A fire at Seattle's Pike Place Market leads to a dramatic rescue on December 6, 1925.

  • By Phil Dougherty
  • Posted 10/04/2011
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9942

On December 6, 1925, a fire caused by electric wiring igniting Christmas decorations sweeps the basement of the Sanitary Public Market building at Pike Place Market in Seattle, causing significant property damage. Two people are trapped by the blaze and are saved in an exciting ladder rescue by a Seattle firefighter while hundreds of spectators look on.

Flash Fire

December 6 was a quiet Sunday morning in downtown Seattle. Pike Place Market was closed, but the Sanitary Public Market building was not empty; several people were there working or doing other chores.  Down at the basement floor market, Christmas decorations hung from overhead rafters, walls, and electric wires -- a bad idea when it came to the wires, because about 11:15 a.m. either a spark or perhaps just the heat from the wires ignited decorations in the back of the basement, facing Pike Place. Within seconds, a wall of fire erupted and began rushing through the market “with the rapidity of a cyclone” (The Seattle Star, December 7, 1925).  

Nearby, Frank Petachel, who owned a meat stall at the market, and an associate were working on some pipes when they spotted the blaze. Petachel telephoned the fire department (the Star credited his fast action with saving the building and maybe all of Pike Place Market itself) and a general alarm was sounded. Firefighters quickly responded and the building was soon surrounded by fire engines, while hundreds of onlookers congregated on 1st Avenue and Pike Place.

Upstairs on the third floor, Mrs. E. F. Ellmore, owner of Mrs. Ellmore’s Bake Oven, was in her kitchen making fruitcakes. With her was her nephew, Denzel Cutler, a University of Washington student. They smelled smoke and ran for the stairs, but it was already too late.  Heavy smoke and flames leaping up from the basement blocked their way. They turned and raced to the fire escape, only to find that exit likewise blocked by smoke and fire.  Growing dizzy from the smoke and out of options for finding an escape, they turned and ran back into Ellmore’s shop and to the window, which faced 1st Avenue, and began screaming for help.  

Daring Rescue

The spectators below watched in horrified fascination as the two yelled from the window.  But the Seattle Fire Department was ready.  One of its fire engines had an extension ladder, and this was quickly run up to where the two were waiting. Firefighter Frank Harshfield of Truck Number 1 clambered up the ladder to the third floor window.  The crowd held its collective breath as he led Ellmore and Cutler down to safety, and let loose with a mighty cheer when all were safely on terra firma.

Other firefighters moved fast to contain the blaze while it was still in the basement, succeeding just as the flames began to spread upstairs. They were subsequently praised both by witnesses and the press for quickly stopping such a dangerous fire.

Total damages were estimated at $25,000 (about $320,000 in 2011 dollars). Three businesses were destroyed or nearly so: the Philadelphia Fish Market, the Crystal Meat Market, and Clark's meat stall, and several other meat and fruit stalls were seriously damaged. More than a dozen other businesses sustained minor damage from the heavy smoke, which also caused about $10,000 in damage to produce. Damage to the building itself was relatively modest, with the heaviest damage in the basement. 

Sources: “Market Fire Loss $25,000,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 7, 1925, p. 1;  “2 Trapped In $25,000 Fire In Market,” The Seattle Star, December 7, 1925, pp. 1, 3;  “Sanitary Market Suffers $20,000 Damage In Blaze,” The Seattle Daily Times, December 7, 1925, p. 15, 21;  “CPI Inflation Calculator,” Bureau of Labor Statistics website accessed August 23, 2011 (http://www.bls.gov/data/inflation_calculator.htm).

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