Seattle Now & Then: Yesler's Sheds

(click to enlarge photos)

THEN: After Seattle's Great Fire of June 6, 1889, temporary lodgings for burned-out businesses were hastily assembled, some above the ashes and others, like these sheds facing Third Avenue south of James Street, nearby.
NOW: After the Yesler mansion burned down on New Year's Day 1901, the block was fitted with the 2,600-seat Coliseum Theatre, which in turn was razed for the first four floors of the new King County Courthouse, dedicated on May 4, 1916.

As far as I can figure from studying many photographs of Seattle’s Great Fire of June 6, 1889, this line of commercial sheds was a unique response to the conflagration. Tents, not sheds, were the primary answer to the needs of a community that lost practically its entire business district.

The inferno ignited about 2 p.m. at the southwest corner of Madison Street and Front Street (First Avenue) and by sunrise the next morning, the flames had consumed about 32 blocks — but not this one.

In 1883, Seattle’s first pioneer industrialists, Henry and Sara Yesler, began building their mansion on this block. Here, they had nurtured an orchard, the village’s largest. Even with the new big home (part of it shows upper-left) the couple kept a few fruit trees on the side lawns. However, if there were any trees left on the mansion’s front lawn, they were removed after the big fire.

Along the Third Avenue side of the Yesler block, between James and Jefferson streets, Yesler and James Lowman, his manager and relative, nailed together temporary quarters for a few of the businesses that were flattened. For his burned-out stationary and printing company, the venerable Lowman and Hanford, Lowman picked the corner shed here at James and Third.

King County’s courthouse (its tower appears here far right at Third and Jefferson) is now City Hall Park. The 1882 courthouse was saved when soaked blankets were applied to the roof, and bureaucrats, litigants, judges and prisoners repeatedly splashed buckets of water against its clapboard walls.

Sara Yesler had died in 1887. Henry and his second cousin, Minnie Gagle, were living in the mansion at the time of the fire. Five months later they were married; she was 54 years his junior.


Anything to add, Paul?  Yes Jean – more features related to the “Great Fire” and in the neighborhood.  We should note that some of the stories may have been used previously in other equally apt contexts.  They perform like leitmotifs in this 0n-going Seattle Symph0ny.

FIRST, the ill-fated Seattle birdseye prepared shortly before the June 6 fire and then made mostly irrelevant except as a detailed memory of a business district that was lost to the fire.  I know of no other copy than this one – sometimes hand-colored – in which the burned area has been given a border crude enough, perhaps, to suggest destruction or even a struggling sign for smoke.

Best to CLICK TWICE. With careful inspection you can find both the Yesler mansion and the Katzenjammer Kastle. (For a description of this birdseye read the text above it.)

NEXT  black and white and color variations of the periodical Western Shore’s Sept. 21, 1889 coverage of the rebuilding underway following the June 6 fire.  (Click TWICE to enlarge)

The West Shore birdseyes look northeast from an imagined position mid-block between First Avenue (It reaches the lower-right corner), the waterfront (off-frame to the left), Washington Street (it runs across the bottom of the sketch) and Main Street (behind the artist).  The structure left of center on the north side of Washington is the Dexter Horton bank.  With some mending it managed to reuse the burned-out shell of its quarters for a few months following the fire.  On the center-horizon are the Central School at 6th and Madison (with the t0wers) and to the right of the school the Rainier Hotel on 5th between Marion and Columbia.  This big hotel was rushed together – of timber – to serve a city that lost most of its hostelries to the fire.  On the far right City Hall – aka the Katzenjammer Kastle – here still the County Courthouse – with its central tower faces the artist over Third Avenue between Jefferson and Terrace Streets.  The Katzenjammer appears in the principal feature (on top) one block south of the photographer.  To the left of the City Hall/ Court House we discover the Yesler Mansion and even a few of the temporary units built on its front lawn.  In the second photograph below the colored rendering of the West Shore birdseye we get a look back through this scene from the front porch of the Katzenjammer, but at an earlier date, sometime perhaps in July, or a few weeks after the fire.

A similar point of view - although lower and earlier - to that taken by the birdseye artist. The bank holds the center at the northwest corner of Main and Commercial (First Ave. South.)
Looking back and west-southwest across Third Avenue from the front porch or steps of the City Hall (Katzenjammer Kastle) at the southeast corner of Jefferson and Third. The tents, of course, are temporary. The King Street Coal Wharf, left-of-center, seems to be restored. The Dexter Horton bank can be found right of center with a banner hanging from it. Workers on the left are preparing another temporary structure facing Yesler Way from its south side. Duwamish head it across the bay, on the far right.
A few of the fire's survivors take the opportunity to advertise together
The day following the fire the Seattle Morning Journal managed to report on it. (Click TWICE to hopefully read.)


