Vintage: The Great Seattle Fire razed the city on 6 June 1889
The Great Seattle Fire was a major fire that destroyed the entire central business district of Seattle, Washington in the US on 6 June 1889. Despite the massive destruction of property, only one person was killed in the blaze, a young boy named James Goin. The fire resulted in the Seattle Fire Department officially been established four months later to replace a volunteer organisation with a paid force containing new firehouses and a new chief. The city took control of the water supply, increasing the number of hydrants and adding larger pipes. The advent of brick buildings to downtown Seattle was one of the many architectural improvements the city made in the wake of the fire. New city ordinances set standards for the thickness of walls and required ‘division walls’ between buildings. By prompting new development and construction, this fire, remembered as the Great Fire, ironically transformed Seattle from a town to a city.
On the afternoon of 6 June 1889, a young Swede from New York named 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 14h15, 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. The fire department got there within 15 minutes but by that time, it was hard to find the source of the fire and by the time it was found, the conflagration was out of control. The fire quickly engulfed two saloons and a liquor store, fuelled by large quantities of alcohol, the entire block from Madison to Marion was ablaze. Wooden boardwalks carried the flames across streets to ignite other blocks.
A combination of ill-preparedness and unfortunate circumstances contributed to the great fire. Seattle’s water supply was insufficient in fighting the giant inferno. Fire hydrants were sparsely located on every other street, usually connected to small pipes. There were so many hydrants in use during the fire that the water pressure was too weak to fight such a massive blaze. Seattle was also operated by a volunteer fire department, which was competent but inadequate in extinguishing the fire.
The city’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.
While Fire Chief Josiah Collins was at a fire fighting convention in San Francisco, Mayor Robert Moran took command from acting Fire Chief James Murphy and ordered a firebreak to be established by blowing up the Colman block. Unfortunately for him and Seattle, the fire jumped the firebreak and began to consume the wharves as well as everything up the hill toward Second Avenue. In less than two hours it was realised that downtown Seattle was lost. So great was the inferno that the smoke plume could be seen more than 30 miles away, in Tacoma.
Residents cleared out as much of their personal property as they could. Some were able to hire wagons to haul belongings onto ships before the ships moved out of the harbour away from the burning wharves. Trinity Church burned quickly as the fire reached Third Avenue. The fire jumped the street toward the three-storey Courthouse. Not long afterward, the fire had reached Fourth and University.
A handful of buildings, including the Courthouse were saved. Quick-witted Lawrence Booth climbed to the roof of the Courthouse and armed with buckets of water dowsed the sides of the building, saving the structure as well as all the public records and the jail within. Booth inspired bucket brigades to save the Boston Block and Jacob Levy`s house. Someone had thought to cover Henry Yesler`s house with wet blankets.
As the fire was spread through the city, Mayor Moran commanded shacks be either torn down or exploded in the attempt to create another firebreak before it reached Yesler. In the face of all the heroic efforts, the fire crossed the gap and consumed Skid Road in flames. Mayor Moran declared an 20h00 curfew that night and ordered all remaining saloons closed until further notice. The fire burned until 3h00am the following morning.
The damage was unimaginable with 120 acres, 25 entire city blocks destroyed, as was every wharf and mill from Union to Jackson streets. Although the loss of human life was nil, it was estimated that about one million rats were killed.
Thousands of people were homeless and around 5 000 men were without jobs. The city estimate of losses at more than $8 million and that did not even include personal property losses or those of water and electrical services.
Seattle banded together and at 11am on 7 June 1889, 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 armoury 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 18 June 1889. Relief bureaus were able to close as quickly as 20 June 1889, as tent-restaurants had been set up quickly and were able to meet people`s needs. Within a month of the fire more than 100 businesses were back in business, albeit out of tents.
Seattle rebuilt from the ashes with astounding rapidity. The fire had done a fine job of cleansing the town of rats and other vermin; a new zoning code resulted in a downtown of brick, stone and iron buildings, rather than wood. In the year after the fire, the city grew from 25 000 to 40 000 inhabitants, largely because of the enormous number of construction jobs suddenly created.
Contrary to common sense, most businesses decided to rebuild where they had been. Wooden buildings were banned in the burned out district, to be replaced by brick, stone and iron. 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 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 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.
Seattle made many improvements in response to the fire. These changes became principal features of post-fire construction and are still visible in Seattle's Pioneer Square district today, the present-day location of the fire. At Pioneer Square, guided tours are also available to paying customers. Also at this location, visitors can tour the Seattle Underground, where they can visit remains of buildings that were built over after the fire.
Sources: History Link, US History, The Seattle Government, Wikipedia