Fire destroys 140 buildings in Aberdeen on October 16, 1903.

  • By Bill Alley
  • Posted 7/27/2005
  • Essay 7388
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On October 16, 1903, a fire destroys 140 buildings in the center of Aberdeen. Fed by wood-frame structures, wooden sidewalks, and sawdust fill, the fire rages unchecked until some 20 acres have burned. The fire will spur the city leaders to enact a more stringent fire code.

A Town Built of Wood

One of the advantages of being a mill town was the ready supply of lumber to meet the building needs of a growing community. In the wet, muddy climate of Washington's Pacific Coast, all that lumber made it possible to fill in mushier areas with sawdust from the mills and then to cover them over with wooden sidewalks and plank roads. The downside to these advantages was fire. In 1887 and 1889, fire reduced the Aberdeen town center to ashes. Each time, it was built anew. In 1888, after the first fire, the city organized its first volunteer fire department.

On the morning of October 16, 1903, a resident of the Arctic Hotel began making breakfast in his room. An accidental fire started, and the room was quickly engulfed in flames, killing the lone occupant. Within minutes, the three-story frame structure was ablaze and the fire spread to adjoining buildings, including the fire station and jail.

The prisoners were released to assist the firefighters, but the flames raged out of control. Chaos ensued on the streets as buildings were quickly evacuated and as shopkeepers sought frantically to save what they could. The owner of the Karshner Bros. Meat Market opened up the chicken coops behind his store and the panicked fowl added to the turmoil.

When the fire was finally extinguished, some 20 acres of Aberdeen had been destroyed, including 140 buildings. Three people died. While the embers continued to smolder, city leaders began drafting a set of strict fire codes to ensure that this fire would be the last.

Sources: John C. Hughes & Ryan Teague Beckwith, On the Harbor: From Black Friday to Nirvana (Aberdeen: The Daily World, 2001), 4-13.

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