The Yesler Mansion between Jefferson and James Streets seen from Third Avenue. That's a library sign hanging above the front steps. Photo by Wilse. Courtesy Lawton Gowey


(First appeared in Pacific, August 22, 1982)

In 1882, Seattle pioneer Henry Yesler made the national news. The Harper’s Weekly story was about the mob lynching of three accused but untried murderers. The hanging was done from a stanchion braced between the forks of two maple trees on the James Street side of Yesler’s backyard. The Harper’s reporter either interviewed Henry or overheard him say, “that was the first fruit them trees ever bore, but it was the finest.” The artist’s sketch accompanying the article shows the outlaws hanging between Yesler’s maples, and beneath them in the crowd stands Henry Yesler busy at his favorite avocation: whittling.

Henry Yesler is found whittling at the bottom margin right-of-center. His home at the northeast corner of James and First (Front St.) is behind and to the left of the hanging maples.
Henry and Sarah Yesler standing in front of their home at the northeast corner of James Street (on the right) and Front Street (First Ave.) on the left. The decorative fir trees and Chinese lanterns (seen full record below) appoint Pioneer Square for the Fourth of July, 1883.

Yesler continues to whittle in this week’s smaller historical photograph (above). His wife Sara poses with him in front of their home at First Avenue and James Street, the present site of the Pioneer Building. To their left (our right) are the hanging maples. Although hidden by the leaves, the stanchion is still in the picture, left as a morbid warning to visiting hoodlums. The year is 1883, and the street is decked out in lanterns, bunting and bordered with evergreens. Whatever the festive occasion, the Yeslers were also celebrating their good fortune of being the largest taxpayers in King County, and having survived in prosperity nearly 30 years in their little home in the center of town. The $92,000 assessment of Yesler’s King County properties in 1881, had risen to $318,000 by 1883.

So Henry and Sara Yesler decided on a larger extravagance, and hired an architect named Bowman to design it. In place of their modest one-story, five-room corner home they would have a three story, 40-room mansion which with its surrounding grounds would fill an entire city block between Third Avenue and Fourth Avenue at James Street.

Construction began on the Yesler Mansion in 1883, but later that year so did the Depression. Both Henry’s prosperity and his home building faltered. By 1885 the Yeslers were nearly bankrupt. When, at last, in July 1886 they moved into their showpiece, it was still not finished. The planned ornate white oak, ash and redwood paneling was missing. Most of the rooms were-empty, so Henry promptly leased many of them as unfurnished office spaces.

By accounts Sara and Henry were a robust couple, with an exuberant habit of dancing into the late hours at public balls. When Sara died suddenly on Aug. 28, 1887, of a “gastric fever” she was only 65. Flags in the city and on ships in the sound were hung at half-mast, many businesses closed and the great house could not hold all the mourners. When the funeral services were over Henry was alone in his home with 40 rooms and a few renters.

Soon, and wisely, Henry decided to leave town. Ten days after his wife’s death, in company with James Lowman, his nephew who since 1886 had been managing Yesler’s business affairs, Henry headed east on the Northern Pacific. He carried two lists: one of friends and relatives to visit, and the other a shopping list of furnishings for his mansion. The 77-year-old Yesler was an intrepid traveler, and soon exhausted his 33-year-old nephew who returned home in October. Yesler kept going until Nov. 26 when he returned to his mansion with the flu and a badly sprained ankle. The injury, illness and memory of his whirlwind tour were, perhaps, enough stimulation to fill the void in his big house left by Sara.

It is also possible that Henry’s mourning was diverted by his second cousin, Minnie Gagle, a “good-looking girl with expressive gray eyes” and 56 years Henry’s junior. Minnie lived in Leitersburg, Maryland, Henry’s birthplace and one of the spots on his tour. In 1888 the Gagles moved to Seattle, by 1889 Minnie was living in the Yesler mansion, and on Sept. 29, 1889 she and Henry were married in Philadelphia, while on another trip east. Returning home, Henry now more than ever stayed in his mansion. But, his marriage seemed either so scandalous or bizarre to his old cronies “that many were alienated and stayed away.”

In 1892, at the age of 82, Henry Yesler, accompanied by Minnie, left his mansion for the last time on a tour to both Alaska and Yellowstone Park. Soon after his return his robust health slipped away. In the early Friday morning of Dec. 16, in the company of two doctors, two nurses, his nephew, his wife and the entire family, the bedridden Yesler wondered aloud if he was about to die. Millie answered, “Are you afraid of dying?” He replied, “No, I don’t care anything about it. The mere dying I don’t like, but the rest I don’t care anything about.” Then, after some nourishment, he added, “That’s all I care for.”

More than 3,000 mourners crowded the Yesler mansion and its grounds for the largest funeral the city had ever been part of.  A scandal as big as his estate ensued. Henry’s young nephew accused his young wife of destroying the will. And the city was involved because it was claimed that this “father of Seattle,” who had built the Puget Sound’s first steam sawmill, been mayor twice, paid the most taxes, had left the bulk of his estate, including the $100,000 mansion, to his city. Now the citizen’s repressed resentment for the scandalously young interloping Minnie broke loose. However, neither this prejudice nor the charges were supported by evidence sufficient to convict her.

