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Jolly Roger restaurant burns in arson fire on October 19, 1989.

HistoryLink.org Essay 3481 : Printer-Friendly Format

On October 19, 1989, the Jolly Roger restaurant, located at 8721 Lake City Way (formerly Bothell Way) burns in an arson fire. Built in 1929, the building in its early years was home to a gambling den, illegal bar, and bordello. Originally named the China Castle, it was renamed the Jolly Roger in the 1930s, and became a popular dancehall and restaurant. It was designated a Seattle Historic Landmark in 1979.

The fire was somewhat suspicious, but police had neither motive nor suspects. Investigators were not able to determine how the arsonist got inside past a burglar alarm, with no signs of forced entry.

At the time, the building was owned by Denchai Sae-Eal, who was entangled in legal and financial red tape with the previous owner, Yeong Huei Wen. Wen was in the building removing his possessions the day before the fire.

The fire began after midnight in the cluttered basement, but didn't spread upstairs until after 6 a.m. When firefighters arrived, an Asian man directed them to the basement. He seemed so sure of where the fire began that they assumed he was an employee. After the fire was extinguished, the man could not be found. The owners stated that he was not an employee.

Not Your Ordinary Roadhouse

The building was built in 1929 as the China Castle. From the outside it was just another roadhouse, but within lay a den of iniquity with illegal booze, gambling, and prostitution readily available. The tower on top of the structure was used to spot police cars, which could be seen approaching from miles away. In case of a police raid, tunnels were dug beneath the structure, which ran to adjacent lots.

One year after the fire, preservation activists sought to have the structure rebuilt. Before their efforts got off the ground, the building was hastily demolished on January 11, 1991, obviating its appeal.

"Speakeasy? Jolly Roger's Shady Past Still A Mystery," The North Seattle Press, January 9, 1991, p. 1; "Burning Questions Persist," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 30, 1990, pp. B-1, B-5; "Wrecker Flattens Jolly Roger's Charred Remnant," The Seattle Times, January 12, 1992, p. B-1.

Travel through time (chronological order):
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Jolly Roger menu, ca. 1940
Courtesy UW Special Collections (MEN036)

Architect's rendering of the Jolly Roger Tavern, 1933
Drawing by Gerald Field

The Jolly Roger after the fire, 1989
Courtesy North Seattle Press

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