Fire severely damages Union Pacific Dock on Seattle waterfront on July 17, 1929.

  • By Daryl C. McClary
  • Posted 6/18/2012
  • Essay 10095

On July 17, 1929, fire breaks out on the Union Pacific Dock on the Seattle waterfront, located at the site where container Terminal 46 was later developed. The fire damages the Union Pacific dock and endangers the Matson Navigation Company freighter SS Muana Ala and nearby piers. Two dock workers see wisps of smoke emanating from the bay end of the pier and rush to turn in the alarm. Other dock workers attempt to extinguish the fire, but are unsuccessful. Engine Company No. 14 is dispatched to the scene and arrives within minutes, but the pier and transit shed have burst into flames and rages out of control, casting a pall of black smoke over the city. The blaze soon escalates into a three-alarm fire involving 29 companies of firefighters and two fireboats. While battling the blaze, eight firefighters are injured, two requiring hospitalization. Fortunately, there are no fatalities. It is the most spectacular blaze to hit the Seattle waterfront since the fire that destroyed the Grand Trunk Pacific Dock on July 30, 1914.

A Dock on Fire

The Union Pacific Dock was built in 1917 by the Union Pacific Railroad at a cost of $350,000. It was located on Railroad Avenue (now Alaskan Way S) between King and Dearborn streets. The dock, perched upon some 5,000 creosoted pilings, was 600 feet long and 120 feet wide and accessible by water on three sides, providing more than 1,200 feet of berthing space. The transit shed, or warehouse, was covered with corrugated metal sheeting and equipped with a sprinkler system as protection against fire. In 1929, the Union Pacific Dock was headquarters of the Matson Navigation Company and its subsidiary, the Oceanic and Oriental Navigation Company.

At approximately 3:10 p.m. on Wednesday, July 17, 1929, a smoldering fire started on the northwest corner of the Union Pacific Dock. The fire, stoked by an on-shore breeze, spread rapidly to the transit shed. Dock workers Joseph Beaman and Wilfred G. Esswein spotted the smoke, ran to a fire box, and turned in the alarm. Four longshoremen, Edward C. Waller, William Baker, Charles Chase, and William Collins, loading cargo onto the Matson Line freighter SS Mauna Ala, grabbed fire extinguishers and attempt to extinguish the blaze, but it was too late.

Engine Company No. 14 was dispatched to the fire and immediately began laying hose lines toward the smoke emanating from the west end of the pier. The transit shed was fully involved by now and the fire was rapidly spreading underneath the pier behind them. Clouds of suffocating smoke forced the firefighters to withdraw from the dock, leaving the pumper engine behind. Battalion Chief Robert B. Rogers sent in second and third alarms, requesting all available apparatus be dispatched to the fire.

Fireboats to the Flames

Fireboats Duwamish and Alki immediately got underway from Fire Station No. 5, located on the waterfront at the foot of Madison Street, and headed toward the Union Pacific Dock. They were joined by Harbor Patrol Boat No. 1, manned by Officers Joseph O. Jewett and James A. Burns, with fire-fighting equipment onboard. The fireboats flanked the pier on either side and began streaming thousands of gallons of saltwater toward the transit shed.

The Duwamish, commanded by Captain Alexander J. LeCain, was stationed to the south to prevent the flames from spreading to the coal bunkers on the Pacific Coast Coal Company Dock (Pier 43). The Alki, commanded by Captain Carl Anderson, was stationed to the north of the pier to protect a cluster of buildings on the King Street Dock (Pier 45) and the Nelson Steamship Company Dock (Pier 46). Harbor Patrol Boat No. 1 moved around the perimeter, its monitors spraying the burning timbers and creosoted pilings beneath the dock.

Waller, Baker, Chase, and Collins had stayed to battle the blaze and were in grave danger, trapped on the bay end of the Union Pacific Dock. Captain Anderson spotted the men, maneuvered the Alki along side the pier and effected their rescue. Harbormaster Alexis A. Paysse, trapped in the dock office, jumped into Elliott Bay and was saved by Harbor Patrol Boat No. 1.