In seclusion and guarded by her family, Minnie continued to live in the mansion until 1899 when the Seattle Public Library moved in. Sara Yesler, as the library’s first librarian in 1868, would have approved the change. Now it was librarian Smith who had his office in one of the bedrooms, the bindery in the kitchen, another room for periodicals, which left more than 30 rooms for stacks and storage. Our view of the Yesler Mansion as Public Library was taken in either 1899 or 1900. On New Year’s Day, 1901, it burned down taking 25,000 volumes with it.

In 1903, the Coliseum, a barn-sized theater “the largest west of Chicago seating 2,600” was built on the ruins. Then on May 4, 1916, an “immense pile of granite and terra cotta” was dedicated. Our view of the King County Courthouse, as of the library, is from Third Avenue. A plaque honoring Henry Vesler is at the entrance.

Looking north across City Hall park to the south facade of the Coliseum Theatre during an unidentified event that features, no doubt, some entertainment or instruction (or both) from the platform on the right.


In 1883 the city’s first industrialists Henry and Sarah Yesler rewarded themselves by building a 40-room mansion in their orchard facing Third Avenue between Jefferson and James Streets.  After its destruction by fire in 1901, the site was temporarily filled with the Coliseum Theatre (“The largest west of Chicago, seating 2600.”) until the first floors of the King County Courthouse – aka the City-County Building – replaced it in 1916.  This comparison looks east across Third Avenue.   Historical photo courtesy Plymouth Congregational Church.


(Most of this feature is a reworking of what appears in the earlier feature directly above this one.  The clever “Unred Ruins” title is courtesy of a Times editor.  As a rule none of the titles we submit with our stories are used by the Times.  This is an old pulp tradition – there are headline specialists.  Sometimes – like this one – they come forward with pretty good headers.)

Henry and Sarah Yesler’s mansion was not yet twenty when it burned down early in the morning of New Years Day, 1901.  Actually, from this view of the ruins it is clear that while the big home was gutted by fire neither the corner tower (facing 3rd and Jefferson) nor the front porch – including the library sign over the front stairs – were more than blistered by it.

The Yesler landmark had a somewhat smoky history.  Although completed in 1883 Sara and Henry did not move in, and instead continued to live in their little home facing Pioneer Place for three years more.  When Sarah died in the late summer of 1887 it was in the mansion, which was then opened for the viewing of both Sarah – she was “resting” in its north parlor – and the big home too.

Soon after Sarah’s death Henry and James Lowman, Yesler’s younger nephew who was by then managing his affairs, took a long trip east to visit relatives, buy furnishings for the still largely empty mansion and, as it turned out, find a second wife for Henry.  It was a local sensation when next the not-long-for-this-world octogenarian married in his 20-year-old (she may have been 19) cousin Minnie Gagler.  (I have neither found nor made any special search for a portrait of Minnie.)

After Henry died in the master bedroom in1892 no will could be found. While Minnie was suspected of having destroyed it this could not be proved.  Consequently, the home was not — as Lowman and others expected — given to the city for use as a city hall.  Instead Minnie stayed on secluded in it until 1899 when she moved out and the Seattle Public Library moved in.

Instead of partying on New Years Eve 1900 Librarian Charles Wesley Smith worked until midnight completing the annual inventory of books that only hours later would make an impressive fire.  Except for the books that were checked out, the Seattle Public Library lost about 25 thousand volumes to the pyre.  (The charge that Smith had started the fire was never proven.)


Facing Third Avenue, the Yesler Mansion and City Hall were photographed together in 1900, the last year they would stand side by side. In 1903, the over-sized but short-lived Coliseum Theater was built in the place o/the mansion. In 1916, the lower floors o/the surviving City County Building were dedicated there. Across Jefferson Street, the site 0/the rambling clapboard City Hall that was destroyed in 1909 was ultimately developed into City Hall Park.

This "repeat" from the street may also serve the feature that follows this one.


(First appeared in Pacific, March 24, 2002)

So far as I can recall, this is the only photograph that shows, side by side, two of the more significant structures in our pioneer history. On the left facing Third Avenue is the Yesler Mansion; on the right, Seattle City Hall. From this look at City Hall you cannot tell it, but in its lifetime the hall grew into such a heterodox structure that it was popularly called “the Katzenjammer Castle.” (We will include a wider and later shot below that makes the point.) The nickname was drawn from a comic strip featuring the two mischievous Katzenjammer Kids, whose adventures took place in a cityscape stuffed with clumsy structures resembling Rube Goldberg inventions.

In its own, ornate way, the 40-room Yesler Mansion was also clumsy. In “Shaping Seattle Architecture,” Jeffrey Karl Ochsner of the University of Washington Department of Architecture notes its “highly agitated forms . . . irregular bays, picturesque profile and varied details . . . are typical of American High Victorian architecture.” I, for one, fall for this kind of clumsiness.

