The Great Seattle Fire, Part 1

  • By John Caldbick
  • Posted 9/19/2020
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 21090

On June 6, 1889, at about 2:45 p.m., what became known as the Great Seattle Fire started when a pot of glue burst into flames in a small cabinet shop on Front Street (today's 1st Avenue). The blaze quickly spread in all directions, racing unseen through basements and under planked streets and sidewalks before breaking into the open. Within a few hours, much of Seattle's commercial core and waterfront was destroyed, from University Street to Dearborn Street and from Elliott Bay to as far east as today's 4th Avenue S. Volunteer firemen and hundreds of citizens who fought the flames for hours won few victories. Wood buildings, some dating back to pioneer days, went up like torches, and the extreme heat left newer buildings of brick and stone roofless and gutted, or collapsed. No lives were lost, however, and the inferno proved to be a blessing, if at first well-disguised. The flames wiped out the largely wooden downtown, a remnant of its hardscrabble past. When the debris was cleared, Seattle had a clean palette on which it would rebuild at a speed and with a style that secured its emerging status as the key city of the Pacific Northwest.

A City on Its Way

As 1889 began, the people of Seattle could look back with pride and ahead with optimism. The Northern Pacific Railway's 1873 decision to put its transcontinental terminus in Tacoma had been hurtful, but far from fatal. Washington Territory was on the threshold of long-sought statehood, and many believed Seattle's inevitable destiny was to be the trading, shipping, financial, mercantile, and cultural center of the new state. Olympia was too far south down Puget Sound. Tacoma had seen rampant population growth, but had waited a full decade for its first transcontinental train to arrive. Everett to the north barely existed, and would spend its first years as a company town. Port Townsend, which aspired to become the "New York of the West," was on the wrong side of Puget Sound, where no major railroad would ever venture.

The confidence and optimism was hard won. When the Northern Pacific chose Tacoma, Seattle's financial interests and ordinary citizens took matters into their own hands. In 1874 more than 150 volunteers began laying track south for the Seattle & Walla Walla Railroad (S&WW). It never got close to Walla Walla, but four years later reached 21 miles to the productive coalfields in Renton and Newcastle. Throughout much of the 1880s Washington coal was the chief source of fuel for San Francisco, with more than a half-million tons shipped out from Seattle's waterfront. The city had thumbed its nose at the railroad barons. As one historian put it, "This sense of united purpose aroused by the NP rejection all but ensured the town's survival, and by the 1890s it was immortalized as the 'Seattle Spirit'" ("Orphan Road ...").

Thomas J. Prosch (1850-1915), the founding editor of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, was an astute and detailed observer of the city's progress. In his A Chronological History of Seattle from 1850 to 1897, he sketched the city's growth in the last half of the 1880s:

"The boom that began in 1886 and grew in volume and force in 1887, continued with unabated activity and vigor in 1888. It was manifested in a thousand ways, but particularly in the way of speculation in real estate, in the platting of additions to the City, in hundreds of new buildings, in scores of graded streets, in new railways, banks, hotels, stores, factories, shops and people. The inhabitants of Seattle, who numbered 3533 in 1880 and 9786 in 1885, increased in number to 12,167 in 1887, and to 19,116 in 1888" (Prosch, 351).

Reaching 1889 in his chronology, Prosch noted, "About half-past two o'clock on the afternoon of June 6th, 1889, began the most extensive conflagration in the history of Seattle. It had its origin in the basement of a wooden building owned by Mrs. Margaret J. Pontius on the southeast [sic] corner of First Avenue [called Front Street in 1889] and Madison Street" (Prosch, 366).

Correcting the Record

Early accounts of the Great Seattle Fire were often inconsistent and sometimes incorrect. James "Jimmie" McGough (1848-1910), an Irish immigrant, co-owned the McGough & McTavish sign- and house-painting business, located below street level in the Pontius Building near the southwest corner of Front and Madison streets. To his dismay, the shop was mistakenly identified as the place where the catastrophic fire got its start. The fire did indeed originate in the Pontius Building, but it started in Victor Clairmont's basement cabinet shop, which was below McGough's. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer corrected the error as early as June 21, 1889, when it interviewed McGough. Nonetheless, the version blaming him persisted, and it was still being repeated in books and articles published as late as the 1970s, more than 80 years after the event.

