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Seattle Public Library housed in Yesler mansion burns down on January 1, 1901.

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On January 1, 1901, The Seattle Public Library burns to the ground. The library, housed in the Yesler mansion, located in downtown Seattle on 3rd Avenue and James Street, loses 25,000 books. Saved are the circulating 5,000 books, and another 2,000 books salvaged from the children's room. The fire ignites the sympathy of Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919). The good fortune resulting seems to cast suspicion on certain loyal advocates of the library. Did they start the fire?

There had been a Seattle campaign to persuade the steel magnate and library philanthropist Andrew Carnegie to fund the Seattle library, but Carnegie had declined in 1899 because in his considered opinion Seattle was nothing more than a "hot air boom town."

Hot Air Boom Town Lucks Out

The New Year's Day fire along with Seattle's promise to contribute a site (the block bounded by 4th and 5th avenues and by Madison and Spring streets) plus $50,000 annually for maintenance turned Carnegie around. Five days after the fire, he promised $200,000 for a new central library building. He later contributed another $20,000 for furnishings.

Under these circumstances, certain loyal supporters of the library, particularly City Librarian Charles Wesley Smith, came under suspicion of arson. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer speculated:

"Now, we suspect that the man who had the strongest motive for a new library building has created the situation which brought about this gift. Mr. Smith, the librarian, has been complaining about his narrow quarters for a year. All the rest of us who have been in correspondence with Mr. Carnegie can prove an alibi. But Mr. Smith was certainly at the fire a few minutes after it started and it is a fair presumption that he was there a few minutes before" (quoted in Anderson, 9).

The question of who or what started the fire was never settled.

Paul Dorpat with Chris Goodman, "Times and Tomes Past: A Pictorial History of the Seattle Public Library," in Magic Lantern, Galleries Library (www.historylink.org); Judy Anderson, Gail Lee Dubrow, and John Koval, The Library Book: A Good Book for a Rainy Day (Seattle: Seattle Arts Commission, 1991), 7-10.

Travel through time (chronological order):
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Special Suite: The Seattle Public Library |

Related Topics: Education | Society | Buildings |

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Entrance, The Seattle Public Library, in former Yesler mansion, Seattle, 1899
Courtesy The Seattle Public Library

Seattle City Hall and the Yesler Mansion at intersection of 3rd and Jefferson, Seattle, ca. 1896

Wreckage following fire, The Seattle Public Library, formerly Yesler mansion, January 2, 1901
Courtesy The Seattle Public Library (Image No. shp_15229)

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