When construction began on the mansion in 1883 in time for the depression or “Panic of 1883,” its municipal neighbor was already standing for two years as the King County Courthouse. When, in 1886, Henry and Sara Yesler moved two blocks from their home in Pioneer Place (Square) to their big home, it was barely furnished. After Sara died the following year, Henry and his nephew James Lowman went east to visit relatives and buy furniture. Henry died in late 1892.

Seven years later, the Seattle Public Library moved in. The stay was short. On New Year’s Day 1901, fire destroyed the Yesler Mansion and 25,000 books. Twelve years earlier both buildings just escaped the city’s “Great Fire.”


What we now refer to as the King County Courthouse was first known as the City-County Building when Seattle’s mayor George Cotterill and the King County Commissioners agreed to build and share the new building both needed.  Construction began in June 1914.  This view looks east across 3rd Avenue to where the building’s south side faces what is now called City Hall Park.


(First appeared in Pacific, Sept. 2006)

For fifteen tiring years litigants negotiated First Hill to meet with bureaucrats at the King County Courthouse at 7th Avenue and Alder Street.   Consequently, that part of the hill overlooking Pioneer Square was often called “Profanity Hill.”  But on May 4, 1916 the new courthouse was dedicated, and it suited the Central Business District well, for it looked more like an office building than a courthouse.

The architect of its first five floors, the commandingly named Augustus Warren Gould, was censured by his peers and kicked out of the American Institute of Architects. In the book “Shaping Seattle Architect,” Dennis Anderson explains with his essay on Gould that the architect “violated professional ethics to secure this commission siding with Pioneer Square property holders who fought relocation of city-county offices to the [Denny] regrade area.”  Still Gould kept the commission and this is the result.

Six more sympathetic stories were added in 1929-31.  Unfortunately in the early 1960s, as Lawrence Kreisman (a familiar name to Pacific Northwest readers) notes in “Made to Last” his book on historic preservation, “A major remodeling [that] was intended to capture the spirit of urban renewal and cosmetically disguise the building’s true age destroyed many original features of the elegant marble-clad lobbies, windows and entrance portals.”

The U.S. Food Administration’s sign “Food Will Win the War” certainly dates this view from sometime during the First World War.   In addition to soldiers and munitions the nation was also sending food to Europe and homemakers were signed up as “kitchen soldiers.”   School children recited this rhyming pledge.  “At table I’ll not leave a scrap of food upon my plate.  And I’ll not eat between meals but for supper time I’ll wait.”  These were the years when horse steaks were sold at the Pike Place Market, President Wilson turned the white house law into a pasture for sheep, and the country’s 20th century long march to obesity was temporarily impeded.


Both the unattributed historical recording, above, and Jean Sherrard's repeat, below, look south on First over Spring Street - the former from a balcony above the sidewalk and the latter from Jean's ten-foot pole.

The “GREAT FIRE” of JUNE 6, 1889

(First appeared in Pacific, March 14, 1982)

The Wednesday, June 5, edition of The Times ran beneath its masthead an enthusiastic advertisement for a sale on summer parasols. It had been an unseasonably hot spring and the sun that lay on the city also fanned forest fires in the Cascades. Burning unchecked, they glowed by night and sprinkled ash on Seattle by day. The Times also reported front page that across the continent wetter weather continued on the ruins of Johnstown, Pa., where cold and heavy rains helped spread diphtheria. Six days earlier, May 31, a dam that spanned the Conemaugh River burst and in the time it takes a wall of water to rush 12 miles downstream devastated Johnstown, killing 2,200.

The Wednesday Times also printed an ad for Frye’s Opera House, and its “coming Friday night only appearance of the Cecilian Opera Co. . . .” also would feature “. . . new scenery and magnificent stage effects.”

The Frye Opera House ca. 1887, at the northeast corner of Marion (on the right) and Front (First Ave.).

A story inside continued the compliments. “Theater-goers during the past few weeks have observed a wonderful change in the stage settings at Frye’s Opera House . . . Since the first of the year Frye has put in ten new sets, including one fancy Gothic city, one chamber, a very elegant garden setting, a woods scene.”  Frye’s theater (at the present site of the Federal Building) was when built in 1883 the grandest local landmark with its mansard roof, 1,400 seats and a stage with seven trapdoors. The feature article concluded with assurances that “there are five large exits which provide against any danger of a panic in case of fire or an accident.”

Soon enough the fire came. There would be no Thursday Tunes, no summer parasols, no “elegant garden setting,” no “fancy Gothic city” and no Seattle business district.

The principal photograph looks south down Front Street (First Avenue) from Spring St. towards Madison and the intersection where the “Great Fire of June 6, 1889,” first ignited in a basement wood shop across the street from the Opera House. The crowd stands well back from the heat.  There was no defending the theater, which although brick, is still ablaze and would soon be consumed. The scene was shot around 3 o’clock in the afternoon shortly after the fire began. It is one of the few images of the fire itself. Most local photographers were busy saving their equipment.  We may imagine that many thousands of prints and negatives of the pre-fire city were lost to the flames. Within two hours the fire reached Pioneer Place (or Square) and by 7 o’clock the fire had eaten ‘its way to Main Street and would continue on through the evening past King Street to a wet death in the tideftats where the Kingdome now stands (once stood).