There was also confusion about the location of the Pontius Building, which was at 921-923 Front Street. Some sources reported that the fire first broke out at 922 Front Street, which was on the opposite side of the street. This mistake most likely was due to reporters' reliance on outdated information found in two city directories. One placed McGough's shop on the "s e cor. Front and Madison," i.e. the southeast corner of Front Street and Madison (1888 Seattle City Directory, 146), which corresponded to the 922 address. The other was more specific, and in two places gave McGough's address as "rear 922 Front" (1889 Seattle City Directory, 66, 554).

The most logical explanation for the confusion is that some time before June 6, 1889, McGough moved his shop from 922 Front Street across the street to the Pontius Building. The first reporters on the scene may have heard (incorrectly) that the fire had started in McGough's shop, and they or their editors used one or both of the directories to obtain a street address. The information in both directories had been compiled months earlier, and by the time of the fire was no longer entirely up to date. Unfortunately, this explanation can't be confirmed by any post-fire map or directory since both buildings burned to the ground.

The Battle Begins

In 1889 a log bulkhead separated Front Street from the tidelands of Elliott Bay, which extended farther inland than today. Both the street and its sidewalks rested on a framework of pilings and crossbeams and were surfaced with wooden planks. The Pontius Building was also made of wood, built over the tidelands, its front wall abutting the bulkhead. It had two stories above street level and two below, the latter accessed by a stairway on the building's north side. The first basement level held McGough's paint business; the one below was occupied by Victor Clairmont's cabinet shop.

John E. Back, a Swedish immigrant in his mid-20s, worked for Clairmont. According to his own account, published in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer on June 22, 1889, Back was melting a pot of hardened glue on a stove heated with turpentine-soaked wood shavings. He added some shavings to the stove, then went to work about 25 feet away. A few minutes later, the overheated glue itself caught fire.

After another worker failed to smother the flames with a board, the hapless Back threw a bucket of cold water at the glue pot. This was not a good idea. The water hitting the blazing gluepot caused an explosion. In Back's words, "When I throw the water on, the glue flew all over the shop into the shavings and everything take fire" ("That Immortal Glue-Pot"). The Great Seattle Fire was off and running. Among the first to spot the dense smoke were seamen in ships moored at the waterfront to the west, and they began blowing their steam whistles to send out the alert.

Futility

The privately owned Spring Hill Water Company had since 1881 been diverting spring water into wooden reservoirs on First Hill and Beacon Hill to provide Seattle's growing downtown with water for consumption and fire-fighting. In 1886 the company supplemented its supply by pumping from Lake Washington. The water was gravity-fed from the hilltop reservoirs to the city's commercial district through relatively small-diameter mains made of hollowed-out logs. These ran below the streets, supported by wooden bracing.

Seattle had a volunteer fire department (although the chief and two "engineers" were paid by the city), limited equipment, and relatively few fire hydrants, spaced two blocks apart in the downtown area. Responding to the first alarms, men from a nearby station hand-hauled a hose cart to the scene, followed by two fire-fighting units with horse-drawn, steam-powered pumps. A tremendous amount of smoke was pouring from the Pontius Building, but there were no visible flames. Initial optimism that firefighters could get the situation under control was soon proved wrong, as reported in the Post-Intelligencer the next day:

"A cheer rose from the crowd as the beat of engine No. 1 was heard, and two streams of water were turned on to the fire, but the cheer of hope died away in a wail of despair when after a few minutes' pumping the streams became so weak that they did not reach the top of the building, showing that there was no water with which to fight the fiend of fire ..." ("A Sea of Fire").

