already held that distinction a century ago.

This story is excerpted in part from the soon-to-be released "Walking to Forest Grove: The life and times of the prettiest town in Oregon," by Ken and Kris Bilderback.



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