Near the fire's origins at the southwest corner of Madison Street and Front (First Ave) this view was recorded from another balcony above a Front Street sidewalk, this time closer to the fire on the east side of Front about 100 feet north of Madison. With perhaps an hour and a half all this wood would be ablaze.

The Great Fire moved north as well. By sunset the spot from which the photograph was taken, near Spring, and all of the picture’s subjects, including the Minneapolis Art Studio, would be consumed. And in that direction another casualty is noted in Murray Morgan’s classic of local history, Skid Road.

“It climbed east up the hill toward Second Avenue from the Opera House. So great was the heat that the fire pushed backward against the wind across Madison Street and into the Kenyon block which housed, in addition to stores, the press of The Seattle Times.”

And The Times was stunned until Monday, the 10th, when its first post-fire edition would announce: “The Times is still on earth. It is slightly disfigured but still in the ring . . .The Times office went up in flames . . . nothing being saved except the reporters, the files and a few other implements of the trade.” This dauntless report was preceded by a rhyming headline which read:  “SEATTLE DISFIGURED, but still in the ring” this is the song Seattle will sing, New buildings, New hopes, New streets, New town, there’s nothing that can throw Seattle down. She goes thru adversity, fire and flame but the Queen City gets there just the same.”

The Frye Opera House ruins at the center, looking north across Marion Street.

This Queen City – named so earlier by a Portland developer – also got a lot of press attention nationally. But it wasn’t the leveling of 30 central city blocks that was news as much as the human interest it discovered in this frontier town’s steadfast generosity. Before the fire, citizens had pledged $576 in relief to the Johnstown disaster. After their own catastrophe, they decided still to keep the faith and send that pledge along to the flood Victims_

The Monday Times reported: “Everywhere confidence in the future of this city is maintained . . . The heaviest losers are the most cheerful.”  This booming optimism was encouraged in the eventual finding that no human lives were lost.  However, thousands of rats and at least one horse died that day.  As the Monday Times reported: “The men who left a head horse in a vacant lot off Madison near Broadway on the day of the Fire: If they do not removed the carcass, they will be reported to the police as the stench arising from the animal is sickening.”


The off-shore reach of Yesler’s Wharf is impressive even after it was destroyed during the city’s “Great Fire” of June 6, 1889.  The contemporary scene steps back perhaps two hundred feet to catch the ramps that serve the passenger ferries at the foot of Yesler Way.


(First appeared in Pacific, Nov. 2003)

By a contemporary’s description Yesler’s Wharf and the rest of the waterfront was “transformed to charcoal” by the city’s Great Fire of June 6, 1889.  The fire began around 2:45 in the afternoon at Front Street (First Avenue) and Madison Street.  Pushed by an unseasonably hot wind out of the north it skittered south along the waterfront reaching and engulfing Yesler Wharf by 5:30.

Stripped by the fire of its structures and planking the wharf revealed a substantial foundation of fill and debris gathered through nearly a half-century of serving as the community’s industrial center at the foot of Mill Street (Yesler Way).  This view looks east from near the wharf’s outer end to the still standing ruins of the ornate brick buildings that formed a show-strip along the west side of First Avenue for the two blocks between Columbia Street, on the far left and Yesler Way, on the far right.

Here perhaps three or four days after the fire (parts of the rubble are still smoldering) the wharf is already being rebuilt.  The new beams at the bottom of the scene have been attached to what is left of the pilings at the southern edge of the fill.  The fire obviously could not burn below the water line, and at low tide the best of the surviving stubs were capped and extended.  The fire has surely contributed to some of the fill showing between the beams.  The size of this scene can be gauged by the single worker standing on a beam right of center.

Barely visible left of center is a Lilliputian party of citizens in suits and dresses visiting the site.  They are probably carrying the passes that were required until the eleventh of June. That day a local daily reported that the “district was opened to the public and immediately invaded by a heterogeneous crowd of the curious, relic hunters, vagrants and thieves . . .  Riff raff and land pirates set about digging . . .  All articles of value that could be found in the ruins were seized upon and many disgraceful scenes enacted . . .  The military returned and drove the vagrants out.”

Seattle Rifles show a line of disciplined force and present a chance to use them again this week - as we did last. Here they stand - still - on Front Street (First Ave.) near the foot of Columbia Street with the photographer looking south along the west side of Front thru what was the city's 1880's show-strip of elegant brick structures - until June 6, 1889.

By the end of June nearly all the ruins had been razed, the debris removed and the fire district dappled with temporary tents for businesses.  At summer’s end the waterfront was almost entirely planked over, extended, and rebuilt with many more piers and warehouses larger than those destroyed by the fire.