One of the pumping rigs was vainly attempting to pull water from Elliott Bay, but the tide was partway out and it appears there was difficulty laying sufficient hose from Front Street. According to Prosch's account, the other unit "attempted to throw water from the Columbia Street hydrant, but it was found that there was really no water there to throw" (Prosch, 367). Although a photograph shows a fire hose in use initially, the water supply quickly diminished to uselessness (see e.g. Grant, 215; Bagley, 420). In a 1950s television interview, an elderly man who had worked for the Spring Hill Water Company at the time of the fire gave an equally plausible explanation for the lack of water. His belief was that "because it was below grade, the fire was able to get underneath the street and damaged supports for the water system and the water system failed" ("The Seattle Fire -- Debunked"). After the mains collapsed, the water needed to fight the flames was being dumped directly into Elliott Bay.

Quickly Out of Control

Historian Clarence Bagley later described the area where the Great Seattle Fire began:

"North of Columbia Street and on the west side of First Avenue [Front Street] was a row of frame structures mostly two stories in height, and with a sawmill, lumber yards and many wooden sheds between them and the wharves. Even the pavements were of plank. Streets as well as buildings were generally on posts or piles, and well above the ground or water, leaving a space below through which the fire could travel without hindrance" (Bagley, 419).

Adjacent to the Pontius Building to the south was the Denny Block, a rather dilapidated wooden structure that extended to Marion Street. (Note: Confusingly, the word "block," sometimes capitalized and sometimes not, was used to refer both to entire city blocks and to individual buildings or groups of adjacent buildings.) Traveling below street level, the fire reached it within minutes of the first alarm, and smoke soon poured from its windows. Still trying to locate the flames, firefighters pried up some of the planked sidewalk on the west side of Front Street. They found an inferno -- the fire was spreading rapidly from building to building, but below street level.

Among the Denny Block's tenants was the Dietz and Meyer Liquor Store. When the blaze reached whisky barrels in the basement they burst, spewing flaming alcohol in all directions and accelerating the fire's spread. Within 20 minutes of the first alarm, the entire west side of Front Street between Madison and Marion was ablaze, and the blaze was moving rapidly south, helped along by a brisk northwesterly breeze.

Fire in All Directions

The flames soon spread through the cribbing under the planks of Front Street and began to consume the wooden buildings on its east side. At the south end of the block, on the northeast corner of Front and Marion, stood the Frye Opera House, a massive four-story structure measuring 120 feet on each side. Finished in 1885 at a cost of $125,000, it was at the time the most expensive building ever erected in the city. Built of brick and faced with stucco, it held out some promise of blocking the fire's southern progress. These hopes died when its roof was set ablaze by a flaming cinder. As described in Grant's History of Seattle: "To the dismay of those who looked up at the Opera House, they saw a slender tongue of flame growing on the mansard roof, and at the cry, 'The Opera House is on fire!' all eyes were turned thither, and the probability of a great conflagration was realized" (Grant, 216). The flames quickly spread to the building's timber framework, leading shortly to its near-complete collapse. As Grant indicates, the loss of this building was recognized by many as a portent of what lay ahead. Soon hundreds of volunteers were fighting the inferno on four fronts, mostly with buckets and wet blankets.

South across Marion Street from the Opera House stood the brick Reinig Block, separated by a row of wooden buildings from the Kenney Block, also of brick. The Reinig Building was soon ablaze, and one wall collapsed, rapidly spreading the fire. The subsequent collapse of the Kenney Building sent up "a cloud of sparks and burning brands that scattered over the roofs of the adjoining blocks" ("A Sea of Fire").

Majestic Masonry

Less than an hour and a half after the fire's start, every building on both sides of Front Street between Madison and Columbia was ablaze, and by 5 p.m. the flames had set alight Toklas, Singerman & Co.'s San Francisco Store. An imposing brick building, it stood on the southwest corner of Front Street and Columbia. Described as a "majestic bookend for a row of new masonry retail/office blocks, built in the fashionable Italianate Style ..." ("Toklas, Singerman and Company, Store #4"), it was the northern anchor of the city's only unbroken line of brick and stone structures, which extended south along the west side of Front Street from Columbia to Yesler Avenue (today's Yesler Way). Among the other buildings in the row were those housing the Union Block, Merchants National Bank, First National Bank, Seattle Land Company, Safe Deposit, Stewart & Holmes Drug Co., Gordon Hardware, and Seattle Hardware.

