Spokane's Great Fire

  • By Laura Arksey
  • Posted 3/20/2006
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 7682
Most of downtown Spokane (then known as Spokane Falls) was destroyed by fire on August 4, 1889. The conflagration broke out in an area of flimsy wooden structures and quickly spread to engulf the substantial stone and brick buildings of the business district. Property losses were huge and one person died. After the fire, Spokane experienced the "phoenix effect" typical of many cities destroyed by fire, as fine new buildings of a revitalized downtown rose from the ashes. Accounts of the fire's origin and assignment of blame for its catastrophic expansion illustrate how historical myths begin and are perpetuated.

Smoke and Fire

The summer of 1889 had been hot and dry. On the afternoon of August 4, Adelaide Sutton Gilbert (1849-1932) complained in a letter from nearby Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, of temperatures in the nineties "for ever so long" and "dense smoke from fires all over Northwest" (Nolan, 13). Shortly after 6:00 that evening, the Spokane fire began. The most credible and enduring story of its origin is that it started at Wolfe's lunchroom and lodgings opposite the Northern Pacific Depot on Railroad Avenue. The Spokane Daily Chronicle of August 5 reported:

"About half past six smoke was seen issuing from the third story gable window of Wolfe's lunch counter. ... The lower part of the establishment is used as a saloon, and the upper part, like most of the buildings in that locality, is used as a lodging house. As near as can be now ascertained, the fire was caused by the explosion of a gasoline lamp in the upper room referred to."
Other immediate newspaper accounts attributed the origin to a grease fire in Wolfe's notoriously dirty kitchen. This plausible interpretation has appeared most often in subsequent publications. Years later, Jerome Peltier collected "eyewitness accounts as well as legends of how the fire started" (Peltier, 19). All agreed on the general location, but varied widely as to the cause, including one assertion that it was a cigarette tossed into dry grass. Another story making the rounds was that the lamp that exploded in the upstairs room had been knocked over as "Irish Kate" fended off a drunken admirer.

The Fire Spreads

The flames raced through the flimsy buildings near the tracks. The nearby Pacific Hotel, a fine new structure of brick and granite, was soon engulfed in the wall of fire advancing on the business center. Church and fire station bells alerted the public and the volunteer fire department, which had formed in 1884 as the result of an 1883 fire. Because of insufficient water pressure for the hoses, they were unable to put out the fire. Spokane was no frontier town composed entirely of makeshift wooden structures, but the fire did start in such an area, where rubbish between buildings provided ideal tinder.

The fire consumed that part of the city and then moved on. "In quick succession the magnificent Frankfurt block, the Hyde block, the Washington, Eagle, Tull and Post Office blocks were feeding the flames. Besides the Pacific Hotel, every first class hotel was destroyed" (Chronicle, August 5).

Daniel H. Dwight's Desk

Daniel H. Dwight (1862-1950) was typical of the many people who raced from home to remove contents of their businesses ahead of the flames. A letter describes the futile efforts to save his office in the Opera House:

"Before this time May & I were downtown & and we hurried down to the block and I got tubs from the grocery store and put one at each window in the Opera House and filled them with water and stationed a man with a broom at each tub and window to keep the [fourth floor] window frames wet. ... May stood bravely by one with her broom & water. By this time the flames were down to Sprague St. and spreading rapidly. The chief of the fire department now began to blow up the buildings with dynamite ahead of the fire to try to stop it. ... A few minutes more and our glass began to crack & I had to order May downstairs and out of the building to get her away from danger. ... with one great burst the flames jumped through the Opera House windows and also leaped to the roof on the outside. ... I ... seized my antique oak desk and dragged it out [of his office] for it contained all my receipts and papers. I hauled it down the stairs but just as I got to the Opera House entrance the smoke & flames whirled round the corner and swept into the doorway with such blinding force that I had to let go of everything ... and run for my life" (Nolan, 24-26).

Firestorm

The flames jumped the spaces opened by dynamiting and soon created their own firestorm. In a few hours after it began, the Great Spokane Fire, as it came to be called, had destroyed 32 square blocks, virtually the entire downtown. The only fatality was George I. Davis, who died at Sacred Heart Hospital of burns and injuries when he fled (or jumped) from his lodgings at the Arlington Hotel.

Many others were treated at the hospital, where the nuns served meals to the newly homeless boardinghouse dwellers, mostly working men, plus others referred to in newspapers as the "sporting element." Estimates of property losses ranged from $5 to $10 million, an enormous sum for the time, with one-half to two-thirds of it insured.

Recovery

Some of Spokane's leading citizens immediately formed a relief committee, and other cities donated food, supplies, and money. Even Seattle, just recovering from its own disastrous fire of June 6, sent $15,000. The National Guard was brought in to assure public order, to guard bank vaults and business safes standing amid the ruins, and to prevent looting. Mayor Fred Furth issued dire warnings against price gauging. Unemployed men immediately found work clearing the debris, and any who declined the opportunity were invited to leave town.