When its first ornate section was built in 1883 the Occidental hotel was perhaps the principal architectural sign of Seattle’s then recent ascendancy as the most populated community in Washington Territory.  With its 1887 additions the hotel covered the entire flatiron block between Second, Yesler and James.  Destroyed by the “Great Fire” of June 5,1889, the Occidental was replaced by the Seattle Hotel whose unfortunate destruction in 1961 by many reckonings mobilized Seattle’s “forces of preservation.”  A small section of its dismal replacement, the “Sinking Ship Garage,” appears in the contemporary photograph right of center between the Pioneer Building and the trees of Pioneer Square.

A portion of the "Sinking Ship" appears right-of-center. The photograph that follows looks east from this position after the fire and before any of the burned out block between Cherry, James, First and Second was rebuilt.
Looking east from Pioneer Square (or place) mid-block to the surviving structures on the east side of Second Avenue between James, on the right, and Cherry, on the left. The Yesler mansion peeks above the surviving tree on the right, and to the right of the tree is the Normandie Hotel at the southwest corner of Third and James. It is now the only pre-fire structure that survives in the business district. On the far left horizon is the home with its central tower of James Colman at the southeast corner of Fourth and Columbia. On the right, Guy Phinney's real estate sales tent is the only structure seen on the block. He would build the Butler hotel at that corner. Some of these structures on Second can be seen in the next scene below, from the perspective of the Boston Block at the southeast corner of Second and Columbia. It was the largest surviving structure in town suitable for mostly displaced merchants and professionals - including the post office - and was soon stuffed with them.
As just noted above, looking south from the Boston Block across Cherry Street into part of the burned district. Note - and compared with the photograph above this one - the Phinney tent on the right near the northwest corner of James and Second. Upper-left is the rear of the Normandie, also found and described in the photo caption above this one.


(First appeared in Pacific, June 6, 2004)

One hundred and sixteen years ago this morning on June 6, 1889 that part of Seattle’s excited population that tired of watching the flames through the night and had surviving beds to drop into awoke to these ruins and thirty-plus blocks of more ruins and ashes.  The Occidental Hotel’s three-story monoliths — perhaps the grandest wreckage — held above the still smoking district like illustrations for the purple and red prose of that morning’s Seattle Daily Press. (It is printed above.)

“The forked tongues of a pierce pitiless holocaust have licked up with greedy rapacity the business portion of Seattle . . . It was a catastrophe sudden and terrific. Besides the smoking tomb-like ruins of a few standing walls . . . people are left living to endure with sheer despair . . . blackness, gloom, bereavement, suffering, poverty, the hideous remains of a feast of fire.”

More temporary tents to the sides of Yesler Way. The ruins of the Occidental Hotel appear here on the right across Second Ave, which is unseen below the bottom border. Duwamish Head is across the Bay and the King Street Coal Wharf, far left, is still not serving any vessels.

Predictably, the reporter’s hideous remains were also fantastic and the city’s photographers were soon making sidewalk sales of scenes like this one.  If the best of these ruins had been allowed to stand it would have become both romantic and revered, but it was not.  The Occidental’s  “towers” were blown up on the evening of the eighth.  (Most likely it was either late on the 7th or 8th that this record of their silhouette was captured for the district was still generally ablaze on the sixth.)

Above and below, an Occidental Hotel menu from 1887.

The fire started at about 2:30 in the afternoon of June 5 at the southwest corner of Front Street (First Ave.) and Madison.  It took a little less than four hours for it to reach and jump James Street and ignite the north wall of the hotel.  In another dozen minutes the fire passed through the distinguished landmark and jumped Yesler Way to spread through the firetrap frame structures between Yesler and the tideflats that were then still south of King Street.

The Occidental Hotel looking east on Mill Street (Yesler Way) from Commercial Street (First Ave. S.). The date is most likely sometime in 1887 for that year's extension of the hotel to the east is underway. Note the scaffolding. James Street is on the left. The tracks are for the horse-hauled "bob tail" common carrier that ran up Second Avenue to Pike and from there west to First (Front) where it continued north in the Belltown and eventually to the foot of Queen Anne Hill.
Another look at the Occidental ruins, this time with a few of the manly fireman posing below them. (Courtesy, University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections)


Then caption: Looking north on an unpaved Second Avenue in July 1889.  The nearly new tracks on the left served the first electric trolley on the Pacific Coast when the conversion was made from horses to dynamos earlier in March.  Second was paved in the mid-1890s and thereafter quickly became Seattle’s “Bicycle Row” with many brands to choose from sold mostly out of small one story storefronts, especially in this block between Spring and Seneca Streets.  (Pix courtesy of Michael Maslan)  Now caption:  The widened Second north of Spring Street was half quiet when photographed on a late Sunday afternoon.


The city’s “great fire” of June 6, 1889 consumed most of the business district – more than 30 blocks – but not this block, the first part of Second Avenue that was not in some part scorched.  After the disaster it quickly served in the rebuilding that turned practically every available lot and lawn on Second into a sewn strip of temporary tents.  The Times for June 10 reported that while “the slabs and sawdust piles are still burning and sending clouds of smoke back over the town” over 100 permits had been issued to put up tents.

