Throwback Thursday: Great Seattle Fire 1889

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Great Seattle Fire Image One
Photo Credit: seattletimes.com

While the whole world discusses the Allied Invasion of Normandy, best known as D-Day, on this same date, fifty-five years prior, the Great Seattle Fire destroyed 29 city blocks, nearly all of its wharves and its railroad terminals. Because of the devastation, downtown Seattle is 20 feet above its original street level. The state of Washington suffered a trifecta of fires that summer as July 4th brought the Great Ellensburg Fire and August 4 brought the Great Spokane Fire, with a fourth fire occurring April 18 in Cheney, Washington.

From Wikipedia:

At approximately 2:30 pm on June 6, 1889, an accidentally overturned glue pot in a carpentry shop started the most destructive fire in the history of Seattle. The next day, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, operating out of temporary facilities in the wake of the fire, reported, incorrectly, that the incident began in “Jim McGough’s paint shop, under Smith’s Boot and Shoe Store, at the corner of Front and Madison streets, in what was known as the Denny block.” [A] correction two weeks later said that it “actually started in the Clairmont and Company cabinet shop, below McGough’s shop in the basement of the Pontius building.” but, the original error was often repeated, including in Murray Morgan‘s bestselling Seattle history book Skid Road (1951).

John Back Image Two
John Back 1885
Image Credit: historylink.org

From History Link:

[…] a man named John E. Back, inadvertently, started a fire in the basement of a downtown building at the southwest corner of Madison Street and Front Street (later renamed 1st Avenue). Five men were working in the cabinet shop including […] Back, age 24, described as a “short, thick-set blonde of mediocre intelligence.” [He] arrived in the United States from Sweden in 1887 and moved to Seattle in October 1888. The following day [he] was located and interviewed by a Post-Intelligencer reporter. […] shortly after the interview, [he] left Seattle.

British poet Rudyard Kipling happened to be touring Puget Sound at the time and arrived in Seattle by steamer shortly after the fire. He described the remains as “a horrible black smudge, as though a Hand had come down and rubbed the place smooth. I know, now, what being wiped out means.”

From the University of Washington

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.

[…] John Back was heating glue over a gasoline fire. Sometime after 2:15p, 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 2:45p. 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 […].

Great Seattle Fire Image Three
Photo Credit: seattlepi.com

Seattle’s water supply proved to be a major problem in fighting the fire. 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.

The fire burned until 3:00 am. When it was done, the damage was enormous. Thousands of people were displaced and 5,000 men lost their jobs. The city didn’t take much time to mourn. 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. Within a year, 465 buildings had been built, most of the reconstruction was complete and the businesses had reopened.

21 thoughts on “Throwback Thursday: Great Seattle Fire 1889

    Angel at Watchyourlifeinpictures said:
    June 6, 2019 at 11:44 pm

    Seattle is being destroyed now by the homeless drug addicts.

      The Hinoeuma responded:
      June 7, 2019 at 12:08 am

      Hm. Sounds a lot like Los Angeles and San Fran.

    Angel at Watchyourlifeinpictures said:
    June 6, 2019 at 11:45 pm

    Interesting post.

    jmshistorycorner said:
    June 7, 2019 at 12:09 am

    Wow! Didn’t know about that.

      The Hinoeuma responded:
      June 8, 2019 at 6:18 pm

      Neither did I until I started digging. It was fascinating.

    the britchy one said:
    June 7, 2019 at 11:19 am

    That was fascinating. I don’t believe redevelopment would happen like that today! Government would stifle it!

      The Hinoeuma responded:
      June 7, 2019 at 3:09 pm

      I was thinking the same damn thing! That and the fact that people, in general, aren’t “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” industrious anymore.

    badfinger20 said:
    June 8, 2019 at 4:01 am

    I didn’t know about this one. The Chicago and San Francisco fire I’ve read about…”Within a year, 465 buildings had been built”… That is some serious construction.
    I can’t imagine how fast a fire would spread in those days with wooden only buildings.

      The Hinoeuma responded:
      June 8, 2019 at 6:21 pm

      The explosion of the liquor store close by accelerated it, exponentially.

        badfinger20 said:
        June 8, 2019 at 6:32 pm

        Oh yea that would have been a bomb pretty much.

      The Hinoeuma responded:
      June 8, 2019 at 6:23 pm

      Oh, yeah, and they had severe water problems. Their hydrant system failed them. Most of the FFs were volunteers & the majority quit after that as the crowds were brutal.

        badfinger20 said:
        June 8, 2019 at 6:36 pm

        I’m surprised they had much of a hydrant system at that time. They were more advanced than I thought.
        What also surprised me was the quickness of the rebuild. That is a hell of a lot of building back then done quickly.

          The Hinoeuma responded:
          June 8, 2019 at 6:49 pm

          The University of Washington link has the descriptions of the poor system. It was too much for my post. I try to make my posts concise & easy to digest.

            badfinger20 said:
            June 8, 2019 at 7:00 pm

            Yes I know what you mean. On some of mine I add too many songfacts.

              The Hinoeuma responded:
              June 8, 2019 at 7:19 pm

              I’ve used Songfacts before but, I read them with discernment. I’ve caught them with bad info and I don’t like that they don’t cite sources.

              I’ve even gone after The History Channel for wrong info. I’ve sent them many emails pointing out stuff.

              Blog posts past 1000 words lose readers. We live in a soundbite world.

                badfinger20 said:
                June 8, 2019 at 7:27 pm

                That is why I list it… hey this is where it’s coming from. I use it for the readers pleasure after I right a couple of paragraphs… I will admit with some songs I can’t find info… and I go with it but I go to Billboard for the chart number after the Hollies song you pointed out.

                Have they ever changed anything you pointed out?

                  The Hinoeuma responded:
                  June 8, 2019 at 11:06 pm

                  Do you ever read Wikipedia for song material? They aren’t always right, either but, if cited properly, it can lead you to the truth. And, sometimes I post Wiki info but, disclaim with no citations.

                  Yep. I was notified that they corrected two of my submissions…and they did. A third one, they didn’t but, what I pointed out was a bit convoluted.

                    badfinger20 said:
                    June 8, 2019 at 11:17 pm

                    Yes I do… I will put it in my own words and add some from other places… I kind of bastardize it. I also have some music books I go by.

                    Beatles I could do by memory but some songs there just isn’t much info… I then just get some facts and write down how I feel about it.

                    I’ve actually started a theme which is new for me… Songs with Beatle references in them… I’m going to do a few of them

                      The Hinoeuma responded:
                      June 8, 2019 at 11:55 pm

                      Heh. Bastardize. That is “paraphrase’s” older brother. LOL!

                      You will be busy. I’m sure there are a lot of references in many.

                      badfinger20 said:
                      June 9, 2019 at 12:37 am

                      Yea I winged that word lol.

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