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).
[…] 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.”
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 […].
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.