Efforts to establish fire-breaks by dynamiting the wooden Colman Block, on the southeast corner of Yesler Avenue and Commercial Street (today's 1st Avenue S) and the San Francisco Store proved futile, even counterproductive, and the city's supply of explosives was soon exhausted. When the fire reached the two hardware stores, 50 tons of stored ammunition started cooking off, adding to the chaos and danger.

As the fate of the Frye Opera House had foretold, the masonry building of this showy strip would be of little use in stopping the fire's advance. They did slow its progress, briefly, but to no good effect, and every magnificent building in the row was lost. Those that didn't collapse were left roofless, precarious hulks, their glassless windows overlooking a scene of utter devastation. Despite all efforts, the fire marched on, burning its irresistible way south through wood and brick and stone, destroying everything in its path.

On the Waterfront

As one front of the blaze moved south along Front Street and east to 2nd Street, another moved west to the city's waterfront, almost all of which -- including mills, warehouses, wharves, and piers -- was perched on a framework of pilings pounded into the muddy floor of Elliott Bay. Behind the Pontius Building and the Denny Block were the massive Commercial Mills Nos. 1 and 2, which stretched a full block, roughly between the upland Madison and Marion streets (which both terminated at Front Street). Soon it was all fully on fire, and the flames were spreading rapidly.

Almost every foot of the waterfront, north and south, was occupied by either a wooden building or storage lots filled with lumber and other flammables. Racing underneath all this, the flames moved north to as far as University Street, where they were halted by excavations for two planned buildings and the heroic efforts of a bucket brigade. This was as far north as the fire would get.

The waterfront to the south would not be so fortunate. Virtually every man-made feature -- wharves, piers, buildings -- was burned down to the pilings, many of which were left standing like a stunted, dead forest. Only one wharf, located at the foot of Union Street, survived. Among the structures lost, moving from north to south, were Colman's Wharf, Colman's Hay Warehouse, Yesler's Wharf, Crawford and Harrington's Wharf, the Oregon Railroad and Navigation Company's Ocean Dock, Puget Sound Railroad's Ocean Dock and warehouse, the King Street Coal Wharf, the Stetson & Post Mill, the Seattle Dry Dock and Ship Building Company, and every shed, structure, and storage space in between. For Henry Yesler (1810-1892) it was nothing new -- his waterfront complex had been lost to fire twice before, in 1879 and 1887. But his extravagant wooden mansion on 3rd and James streets was saved (only to fall to fire on the first day of 1901).

Battling the Blaze

Seattle's fire chief, Josiah Collins (1864-1949), was in San Francisco on the day of the fire, attending (depending on the source) either a wedding or a firefighters' convention. His assistant, James Murphy, was vilified after the fire, characterized as "utterly incompetent" (Grant, 216) and, somewhat more gently, as "not equal to the occasion then or later" (Bagley, 420). Later commentators were kinder, but the fact remains that the initial response to the fire was disorganized and of little use. The rapid loss of the Frye Opera House was a clear indication that matters had moved "beyond the control of the fire department" (Grant, 216).

Seattle's energetic young mayor, Robert Moran (1857-1943), took charge. He began organizing the hundreds of spectators who had gathered, and he set clear priorities. The first was to stop the fires, which soon proved impossible. Next was an effort to save as much as possible of the valuable contents of endangered or doomed buildings. The third goal was to prevent looting and "incendiarism" by "irresponsible characters who saw ... the chance for plunder" (Grant, 216). One hundred special police were sworn in to keep the peace, and telegrams asking for help were sent to Portland, Victoria B.C., and all the larger towns in between.

On all sides of the fire's advancing margins, long lines of citizens passed from hand-to-hand things salvaged from buildings in the fire's path. These were carried to places of presumed safety, but many proved to be not safe at all. Tons of rescued goods were piled in the city's side streets and on the wharves below Yesler Avenue (which many thought would not be touched by the flames). Some was taken aboard ships and moved to safety; much more was set afire by airborne cinders and flaming brands.