Grueling, Dangerous Work

The 421-foot, Matson Line freighter SS Mauna Ala was moored on the south side of the dock, loading cargo, when the fire broke out. As flames raced toward the ship, crew members cast off the mooring lines and attempted to drift her away from the inferno. But the heat was so intense that the port side of the freighter caught fire. The Washington Tug & Barge Company tugboat Monitor came to the Mauna Ala's rescue and towed her out into Elliott Bay, her upper works ablaze. Once away from the dock, the crew quickly extinguished the fire and Monitor moved her to the Todd Shipyard facility on Harbor Island.

The subsequent alarms brought out 23 engine companies, four ladder companies, two squad companies and Seattle Fire Chief George M. Mantor (1872-1954), who took command the operation. Shortly after the fire broke out, Seattle Police Chief Louis J. Forbes (1882-1947) arrived at the scene with every available officer in an effort to keep Railroad Avenue open for the movement of fire fighting apparatus. It was a daunting task as scores of vehicles and thousands of curious spectators flooded into the area to watch the spectacle at close range.

The fire in the transit shed was brought under control in approximately two hours. However, smoldering hot spots in the creosoted pilings and timbers below the pier proved exceedingly stubborn. Holes were opened in the decking to enable hoses with special nozzles to access the substructure. Firefighters in rowboats carried hose lines underneath the pier to douse the lingering flames. The fire was declared "tapped out" at about 7:00 p.m., after almost four hours of grueling, dangerous work. Several engine companies stayed on the dock until late at night to conduct mopping-up operations. Fireboats Alki and Duwamish and Harbor Patrol Boat No. 1 remained on station until 10:00 p.m. when fire department officials declared the danger of a flare-up had past.

Eight firefighters and one dock worker suffered injuries and smoke inhalation. Two firefighters required hospitalization, but fortunately there were no fatal injuries. Fire Inspector Frank Buck went into the burning warehouse with several other firefighters and was hit by a stream of water that sent him sprawling. Regaining his feet, Buck realized he had become separated from the group and was disoriented. He dropped onto the deck and tried to crawl out of the building, but his clothing caught fire. The other firefighters found Buck on the floor, unconscious, and carried him to safety. He was suffering from smoke inhalation and had severe burns on his back and legs. Firefighter Frank F. McNamee was knocked down by a stream of water from a fireboat monitor and suffered a dislocated shoulder, head lacerations, and smoke inhalation. Ambulances rushed both men to Providence Hospital, located on 17th Avenue between Spring and Madison streets, for medical attention. The other six injured fire fighters received treatment at City Emergency Hospital, at 4th Avenue and Yesler Way, and sent home to recuperate.

Investigators determined the fire that started on the northwest corner of the dock was caused by either a carelessly discarded cigarette or spontaneous combustion in a pile of trash. Damage to the Union Pacific Dock and cargo was estimated to be $1 million. It appeared as though the entire pier had been destroyed; however, an inspection revealed that much of the structure, although scorched, was sound. The contract for rebuilding the Union Pacific Dock was awarded to the General Construction Company of Seattle. All the corrugated metal sheeting on the exterior of the warehouse was removed and the damaged decking, upright support beams and roof trusses replaced. The south side of the dock was the most seriously damaged and required areas of new decking and the replacement of several timbers and pilings. Two weeks after the fire, ships were berthing on both sides of the dock. And within two months, the transit shed had been rebuilt and operations were back to normal.

The History of the SS Mauna Ala

The SS Mauna Ala (formerly the USS Canibas) was a 6,256-ton, 421-foot, single-screw, steel-hulled freighter built in 1918 by Texas Steamship Company in Bath, Maine, for the United States Shipping Board. After the fire on the Mauna Ala had been extinguished, the tugboat Monitor towed her to Todd Shipyard for repairs. Fire and water had damaged the pilot house, bridge, cargo booms and falls, but she was repaired, repainted, and ready to sail for Hawaii within two weeks. The freighter continued her regularly scheduled voyages to Hawaii until the beginning of America's active involvement in World War II (1941-1945).