Judging by the canvas signs, the large tent on the far left, at the southwest corner of Second and Seneca Street, is shared by two firms: Doheny and Marum Dry Goods and the “manufacturers agents”, Avery, Kirk and Lansing.  Before they were for the most part wiped out by the fire the two businesses were already neighbors at the northwest corner of Columbia and Front (First Avenue).

Around two o’clock on the afternoon of June 6, or bout a half-hour before the fire started, Avery and his partners were suddenly $2,500 richer, when W.A. Gordon, a young man recently arrived from Maine, invested that amount, “everything he had” the papers reported, in the business.  The sudden cash most likely helped with the construction of the big tent.  Still we do not see Gordon’s name stitched to it.

We know from a Times article of August 2, titled “A Tent Occupant’s News” that a firm doing business on Second just north of Seneca had paid $2 a month per running foot for space to construct the framework for a tent and cover it with canvas “at the expense of several hundred dollars.”  Now less than two months later the landlord was asking the city to remove the tent for the construction of a building.  The threatened residents appealed, “We do not want to be thrown into the street.”

A few tents did business for a year before the city council decided there were “buildings enough for all” and ordered the last of them removed.


Then Caption: Looking west on Cherry Street from Third Avenue into part of the “brand new” Seattle built after the “Great Fire” of 1889.    (photo courtesy Lawton Gowey) Now Caption: Within twenty years of the ’89 fire much of the new city was being rebuilt bigger.  Here the Dexter Horton Building on the right, the Hoge building, left-of-center and across 2nd Ave, and the Alaska Building, at the southeast corner also of Second and Cherry are surviving landmarks of that enlargement.  (by Jean Sherrard)


(First published in Pacific March, 2008)

In 1890 the photographers William Boyd and George Braas formed a partnership seeing, perhaps, in the new city being built above the ashes of the old one destroyed in the “great fire’ of 1889 an opportunity to put their “mirror” to the great changes and prosper with them.  The partnership lasted barely two years and this example of their work most likely dates from 1892, although without a blade or leaf of landscaping we get no hints of the season.

The partners have titled it, lower-left, “Cherry St. Seattle” and given it the number “141.”  The view looks west on Cherry through its intersection with Third Avenue, and everything within their frame, excepting the old clapboards on the far left, is nearly new.  One can sense in this sturdy cityscape of brick, sandstone, and fine lines what an elegant city Seattle was after the fire — and almost instantly.

Right of center are the New York Block at Second Avenue and, far right, the Occidental Building, then home for the Albemarle Hotel.  Both structures were designed by the by then already venerable Seattle architect William E. Boone who sometimes topped his sensitive posture with a skull cap.  On the smoldering heels of the fire the Occidental Building was built quickly in three months and a few days.  The New York block was the opposite.  First designs were ready in 1889 but the building was not completed until 1892.  Both structures were later sacrificed for the grand terra cotta tiled Dexter Horton building, which occupies most of the “now” scene.

The Bailey Block at the southwest corner of Second and Cherry, far left, survives although most of its stone clad skin is hidden in the “now” behind the Alaska Building, which when it was added in 1904 was the Seattle’s first “absolutely fireproof all steel frame” skyscraper.


Then Caption:  Looking west down a planked Columbia Street to the waterfront from Third Avenue, circa 1900.   [Photo courtesy Larry Hamilton]  Now Caption:  The Colman Building is the only survivor from the “then” but it can barely be detected, right-of-center, with added stories at the northwest corner of First Ave. and Columbia Street.  It is directly across First from the Norton Building, in 1959 one of Seattle’s first glass curtain wall skyscrapers.  [Now by Jean Sherrard]


Last week we looked west on Cherry Street from Third Ave. in 1892 and here a few years later we move one block north and look west again on Columbia to Elliot Bay.   In the foreground worn planking gives a texture to Columbia but at Second Avenue it runs into brick.

Behind the pole on the right, stands the stately little classic that was Seattle’s post office for most of the 1890s.   When it moved to new quarters in 1899, the sidewalk news depot and stationary store survived.  A few of the periodicals offered are hung in display beneath the large sidewalk awning.

At the corner with 2nd Avenue, the ornate two story Colonial Building was built by Harvard graduate Herman Chapin who also raised the plain four-story brick Boston Block directly across Columbia at its southeast corner with Second.  Constructed in 1887-88, their timing and locations were most fortunate for both buildings just escaped the city’s Great Fire of 1889 (although it cracked their windows) and following the fire they were temporarily stuffed with businesses displaced by it.

The broad-shoulder Haller Building holds the northwest corner of Second and Columbia, right of center. Built directly after the fire from a design by the prolific architect Elmer Fisher, its principal tenant here is the Seattle National Bank, one of whose directors was the “capitalist” Theodore Haller.

