The Great Seattle Fire

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Aftermath of Seattle Fire: First Avenue north of Yesler Way
Aftermath of Seattle Fire
First Avenue north of Yesler Way.

The spring of 1889 in Seattle had been beautiful. There had been little rain, and temperatures were consistently in the 70s. Unfortunately, the unusually good weather proved to be disastrous, as the dry conditions conspired with a handful of other elements to allow for the worst fire in city history.

On the afternoon of June 6, 1889, John Back, an assistant in Victor Clairmont's woodworking shop at Front Street (now First Avenue) and Madison Avenue, was heating glue over a gasoline fire. Sometime after 2:15, the glue boiled over, caught fire, and spread to the floors, which were covered by wood chips and turpentine. He tried to put the fire out with water, but that only served to thin the turpentine and spread the fire further. Everyone got out of the building safely, and the fire department got to the fire by 2:45. By that time, there was so much smoke that it was hard to find the source of the fire, and by the time it was found, the fire was out of control. The fire quickly spread to the Dietz & Mayer Liquor Store, which exploded, the Crystal Palace Saloon, and the Opera House Saloon. Fueled by alcohol, the entire block from Madison to Marion was on fire.

Seattle's water supply proved to be a major problem in fighting the fire. At that time, water was provided by the privately-owned Spring Hill Water Company. Hydrants were only located on every other street, the 'pipes' were small, and many were made of hollowed out logs (several of which would burn in the fire). As more hoses were added to fight the fire, water pressure fell to the point that the hoses didn't work. Firemen tried to keep the fire from spreading further by pumping water from Elliott Bay onto the Commercial Mill, but the tide was out, and the hoses were not long enough to reach the side of the building closest to the fire. To add insult to injury, crowds harassed the fire fighters as the water pressure fell. At the same time the water supply was dwindling, the wind rose, helping spread the fire. Soon the mill was on fire, as well as the Colman Building and Opera House.

Mayor Robert Moran took command from acting Fire Chief James Murphy (ironically, Chief Josiah Collins was at a fire-fighting convention in San Francisco), who was reportedly "distraught". Moran ordered the Colman block to be blown up, in an attempt to end the fire, but the fire jumped past the block, and spread to the wharves as well as up the hill toward Second Avenue.

By 4:00, most residents realized that downtown Seattle was doomed. The fire had crossed Second Avenue, and was heading up to Third. Smoke could be seen in Tacoma, and the roar of the fire heard for miles. Help had been called in from Tacoma, Portland, and even Victoria, B.C., but would take hours to arrive. Business- and home-owners cleared out as much as they could. Those who were able hired wagons to haul belongings onto ships before the ships moved out of the harbor away from the wharves, which were on fire. The Seattle Times was able to get most of their files and books aboard the schooner Teaser.

As the fire reached Third Avenue, Trinity Church burned quickly, and the fire moved across the street toward the three-story Courthouse. Before long, the fire had reached Fourth and University, but a handful of buildings were saved, including the Courthouse. The Fire Department had tried to water down the Courthouse to prevent it from burning, but water pressure was so low, the hoses could only spray the first floor. Quick-thinking Lawrence Booth climbed to the roof of the Courthouse and poured buckets of water down the sides of the building, saving the structure as well as all the public records and the jail within. Booth's lead inspired bucket brigades to save the Boston Block and Jacob Levy's house. Henry Yesler's house was also saved, by someone who thought to cover it with wet blankets.

Meanwhile, the fire was spreading even farther. Before it reached Yesler, Moran ordered that the shacks there be either torn down or exploded, in the attempt to create another fire block. Despite such efforts, the fire crossed the gap, and Skid Road went up in flames next. Mayor Moran declared an 8:00 pm curfew that night and ordered all saloons closed until further notice.

The fire burned until 3:00 am. When it was done, the damage was enormous. 120 acres (25 city blocks) had been destroyed, as was every wharf and Mill from Union to Jackson Streets. Although the loss of human life was evidently low (no statistics were kept on that) it was estimated that 1 million rats were killed. Thousands of people were displaced, and 5,000 men lost their jobs. The city estimated it's losses at over $8 million, and that number didn't even include person losses or those of water and electrical services. The total losses may have been as high as $20 million.

The city didn't take much time to mourn. Instead Seattle banded together, and at 11 am on June 7, 600 businessmen met to discuss how to cope with the current situation and plan for the future. To combat looting, two hundred special deputies were sworn in and the town placed under martial law for two weeks. A relief committee was formed to handle the charitable donations that were being sent from all over the country. Tacoma, no longer a rival, but an ally in the time of need, raised $20,000 and sent up a relief committee to help. The armory was converted to a dining hall, so the displaced citizens would have a place to eat. Supplies from San Francisco (much of which had been ordered before the fire) arrived by June 18. Relief bureaus were able to close as quickly as June 20, as tent-restaurants had been set up quickly, and were able to meet people's needs. Within a month of the fire over 100 businesses were operating out of tents.

Instead of relocating, most businesses decided to rebuild where they had been, and rebuilding began almost immediately. Wooden buildings were banned in the burned out district, to be replaced by brick. At the same time, streets were raised up to 22 feet in places, helping to level the hilly city. Within a year, 465 buildings had been built, most of the reconstruction was complete and the businesses had reopened.

The fire also led to a handful of other changes for the city. At the time of the fire, the city had an all-volunteer fire department, many of which quit after the fire, citing the harassment they had faced while trying to fight the fire. This personnel crisis led to the creation of a professional fire department by October 1889. The city also took control of the water supply, increasing the size of the pipes, eliminating the wooden pipes, and added more hydrants. The fire, which could have spelled the end of the city, instead became just a brief setback, and led to many significant improvements.