Great Seattle Fire

Start of the Great Seattle Fire, looking south on 1st Ave. near Madison St.

The Great Seattle Fire was a fire that destroyed the entire central business district of Seattle, Washington, on June 6, 1889. The fire burned for several hours, destroying 25 blocks and causing as much as $20 million in damage ($527 million in today's dollars). As a result of the fire, streets in the Pioneer Square neighborhood in Seattle were elevated 22 feet (6.7 m) above the pre-fire street level and new buildings made of wood were banned.

Early Seattle

In the fall of 1851, the Denny Party arrived at Alki Point in what is now the state of Washington. After spending a miserable winter on the western shores of Elliott Bay, the party relocated to the eastern shores and established the settlement that would become Seattle.[1] Early Seattle was dominated by the logging industry. The combination of a safe bay and an abundance of coniferous trees made Seattle the perfect location for shipping lumber to California. In 1852, Henry Yesler began construction of the first steam-powered mill in the Pacific Northwest.[2] Because of the easy access to lumber, nearly every building was constructed of the affordable, but combustible timber. Additionally, because the area was at or below sea level, the fledgling town was a frequent victim of massive floods, requiring buildings to be built on wooden stilts. The town also used hollowed out scrap logs propped up on wooden braces as sewer and water pipes, increasing the combustible loading.

Events of the Fire

Aftermath of Seattle fire of June 6, 1889, looking east at the ruins of the Occidental Hotel at corner of James St. and Yesler Way.

The spring of 1889 in Seattle had been beautiful. There had been little rain, and temperatures were consistently in the 70s Fahrenheit. 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.[3]

On the afternoon of June 6, 1889, John Back, a Swedish assistant in Victor Clairmont's woodworking shop at the corner of 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 pm. 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. At first it was assumed to have begun in the paint shop above Clairmont's woodworking shop and the Seattle newspaper erroneously ran this story the next day.[4][5] The fire quickly spread to the Dietz & Mayer Liquor Store, which exploded; the Crystal Palace Saloon; and the Opera House Saloon. Fueled by immense amounts of 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. Fire 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 stopped working. 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 pm, 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 deafening roar of the fire was heard for miles. Help had been called in from Tacoma, Portland, and even Victoria, British Columbia, but would take hours to arrive. Business- and home-owners cleared out as much possessions and products 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-witted 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 Street to Jackson Street. 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 its losses at over $8 million, and that number did not even include human losses or those of water and electrical services. The total losses may have been as high as $20 million.

The city took little 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 major 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 fire hydrants. The fire, which could have spelled the end of the city, instead became just a brief setback, and led to many significant improvements.


By the morning of June 7, the fire had burned 25 city blocks, including the entire business district, four of the city's wharves, and its railroad terminals.[6] The fire would be called the most destructive fire in the history of Seattle.[7] Despite the massive destruction of property, there was no casualty reported. However, there were fatalities during the cleanup process and an estimated 1 million rodents were killed. Total losses were estimated at nearly $20,000,000 ($528 million in today's dollars).[8]

Reconstruction and Recovery

This stack of dishes fused together by the fire is on display at Seattle's Museum of History and Industry.

Despite the magnitude of destruction, the rebuilding effort began quickly. Rather than starting over somewhere else, Seattle's citizens decided to rebuild.

Seattle rebuilt from the ashes quickly. The fire had done a fine job of cleansing the town of rats and other vermin. A new building ordinance resulted in a downtown of brick and stone buildings, rather than wood; and at the same time the street levels were raised by up to 22 feet (6.7 m).[9]

In the year following the fire Seattle's population actually grew by nearly 20,000 to 40,000 inhabitants from the influx of people helping to recreate the city.[10] Supplies and funds came from all over the West Coast to support the relief effort. The population increase made Seattle the largest city in Washington, making it a leading contender in becoming the terminus of the Great Northern Railway.[11]

Post-Fire Reform

The city made many improvements in response to the fire. The city's fire department shifted from a volunteer to a paid force with new firehouses and a new chief. The city took control of the water supply, increasing the number of fire hydrants and adding larger pipes.[9] 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.[12] 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.


  1. Chris Casey (n.d.). "Seattle History". Boulevards New Media. Retrieved 16 December 2008.
  2. James R. Warren (September 25, 2001). "Ten who shaped Seattle: Henry Yesler struck gold in lumber and real estate". Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Retrieved 16 December 2008.
  3. "The Great Seattle Fire". University Libraries, University of Washington. University of Washington.
  4. Hugh McGough (n.d.). "The Great Seattle Fire—Don't Blame Jimmie McGough". Retrieved 17 December 2008.
  5. Casey McNerthney (2011-07-22). "The P-I error that changed Seattle history". Retrieved 2011-07-30.
  6. Greg Lange (January 16, 1999). "Seattle's Great Fire". Retrieved 17 December 2008.
  7. Austin, Charles W.; H.S. Scott. "The Great Seattle Fire of June 6, 1889". Washington State Genealogical and Historical Review (Spring, 1983): 41–72.
  8. Austin & Scott, p. 45
  9. 1 2 "Great Seattle Fire". Digital Collections. University of Washington Libraries. 23 January 2007. Archived from the original on 2007-05-20. Retrieved 2007-06-29.
  10. Davies, Kent R. "Sea of Fire". Columbia Magazine (Summer 2001): 32–38.
  11. MacDonald, Norbert (1987). Distant Neighbors: A Comparative History of Seattle and Vancouver. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press. pp. 33–38.
  12. Ochsner, Jeffrey Karl; Dennis A. Andersen (2003). Distant Corner: Seattle Architects and the Legacy of H.H. Richardson. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press. pp. 55–110.

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