As the sun set in the smoke-reddened western sky, those who had been fighting the flames for hours could claim just one significant victory. The four-story brick Boston Block on the southeast corner of Second Street and Columbia still stood, fire-scarred but intact, the only one of approximately 30 brick buildings in the city's commercial district to survive. That battle was described by Clarence Bagley years later:

"The window-casings of the large brick Boston Block commenced to smoke and the glass cracked. Nearly everyone thought the building doomed, but by heroic efforts with pails, pans and anything that would hold water, the windows were protected until the greatest heat of the fire had passed by ... No other brick building was left unburned in the business district" (Bagley, 422).

End Game

Just two other substantial masonry buildings stood in the fire's way -- the Yesler-Leary Building at the northwest corner where Front Street met Yesler Avenue, and the triangle-shaped Occidental Hotel to its east, the city's finest hotel, thought by many to be fireproof. Neither gave the flames much pause, and both were destroyed.

Once the fire crossed Yesler Avenue and headed south, little more could be done. The blaze tore through the mostly frame structures in the oldest and flattest part of the city, including numerous hotels, rooming houses, taverns, and bordellos. All the streets west of Front Street and Commercial Street, or south of Jackson Street, were built on pilings and totally destroyed. Exhausted men and women took refuge in safe areas on nearby hills and watched the final stage of the drama as the flames "simply ran riot among the frame buildings on the 'flats.' ... [I]t moved with a whirlwind of its own making in front. There was no time to save goods and not very much to save life; by 9:30 it had carried devastation as far as there was anything to burn and then stopped for lack of material" (Bagley, 423).

The Great Seattle Fire had finally ended, although coal bunkers on the waterfront continued to burn for days.

Coda

Those who had battled the blaze (including firefighters who had raced up by train from Tacoma) and the many men, women, and children uprooted and left homeless had little time to contemplate the broader significance of what had just befallen their city. Accounts vary widely, but one contemporary source states that 116 acres --  approximately 58 city blocks -- was smoking ash (Austin & Scott, 20). Most of the very things that signified Seattle's status as an up-and-coming metropolis were gone. Banks, stores, finance companies, land companies, doctors' and lawyers' offices, wharves, piers, mills, warehouses, and hundreds of businesses of all kinds had been consumed by the flames. Fortunes in goods were incinerated or damaged beyond repair. Financial records, business records, medical records, legal records, and entire law libraries went up in smoke. Fortunately, the records of the  city and of King County survived, but as one historian wrote, "Not a single business house was left standing intact ... The fire took every bank, wholesale house, hotel and newspaper office, both engine houses and nearly every store" (Sayre, 165).

The cataclysm also exposed the city's fundamental flaws, ways in which, despite its aspirations, it was still operating as a pioneer town -- an amateur, unpaid, and often unmotivated fire department; an inadequate water supply; an almost complete lack of building codes, regulations, or enforcement; and a waterfront that, while serviceable, was a highly flammable expanse of wood cobbled together on a framework of pilings.

Famed British author Rudyard Kipling (1865-1923) passed through Seattle by ship within weeks of the fire. A young man who had already seen much, Kipling described steaming into the ruined city in the early evening:

"In the ghostly twilight, just as the forest fires were beginning to glare from the unthrifty islands, we struck it -- struck it heavily, for the wharves had all been burned down, and we tied up where we could, crashing into the rotten foundations of a boathouse as a pig roots in high grass. The town, like Tacoma, was built upon a hill. In the heart of the business quarters there was a horrible black smudge, as though a Hand had come down and rubbed the place smooth. I know now what being wiped out means" (Kipling, 94).

It was estimated that the conflagration killed more than one million rats, countless numbers of ticks, fleas, and other insects, and at least one horse. But remarkably -- almost miraculously -- not a single human life was lost during the fire. No mourning period was needed, no funerals required, and before the ashes had cooled the financiers and political leaders of the city were working together in uncommon harmony to plan Seattle's rebirth.

