Most of Whatcom's business district is destroyed by fire (but most of the town's liquor supply is saved) on May 20, 1885.

  • By Phil Dougherty
  • Posted 7/15/2013
  • Essay 10424

On May 20, 1885, an arsonist lights a fire that destroys most of the business district of the town of Whatcom (Whatcom County).  But all is not lost:  Those fighting the fire save most of the town's liquor supply.

Spirits First 

The town of Whatcom's beginnings date to December 1852, when Henry Roeder (1824-1902) and Russell Peabody (ca. 1820-1868) arrived and established a lumber mill on Whatcom Creek. It was the first American settlement at what became the city of Bellingham 50 years later.  

Like most western frontier towns of the nineteenth century, most of Whatcom's buildings were built of wood. People probably gave it scant thought until the early morning hours of May 20, 1885. About 1:30 a.m., fire erupted in an oil shed in the rear of Steinweg's store at 14th and C streets. Men raced to the scene to battle the blaze and help in whatever way they could, but the fire began to spread to adjacent buildings.  Then several explosions rocked Steinweg's store, sending timbers flying and firefighters scattering. 

The flames soon reached Division Street, engulfed the buildings on both sides of the street, and began to spread toward 15th Street. (Division Street ran between today's [2013] C and D streets and Astor and Dupont streets in Bellingham, and in the mid-1880s was the heart of Whatcom's business district.) Before long it was apparent that the entire block was going to burn.

The men of Whatcom knew what they had to do. They raced into the saloons and hastily hauled their contents -- jugs, bottles, and barrels of liquor -- out to safety. The Washington Hotel, with a well-stocked bar, likewise received the prompt attention of the rescuers. Some rescuers bypassed other burning buildings (including a law office, where attorney James de Mattos (1854-1929), former mayor of Whatcom -- and future mayor of Bellingham -- was frantically trying to save his law books), until they had saved as much of the threatened alcohol as they could. 

Then all gave their full attention to the fire. Bellingham Bay was near and the tide was in, but it didn't make much difference. The men formed a bucket brigade and (with frequent pit stops at the booze stash) valiantly fought the inferno, but the fire continued to grow. Soon it was menacing more saloons. This, however, was not a problem. The firefighters again sallied to the rescue of the endangered spirits inside.  As they hauled out their booty they sampled a sip or two -- or maybe three -- before returning to the fiery battle. 

Leaping Gnomes 

Lelah Jackson Edson, writing about the fire more than 60 years later, provided this vivid description:  

"The story of the conflagration is reminiscent of a minor scene from Dante. Through the night shadowy figures toiled away from the leaping flames from the saloons with bottles and barrels of intoxicants. Gnome-like they circled their treasure, imbibed deeply, then leaped back to rescue more whiskey. Or perhaps they lurched to the bucket-line" (Edson, 218).  

The hot fire created a breeze that carried burning embers far and wide. A few landed on the roofs of other buildings away from the main fire and started new fires. Here the firefighters caught a break. The roofs were damp from recent rains, and they were able to successfully quell these spot fires. As a result, they may have prevented the entire town from burning down.  

Finally the men dynamited a building owned by Pardon O'Brien, creating a fire break; with no more fresh fuel, the fire burned itself out about 4:30 a.m. Seventeen buildings, representing most the business district of downtown Whatcom, were destroyed or damaged. But the firefighters were successful in preventing the fire from crossing 15th Street, which allowed a few buildings in the little district to survive. (One was a saloon.) Fortunately, there were no serious injuries or fatalities. 

The firefighters adjourned to the barrels and bottles to lift their spirits.  Suggestions that they call it quits and go home were rebuffed. William H. Harris, a county probate judge who witnessed the affair, wryly observed that "It was a strange co-incidence that nearly every attendant at the fire had a cup and a cork-screw with him -- rescued from a burning store" (Edson, 219). Finally the firefighters faded away, exhausted from the night's labors, leaving a lone watchman to guard the remains of the liquor. Though what was left survived safely, the buckets and other equipment used to fight the fire almost all disappeared. 

Arson was quickly established as the fire's cause. There were suspects, but no arrests were ever made. Downtown Whatcom changed: New buildings built after the fire all faced C Street, while Division Street was reduced to an alley.  

In 1903 Whatcom and its neighbor, Fairhaven, merged and formed the city of Bellingham.

Sources: Lelah Jackson Edson, The Fourth Corner (Bellingham: Whatcom Museum of History & Art, [1951] 1968), 218-219; Lottie Roeder Roth, History of Whatcom County Vol. 1 (Chicago and Seattle:  Pioneer Historical Publishing Company, 1926), 337-338; "The Fire!" Whatcom Reveille, May 22, 1885, p. 2;  HistoryLink Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Whatcom County -- Thumbnail History" (by Janet Oakley) and "Whatcom and Fairhaven merge to form Bellingham on December 28, 1903" (by Priscilla Long), (accessed June 26, 2013);  "City of Whatcom Officials 1883-1884," USGenWebProject website accessed June 27, 2013 (

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