On Sunday, December 7, 1941 the Mauna Ala was bound for Honolulu when she was ordered to return to the nearest United States port. The Japanese Navy had attacked Pearl Harbor and United States was at war. The Mauna Ala immediately put about and set course for Astoria, Oregon, at the mouth of the Columbia River. In accordance with wartime restrictions, the entire Pacific Coast had been blacked out, which included all aids to navigation and radio directional beacons. As the Mauna Ala approached the Oregon Coast on Wednesday night, December 10, her officers were unaware of the blackout and didn't know they weren't permitted to enter the Columbia River until daybreak. There was a light fog and the crew manning the bridge mistook a signal from an unidentified passing vessel for the lightship which marked the Columbia River's navigation channel, and steered east.

At approximately 7:00 p.m., the freighter grounded on Clatsop Spit, approximately four miles south of the Columbia River entrance. On Thursday morning, the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Onondaga (WPG-79) and tugboats from Astoria, Oregon, attempted to pull the Mauna Ala off the shoal at high tide, but she was hard aground. Stranded 700 feet from shore, the freighter slowly swung broadside in the heavy ground swells and began to take water and break up. Boats from the Coast Guard Lifeboat Station at Point Adams safely evacuated the 36-man crew, but the Mauna Ala and her 10,000 tons of cargo, which included 78,000 Christmas trees for the Hawaiian Islanders, became a total loss.

Union Pacific Dock Today

The Union Pacific Dock, redesignated in May 1944 as Pier 44, was acquired by the Port of Seattle in 1957 and demolished in 1961 by the General Construction Company. The Port of Seattle built a modern $6.5 million container freight terminal on waterfront areas formally occupied by Piers 44, 45 and 46. The new facility, designated Terminal 46, was completed and began receiving cargo in 1964.

Later, frontage utilized by Piers 37 through 43 was added to the freight terminal and those piers demolished. Today (2011), Terminal 46 is one of four large containerized-cargo facilities on the waterfront owned and operated by the Port of Seattle.

List of Injured

  • Melvin H. Adsen, firefighter, Engine Co. 14, smoke inhalatio
  • Frank Buck, Fire Inspector, SFD Headquarters, burns and smoke inhalation
  • Delmar H. Draper, firefighter, Engine Co., 14, smoke inhalation
  • William J. Elliott, , firefighter, Engine Co. 14, contusions and smoke inhalation
  • Glenn T. Lloyd, firefighter, Engine Co. 5, contusion
  • Joseph F. McNamee, firefighter, Engine Co. 14, dislocated shoulder, head lacerations, and contusion
  • William H. Payne, firefighter, Rescue Squad Co. No. 1, contusions
  • Robert B. Rogers, Battalion Chief, smoke inhalation
  • William J. Halligan, dock worker, contusions


Malcolm Francis Willoughby, The U.S. Coast Guard in World War II (Annapolis: United States Naval Institute, 1957) p. 112; "6 Injured When Blaze Hits Union Pacific Dock," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 18, 1929, p. 1; "Blaze Draws Throngs from City's 7 Hills," Ibid., July 18, 1929, p. 2; "Fireboats Give Thrill to Crowd," Ibid., July 18, 1929, p. 2; "Auto Police at Fire Praised," Ibid., July 18, 1929, p. 2; "Sidelights of Fire," Ibid., July 18, 1929, p. 2; "Oxygen Holds Life's Spark for Fireman," Ibid., July 19, 1929, p. 1; "New $1,000,000 U. P. Dock Will Replace Ruins," The Seattle Times, July 18, 1929, p. 1; "8 Firemen, Dock Worker Injured Battling Blaze," Ibid., July 18, 1929, p. 2; "Sparks from Fire," Ibid., July 18, 1929, p. 2; "Drastic Traffic Rules at Fires Urged by Chief," Ibid., July 18, 1929, p. 3; "Seattle Firm Is Given Contract to Rebuild Dock," Ibid., July 26, 1929, p. 2; "Ship On Clatsop Is Breaking Up," Ibid., December 12, 1941, p. 34; "Wreck Laid to Darkened Light," Ibid., December 12, 1941, p. 2; "Joint Use of Four Piers Being Studied," June 16, 1963, p. 14; "New Terminal to Open in November," Ibid., August 11, 1963, p. C7; "Matson Liner Breaking Up in Surf of Clatsop Beach," The Oregonian, December 12, 1941, p. 18; "Ship Officers Take Stand," Ibid., December 13, 1941, p. 3.
Note: This entry was corrected on July 18, 2018.

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