Next: The Great Seattle Fire, Part 2: The City Rebuilds

 


Sources:

Clarence Bagley, History of Seattle from the Earliest Settlement to the Present Time, Vol. 1 (Chicago: The S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1916) 419-428; History of Seattle, Washington ed. by Frederic James Grant (New York: American Publishing and Engraving Co., 1891) 212-234; James R. Warren, The Day Seattle Burned (Seattle: self-published, 1989); Murray Morgan, Skid Road (New York: The Viking Press, 1951); Rob McNair-Huff, Natalie McNair-Huff, Washington Disasters (Guilford, Connecticut: Globe Pequot, 2016); Pioneer Square, Seattle's Oldest Neighborhood ed. by Mildred Tanner Andrews (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2005; C. W. Austin and H. S. Scott, The Great Seattle Fire of June 6th, 1889 (Tacoma: Puget Sound Printing Company, 1889); Nard Jones, Seattle (Garden City, Doubldlay & Company, Inc., 1972; William C. Speidel, Sons of the Profits (Seattle: Nettle Creek Publishing Co., 1967); J. Willis Sayre, This City of Ours (Seattle: Seattle School District No. 1, 1936); Kurt E. Armbruster, "Orphan Road: The Railroad Comes to Seattle," Columbia Magazine, Vol. 11, No. 4 (Winter 1997-98); Paul Dorpat, "Seattle Community Water -- A History to ca. 1996," Seattle Now and Then website accessed July 30, 2020 (https://pauldorpat.com/2010/01/02/seattle-community-water-a-history-to-ca-1996/); Sheila G. Miller, "The Seattle Fire ... Debunked," 1889 Magazine website accessed August 7, 2020 (https://1889mag.com/think/the-seattle-fire-debunked/); Hugh McGough, "The Great Seattle Fire --Don't Blame Jimmie McGough," Magoo.com website accessed August 5, 2020 (http://magoo.com/hugh/fire.html); Paul Dorpat, "History of the Seattle Water Department to ca. 1996," Seattle Now & Then website accessed August 6, 2020 (https://pauldorpat.com/2010/01/02/seattle-community-water-a-history-to-ca-1996/); Rudyard Kipling, From Sea to Sea and Other Sketches: Letters of Travel Vol. 2 (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1899, 1907; "Historical Note," Seattle Water Department Historical Files, 1889-1964, Archives West website accessed July 30, 2020 (http://archiveswest.orbiscascade.org/ark:/80444/xv19509); "Toklas, Singerman and Company, Store #4," Pacific Coast Architectural Database (PCAD) website accessed August 11, 2020 (http://pcad.lib.washington.edu/building/16248/); Seattle City Directory 1888-89 (Seattle: Seattle Directory Company, 1888) 146, 263; Seattle City Directory 1889 (Seattle: RL Polk & Co., 1889) 66, 554; "The Great Seattle Fire: Winner National History Day 2007" (video), YouTube website accessed August 5, 2020 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V38Uj8BysyE&t=180s); "A Sea of Fire," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 7, 1889, p. 1; "A Stroll Among the Ruins," Ibid., June 10, 1889, p. 1; "(illegible) of The Fire," Ibid., June 21, 1889, p. 3; "That Immortal Glue-Pot," Ibid., June 22, 1889, p. 4; "In Ashes," Seattle Morning Journal, June 7, 1889, p. 1; "Seattle in Ashes," Morning Globe (Tacoma), June 7, 1889, p. 1; "Fire That Destroyed City Fifty Years Ago Recalled," The Seattle Times, June 4, 1939, p. 1; HistoryLink Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Coal in the Puget Sound Region" (by Laura McCarty), "Seattle burns down in the Great Fire on June 6, 1889" (by Walt Crowley); "Seattle citizens start work on Seattle & Walla Walla Railroad on May 1, 1874 (by David B. Williams); "Seattle & Walla Walla Railroad and Navigation Company" (by Heather M. MacIntosh) https://www.historylink.org/ (accessed August 5-August 10, 2020); Greg Lange (King County Archives) emails to John Caldbick, August 3, 4, 8, 9, 10, 13, 16, September 8, 2020, in possession of John Caldbick, Langley, Washington; Page (Reed) Olson (Last Resort Fire Department) emails to John Caldbick, August 1, 6, 2020, in possession of John Caldbick, Langley, Washington.


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