Businesses resumed in a hastily erected tent city. They included insurance adjusters, railroad ticket offices, banks, restaurants, clothing stores, and even a tent in which the Spokane Daily Chronicle carried on publication. The disaster did not bring out the best in some: One policeman and two aldermen (council members) were caught appropriating relief money and supplies.

Like many western cities devastated by fire, Spokane Falls rebuilt rapidly after the disaster. Within a year its population had risen to 20,000, a threshold that allowed the city to adopt a charter. In March 1891 voters approved the new charter, including an article that changed the city's name from Spokane Falls to Spokane.

Blame Placed and Replaced

Earliest newspaper accounts contained only one explanation for the weak water pressure and failure to check the flames: that Superintendent of Waterworks Rolla A. Jones was away fishing or working on his steamboat -- accounts vary -- instead of tending his post, and that he had left the pumping station in the care of an incompetent substitute. S. S. Bailey of the City Council claimed to have run "to the pumping station as soon as the alarm was sounded and found that Superintendent Jones had left a man in charge there, who, by his own admission, was totally incompetent to handle the machinery, not knowing how to increase the speed of the pumps" (Spokane Falls Review, August 6, 1889) Other papers as far away as The New York Times repeated this story almost verbatim.

To its credit, the City Council quickly appointed a Committee on Fire and Water to explore all possible reasons for the failure. Its report on August 14 exonerated Jones, but he resigned anyway. Refuting newspaper accounts, their report stated: "It appears that the man left in charge of [the] pumping station during the absence of Supt. Jones is competent and reliable and of twenty years of practical experience in machinery and pumps ... ."

The committee attributed the failure of water pressure to a burst hose rather than dereliction of duty and further reported that some members felt "bad management on the part of the fire department should be considered as the main cause of such an extensive conflagration" (Nolan, 50). A Chronicle editorial of August 6 agreed: "The need of a good paid department is evident. It should be one of the first things provided for when the city gets on its feet." Although this official interpretation of events was made known, Jones's culpability was already firmly lodged in the public mind and has been repeated in publications ever since.

Other factors besides weak water pressure contributed to the extent of the disaster. No doubt lingering smoke from forest fires delayed widespread awareness of the fire. The blaze started in a trash-ridden area of flimsy wooden structures. There was no citywide siren system. The pumping station had no telephone. The volunteer firefighters had inadequate leadership, were poorly equipped, and had to haul their own hose carts. After the fire, the city prohibited wooden structures in or near the newly rising downtown, installed an electric fire alarm system, and established a professional, paid fire department, with horse-drawn equipment.

Myths of History

Although they corrected these problems, city fathers may have been less than zealous about dispelling the Jones story. Gina Hames analyzed the Spokane fire from the perspective of historical myth-making, and concluded: "

Taking the blame for a disaster the size of Spokane's could have meant political and social ruin for these civic leaders." And the people of Spokane "wanted a simple answer. ... They, like most people, wanted simplicity ... to be able to vent their anger in a single direction, rather than rationally discerning that the fault actually lay with no one entity. Even historians can fall into this trap of 'monocausation' -- finding a single, simple explanation published in the earliest accounts and then repeating it indefinitely thereafter"(Hames, 15, 16).


Sources: N. W. Durham, History of the City of Spokane and Spokane County Vol. 1 (Spokane: S. J. Clarke Publishing, 1912), 415-419; Jonathan Edwards, An Illustrated History of Spokane County, State of Washington (Spokane: W. H. Lever, 1900), 61-64; Lucile F. Fargo, Spokane Story (Minneapolis: The Northwestern Press, 1957), 164-167; Gina Hames, "Spokane Fire: Myth and Reality" (unpublished typescript, n.d., Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture, RE SC 50); Edward W. Nolan, "A Night of Terror, Devastation, Suffering and Awful Woe: The Spokane Fire of 1889," (Spokane: Eastern Washington State Historical Society, 1989); Jerome A. Peltier, "The Great Spokane Fire of 1889," Pacific Northwesterner, Vol. 15, No. 2 (Spring 1971), 17-27; Everett Sandburg, "Fall Guy in the Great Fire of 1889," Pacific Northwesterner, Vol. 25, No. 2 (Spring 1981), 30-32; Spokane Daily Chronicle, various issues beginning August 5, 1889; Spokane Falls Review, various issues beginning August 5, 1889; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Spokane Falls (later renamed Spokane) is incorporated as a first-class city on November 29, 1881" (by Laura Arksey), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed April 16, 2015).
Note: This essay was revised on April 16, 2015.

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