Arsonist damages Seattle's Pioneer Square totem pole on October 22, 1938.

  • By David Wilma
  • Posted 1/01/2000
  • Essay 2080
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On October 22, 1938, a fire set by an arsonist seriously damages the 60-foot Tlingit totem pole in Seattle's Pioneer Square and the landmark must be taken down. According to witnesses, an unidentified man stuffed newspaper into the mouth of one of the figures and ignited it with a match before fleeing.

As part of a Civilian Conservation Corps program, the U.S. Forest Service arranged for a replacement pole to be carved by Tlingit artisans. The remains of the original pole, which was carved in about 1790, were sent to Ketchikan, Alaska.

Native artisans created a replica of the totem pole from red cedar, a more long-lasting wood than the original hemlock. Charles Brown, a skilled Tlingit craftsman, directed the work. Members of the Kyan and Kinninook families, whose Raven Clan the pole honors, participated in the effort.

Viola Garfield writes in her history of Seattle's totem poles:

"Native types of long-handled adzes and knives were used throughout construction. After the head carver had marked out and roughed in the figures, other carvers worked in the main outlines. As many as ten men worked on the pole for short intervals during the early stages of the work, taking great care to copy the body curves, postures, and facial expressions of the figures on the original pole. Older men, with long experience in carving, gave advice and, using an adze, put the delicate and intricate details on the pole. The surface of the pole was finished with regularly placed adze marks, an effect that could be achieved with no other tool" (Garfield, 14).

The original pole had been repainted in Seattle many times in very non-Tlingit colors. The replica pole was coated in many layers of wood preservative and then painted in colors very close to the original: black, red, and bluish green.

An Act of Congress was required to transfer ownership of the new pole from the Federal government to the City of Seattle.

These are the legends portrayed by the pole (Seattle Parks):

  • Beginning at the top is Raven with the moon in his beak. Raven symbolizes when people were living in a world of darkness because Grandfather Raven hid the sun and moon in boxes in his house. So Hero Raven turned himself into a hemlock needle floating on water, which was drunk by the grandfather's daughter and thus was born into the house. During childish play he freed the moon and sun and himself turned black escaping through the smoke hole.
  • Next is the frog story. A woman made derogatory remarks about frogs, so one changed himself into a handsome man. They were happily married until she discovered that all of his relatives and her own children were frogs. Her father finally rescued her and the children eventually became human.
  • Raven and mink were swallowed by a killer whale (orca). When the whale did not swallow enough fish for their appetites, they began to eat the whale. Tiring of journeying about, they killed the whale by eating its heart and they were washed ashore, dirty and greasy. Mink became a dirty brown color from drying himself in rotten wood and Raven became sleek and glossy.

The new pole was dedicated on July 25, 1940, but this time with a steel fence around it.


Donald N. Sherwood, Interpretive Essays of the Histories of Seattle Parks and Playgrounds Vol. 4 (Seattle: Seattle Parks Department, 1980); The Seattle Times, July 26, 1940, p. 2; Walt Crowley, National Trust Guide, Seattle (New York: Preservation Press, 1998), 36-37; Viola Garfield, Seattle's Totem Poles (Bellevue: Thistle Press, 1996), 14-15.

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