Early on Tuesday, June 7, 1904, fire believed to be caused by arson destroys a block of Lynden’s business district. Only the quick action of Lynden citizens, fighting the fire with buckets and hand-held fire extinguishers, prevents the fire from spreading and devouring the entire business district. Damage is estimated at between $13,000 and $15,000 (in 1904 dollars), only part of which is insured, but rebuilding begins immediately. It remains one of the worst fires in Lynden’s history.
Fear of Fire
Lynden in 1904 was a small but growing Whatcom County town of somewhere between 500 and 1,000 souls; the Dutch had begun arriving during the preceding few years and were contributing to the growth of the young community. But there was trouble brewing. During the winter of 1903-1904 two fires had been deliberately set in the business district of Lynden. Although these fires had been extinguished with little or no damage, no one had been caught and some of Lynden’s citizens were still on edge, fearing the firebug would strike again.
And strike he did, in the pre-dawn hours of June 7, 1904. Those investigating the cause of the fire could not determine how it started but found evidence that was “suspicious” and thus concluded the fire was deliberately set. It was established that the fire started in a two-story fraternal hall that was under construction on the north end of Front Street just west of 3rd Street. (The lodge rooms on the second floor were nearly completed by the time of the fire, but parts of the first floor remained under construction.) Henry Lapidus, a shoemaker, lived across the street, next to the Lynden House. The Pacific Pilot reported that Lapidus had been “somewhat nervous” about fires after the two fires the preceding winter -- which both started in the exact same block as the June 1904 fire -- “and for this reason possibly his light slumbers were disturbed. When he looked out his front window he discovered fire in the large Fraternal Hall” (The Pacific Pilot, June 9, 1904, p. 1).
Lynden Fights Back
Lapidus woke others up and soon a large group of people were fighting the fire as well as removing what goods they could from the businesses and homes adjacent to the burning fraternal hall. Meanwhile the local telephone exchange went to work calling everyone in town who had phones, alerting them to the danger and summoning help. Men, women, and even children came because the town needed all the help it could get -- in 1904 Lynden did not have a fire department, nor did it have a public water source.
People fought the fire with buckets of water hauled from whatever source was available. One story has persisted over the years that puddles in the street served as a water supply, with volunteers in a bucket brigade passing buckets of water to fight the conflagration. There were also a few hand-held fire extinguishers used to battle the blaze. Despite the volunteer’s efforts, the fire quickly consumed the entire north side of the block between 3rd and 4th streets, taking out the three-story Williams Hotel, Kildall Mercantile Company (which was full of merchandise and farm implements), F. W. Bixby’s law office, E. C. Robinson’s saloon, the fraternal hall and several other shops and homes.
Citizens were more successful in keeping the fire contained to the north end of the block between 3rd and 4th streets. This turned out to make a huge difference, because the fire menaced the south end of the block, which housed several important businesses, including the town hall and the town’s telephone company. An even more serious threat came when the fire threatened to jump over 4th Street and take out another block full of businesses west to 5th Street. Had the fire spread to these two blocks -- particularly the block west of 4th Street-- most of Lynden’s business district would have been destroyed.
Rebuilding the Burned Blocks
By late morning the fire was out, the smoke had cleared, and the entire north end of the block between 3rd and 4th streets was nothing but rubble. Though there were no injuries reported, damage totaled between $13,000 and $15,000, only part of it insured. But rebuilding was underway by the afternoon of June 7. A group of men banded together and rebuilt a destroyed blacksmith shop that was the sole source of income to its recently widowed owner, Mary Fritz. Others who could not work made donations to the cause. By the next afternoon the new building was ready for business, and the rest of the burned-out block soon followed with new construction.
The arsonist was not caught, but Lyndenites learned their lesson from what today (2007) remains one of the worst fires in Lynden’s history. Early in 1906 the town bought two Mix Chemical fire engines, and the following year the town approved bonding for a water system. By 1910 both a fire department and a water district were in place in Lynden.