Just by the signs evident here in this first block on Columbia one can buy a sewing machine, photograph supplies, a haircut, a Turkish bath, a newspaper, and a meal at the Alley Restaurant, sensibly in the alley north of Columbia.  At the waterfront it is still a tall ship with two masts that rests in the slip between the Yesler and Colman docks.


Historical Caption:  In the shadow of the Haller Building at Columbia Street an unnamed photographer looks south on Second and into what was then still the city’s primary financial district.  (Courtesy Michael Cirelli.) Now Caption; Second Avenue has been elaborately altered in the century between this now and then.  Still the Alaska building can be detected in both.  (Jean Sherrard)


This is the third week in a row that we have featured looks into Second Avenue’s financial district or here down it during Seattle’s greatest boom years, the two decades following the “Great Fire” of 1889 when the City grew from about 40 thousand to almost that many more than 200 thousand.

Two weeks ago we looked west on Cherry toward Second from Third, ca. 1892.  Last week Columbia Street was the subject, again looking west from Third to Second, ca. 1900.  And here about another eight years later an unnamed photographer records Second Avenue looking south from mid-block between Marion and Columbia, which is being crossed by a lonely motorcar and an electric trolley on the Lake Union line.

What stands out and up in this view is at is center: the Alaska Building (1904) at the southeast corner of Cherry, Seattle’s first skyscraper.

The banner strung across Second Avenue mid-block above the trolley reads, in part, “Old Time 4th at Pleasant Beach (on Bainbridge Island), Boats Leave on the Hour, 50 cents.  Including Dancing and Sports.”  So the photograph was recorded early in the summer.  Since there is no evidence of the citywide promotions connected with the 1909 Alaska Yukon Pacific Expo, we choose 1908 – a century ago – as a likely date.

The Hinkley Block, far right, dates from 1892 and here it is filled with lawyers, dentists, and even some artists. The brick paving on Second is about 12 years old.  The oldest structures in this scene are the two on the left: the Colonial or Chapin Block on the northeast corner of Columbia and the Boston Block south across Columbia.  As noted last week both were built before the fire of 1889 and provided great service to businesses following it.  Post-fire photographs from 1889 show these two buildings standing along above the burned-out business district.

The surviving Boston Block, center, and the smaller Chapin Block across Columbia Street, to the left, seen over the smoldering rubble of the Great Fire of June 6, 1889.


The three blocks between Cherry and Madison Street have almost completely changed in the century since the historical photo was recorded looking north on First Avenue from Cherry Street.  The Colman Building (beyond the trees in the “now”) is the big exception.   If the year of the historical scene is not 1907, it is close to it. HISTORICAL PHOTO courtesy of Greg Lange


(First appeared in Pacific Sept. 2006)

Somehow the historical photographer managed to carry his or her camera to a temporary perch and look north on First Avenue and above the Kenneth Hotel sign at the foot of Cherry Street. With a bustling sidewalk and street scene – including seven trolleys – this elevated portrait of First was favored with its own colorized post card.

In the 1850s this was still the site of a knoll on which the locals built the North Block House that protected them during the one-day “Battle of Seattle’ of Jan 26. 1856.  The Indians small arms fire from the woods beyond Third Avenue barely penetrated the logs of the fort although one local was hit and killed while peeking out the temporarily open door.  That casualty stood close to our photographer’s mysterious prospect.

James Clemmer, a young theatre man from Spokane, first managed the Kenneth Hotel in 1907, and lived there too.  Within a year he converted the hotel lobby into the Dream Theatre, the first Seattle theatre to treat films “seriously” by regularly mixing “one-reelers” with vaudeville acts.  The theatre was deep but narrow, for although seven stories high the Kenneth was built on one lot.  As such it was Seattle’s best reminder of Amsterdam.  From this prospect we cannot tell if the theatre is as yet below the hotel sign.

I raised my camera with a pole (or monopod).  Directly behind me is Pioneer Square and its official historic district most of which was built soon after the city’s “Great Fire” of 1889.   Of course, most of the buildings showing north of Cherry Street in the older view were also built in the first decade following the fire but with few exceptions that they have been razed and replaced – in a few instances (like across First at its southeast corner with Columbia Street) with stock parking lots.

Looking north through Front Street's (First Ave.) show-strip block and from nearly the same prospect as the above now-then comparison. Again this view was recorded with a camera that was elevated most likely on a ladder leaning against one of the ruined brick monoliths. Denny Hill is on the horizon.


Above, pioneer photographer LaRoche’s circa 1892 panorama of the restored business district looks down from the front lawn of the then new King County Courthouse over 7th Avenue.  The Yesler mansion appears far left.  Jean’s approximate repeat was taken recently from the roof of Harborview Hospital.  (Click these TWICE – please)






One thought on “Seattle Now & Then: Yesler's Sheds”

  1. This article, with its wealth of accompanying now and then photos and its various detailed and informative captions has taught me new aspects about a neighborhood’s history that I thought I was familiar with. Congratulations to you both. Whenever people ask me about Seattle’s history, yours is the site I urge them to visit first. A great public service.

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