(Author’s note: Today marks the 120th anniversary of Seattle, Washington’s Great Fire of 1889. In recognition of that history-changing disaster, I’m posting here a piece from my 2003 book of history essays, Eccentric Seattle: Pillars and Pariahs Who Made the City Not Such a Boring Place After All).
Seattle had been an incorporated city for a scant 20 years when, on June 6, 1889, fire threatened to reduce its business district (today’s Pioneer Square) to a mephitic smudge on the eastern shore of Puget Sound. So violent was the conflagration, it sent up a roiling column of purplish smoke that could be spotted from Tacoma, 32 miles to the south.
The disaster began in the basement cabinet shop of Victor Clairmont, at the corner of Front (today’s First Avenue) and Madison streets. Around 2:40 p.m., one of Clairmont’s assistants was heating a pot of glue over a stove, when that adhesive suddenly caught fire. Dashing water onto the flames only spread them, igniting wood shavings on the floor and forcing the cabinetmakers to flee. Within half an hour, whole blocks of Seattle were alight, the fire fed by the town’s wood-frame construction and its occasional infiltration of a liquor store or saloon, where exploding whiskey barrels spread high-proof fuel hither and yon. A fire hose cart as well as Seattle’s first steam fire engine were rushed in to help. However, hydrant pressure was too low to adequately combat the calamity’s progress. Wet blankets and gunny sacks were thrown over building roofs, in hopes of curbing the inferno’s spread. The measure did save some structures, among them sawmill millionaire Henry Yesler’s dark mansion on Third Avenue, but couldn’t preserve the Frye Opera House, an elegant four-story, mansard-roofed entertainment venue (modeled, it’s said, on San Francisco’s 19th-century Baldwin Theater) that sat right across the street from where the blaze began.
Ironically, the city’s fire chief was off in San Francisco attending a convention on advanced fire-fighting methodology. When it became obvious that his young acting chief, James Murphy, wasn’t up to this battle, Robert Moran, a shipyard owner who was then completing his first one-year term as the city’s mayor, took command, ordering the demolition of buildings in front of the spreading blaze and marshaling 200-man bucket brigades to retrieve water from nearby gullies. Brave efforts, all. But not good enough.
While alarm bells rang and steam whistles shrieked, the rickety offices of dentists and boot makers and chandlers vanished into the holocaust’s maw. Prisoners shuffled anxiously through the streets, shackled together in flight from their burning jail cells. Flames danced about the stilts supporting mudflat-anchored shacks and chased horses into madness down cluttered alleyways. Sawmills smoldered, then finally burst with heat. Ships tethered to endangered docks cast off desperately into Puget Sound. A saloonkeeper, hoping to save his 100 barrels of whiskey, floated them out into nearby Elliott Bay (he later recovered only two), while burly larrikins on the waterfront threw a wake for their town over another 50-gallon keg of spirits. Twenty tons of rifle cartridges at a hardware store suddenly exploded, sending rubberneckers diving desperately for cover. Other shots came from policemen, who aimed their pistols at looters plundering vacated banks and commercial emporia.
Inside the wooden King County Courthouse (later to
become city hall), at Third Avenue and Jefferson Street, Judge Cornelius H. Hanford was in the middle of conducting a murder trial. Though everyone in the courtroom could hear the clanging outside and smell the smoke, Hanford refused to adjourn, not wanting to separate his jury, which was supposed to be isolated until the trial was done. “But justice was not being served,” journalist-historian Murray Morgan wrote in Skid Road: An Informal Portrait of Seattle (1951).
The witness on the stand, a businessman, could not keep his mind on the questions he was being asked. The merchants on the jury peered anxiously through the smoke toward their stores. The crowd thinned until only the officials were present. With the flames mounting the Trinity [Church] belltower only a hundred feet away, Judge Hanford closed the court and told the bailiff to let the jurors go their separate ways until the following Monday. Before they could get out of the room he drafted some of them to try to save the courthouse.Seattle’s Great Fire of 1889 lasted 12 ½ hours, and by the time its fury was spent, 30 central city blocks--a total of 64 acres--had been leveled. Amazingly, not a single person is known to have died in that catastrophe.
Even the optimism of locals came through intact. As The Seattle Times reported four days later, “Everywhere confidence in the future of this city is maintained. ... The heaviest losers are the most cheerful.”
It’s not hard to understand why. Before 1889, Seattle was something of a pestilential hodgepodge, violence-ridden, rat-infested, and poorly constructed upon mudflats so low to the water that when tides washed in, sewage backed up and geysered out of toilets. The big blaze gave civic boosters and planners a chance to completely reinvent the town, this time in fireproof brick, stone, and iron, rather than wood.
Among their first orders of business was to hoist the city well above the waterline. No more erupting johns for status-hungry Seattleites. The post-fire business district would sit an entire story higher than its predecessor, letting gravity do its proper job of waste disposal. Of course, this meant some hefty regrading of land. Tons of dirt from precipitous slopes on the town’s eastern edge had to be scraped down to fill in mudflats. In the meantime, new structures were designed to accommodate the anticipated change in street elevation. Each was given a double set of entrances--one at Seattle’s original ground level, the other on the second story, at which height new streets and sidewalks would ultimately be laid.
There was just one problem--and it was a doozy: Streets were raised throughout this neighborhood well before pedestrianways could be realigned to match them. Thus, ostentatiously gowned Victorian ladies and their gentlemen escorts, after shopping along one side of a thoroughfare, were forced to scale tall ladders (eight to 30 feet high) in order to cross intersections. Strolling downtown at night was a particular hazard, as streetlights were few and far between. Seventeen people and an unrecorded number of horses are said to have perished in Seattle by plunging from curb to sidewalk during that first regrading era.
Interestingly, when engineers finally got around to lifting the sidewalks, they simply mounted them atop heavy arches, abandoning intact a subterranean network of original walkways and formal entrances. This “underground Seattle” was condemned in the early 1900s, and for many years it harbored the city’s criminal contingent, including rumrunners who hauled their illegal intoxicants through the torch-lit tunnels, literally under the noses of the local constabulary. Then, in the 1960s, a popular historian and author named Bill Speidel began taking regular and irreverent public tours through those dusty, cobwebbed corridors. The calamity that had once reduced Seattle to ashes had left it with a prime tourist attraction--“a city beneath a city.”
RELATED: “Seattle Now and Then: Seattle’s First Big Fire,” by Paul Dorpat; “Shake, Rattle, and Remember,” by J. Kingston Pierce (Limbo).