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Seattle's Great Fire
HistoryLink.org Essay 715
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On June 6, 1889, at 2:45 p.m., a man named John E. Back inadvertently started a fire in the basement of a downtown building at the southwest corner of Madison Street and Front Street (later renamed 1st Avenue). By prompting new development and construction, this fire, remembered as the Great Fire, ironically transformed Seattle from a town to a city.
By the following morning, the fire had burned down 29 square city blocks of wooden buildings and about 10 brick buildings, including practically the entire business district, all but four of the city’s wharves, and its railroad terminals. Somehow no one died, but it was reported that a million rats were consumed in the flames.
The fire started in Clairmont and Company cabinet shop, located in the basement of the wooden Pontius building at 922 Front Street at the southwest corner of its intersection with Madison Street. Five men were working in the cabinet shop including John E. Back, age 24, described as a “short, thick-set blonde of mediocre intelligence.” Back arrived in the United States from Sweden in 1887 and moved to Seattle in October 1888.
Great Balls of Fire
Back is referred to as "Berg" in the following first-hand account by a Mr. Kittermaster, a Clairmont employee, published in the June 21 and 22, 1889, editions of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:
"There were five of us in the room. Mr. Kirchener, Charley Stoll, an old Swede named Berg [sic, John E. Back], a young Swede from New York and myself [Mr. Kittermaster]. At the first alarm I was about forty feet away with my back toward the stove. As I turned to look back it [a glue pot on a stove] was blazing right up, and I saw Berg seize a pail of water to throw upon it. I shouted for him not to do it, but the ignorant Swede seemed excited and danced about with the pail before he dashed the water. I rushed to a corner to get my coat, intending to throw it over the burning glue and keep the air out; but the instant water touched the material everything in the shop was in a blaze and the smoke was so dense that I had difficulty to get out."
The following day John E. Back was located and interviewed by a Post-Intelligencer reporter. He stated that while working in the cabinet shop:
"I cut some balls of glue and put them in the glue pot on the stove … [and] went to work about twenty-five feet away, near the front door. After a while somebody said ‘Look at the glue.’ Another fellow, a Findlander from New York, then took a piece of board and laid it on to smother the glue, but the board caught fire. Then I run and took the pot of water to smother the fire and poured it over the pot of glue, which was blazing up high. When I throw the water on, the glue flew all over the shop into the shavings and everything take fire."
Apparently, shortly after the interview, John Back left Seattle.
A Horrible Black Smudge
The fire destroyed buildings in the following areas: From King Street N to Yesler Way and James Street west of 4th Avenue S to Yesler Way (later renamed 3rd Avenue S) and 3rd Avenue; From Yesler Way and James Street north to Spring Street west of 2nd Avenue; University Street north to Spring Street west of Front Street (later renamed 1st Avenue). British poet Rudyard Kipling happened to be touring Puget Sound at the time, and arrived in Seattle by steamer shortly after the fire. He described the remains as “a horrible black smudge, as though a Hand had come down and rubbed the place smooth. I know now what being wiped out means.”
The day after the fire, there was a citizen’s meeting that voiced the nearly unanimous sentiment that in the business district streets should be widened and "fireproof" brick buildings be required. Mayor Robert Moran and the city council concurred, but took two weeks to work out the details and approve an ordinance. Building commenced immediately, and the buildings were made of brick and stone. One month after the fire, voters approved funding for a city-owned water system, which would ultimately tap the Cedar River.
Within a year Seattle’s population jumped from 25,000 to 43,000. A city was born.
James R. Warren, The Day Seattle Burned June 6, 1889 (Seattle: James R. Warren, 1989), 17-29.
Note: Many authoritative histories of Seattle erroneously ascribe the Great Fire's start to James McGough's paint shop on the floor above Clairmont's workshop at 1st Avenue and Madison Street, based on initial newspaper reports. McGough protested his innocence, and the Post-Intelligencer published a correction and a detailed interview with John Back on June 21, 1889. Despite this, historians and journalists repeated the error for nearly a century until historian James Warren noticed the correction and, in his 1989 monograph The Day Seattle Burned, shifted the point of origin to Clairmont's shop. This essay was expanded on June 20, 2006.
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Ruins of the Great Seattle Fire, June 6, 1889, looking east on Yesler Way from Railroad Avenue
Ruins of the Great Seattle Fire, June 6, 1889
Commercial Street (1st Avenue S) following the Great Fire, June 6, 1889 (Dexter Horton bank on right)
Post-1889 fire construction
Courtesy Paul Dorpat
John Back, ca. 1885, who accidentally started the Great Seattle Fire of 1889
Courtesy Karen Johnson, Fort Dodge, IA, and Nordic Heritage Museum