I am writing this on June 6, 2015, the 126th anniversary of Seattle’s Great Fire. Most likely you are reading it about one month later. That places you closer to the 126th anniversary of this subject, which in 1889 was still Seattle’s primary business district, reduced to charred rubble. The scene was photographed, I surmise, late in the month of June or perhaps even in early July.
With the help of the many surviving photographs of the ruins, it is easy to determine from what prospect this scene was recorded. The unnamed photographer stood on Main Street looking north by northeast over Main Street’s northwest corner with Second Avenue (later renamed Occidental.) It is a typical post-fire cityscape that reveals a layering of ruins, temporary tents, and some of the surviving city blocks that were not among the 35 or so destroyed by the conflagration in its seven hours of wind-driven destruction.
Of the ten or so landmarks with towers that break the First Hill horizon we’ll note but three. First, far left, stands the Gothic spire of First Methodist Church at the southeast corner of Third Avenue and Marion Street. Next, at the scene’s center and farther up the hill, are the two towers of Central School on the south side of Madison Street, where now passes the Seattle Freeway (I-5) ditch. Much closer to the photographer, to the left of the scorched power pole, the Yesler mansion faces Third Avenue, on the north side of Jefferson Street. It was saved with a combination of soaked blankets spread on the roof and volunteers who extinguished the flying embers. Nearby, just right of the same power pole, another battle on the shingles saved the King County Courthouse. After the murder trail then underway was adjourned by Judge Hanford, buckets of water were lifted with a rope borrowed from the flagpole to drench the roof.
By the 10th of June, four days following the fire, over one hundred permits had been issued to erect temporary tents. Like those shown here, most of the tents were stretched on sturdy frames and anchored to heavy planks. Months later some of these canvas quarters were still standing and being used as store fronts.
Most of the pre-fire neighborhood south of Yesler Way was built of wood. Brick structures were rare. So the orderly piles of bricks here [in the featured photo at the top] encroaching on the street, right-of-center, is – or was – an inviting mystery. Except that almost certainly these bricks were salvaged from the wreckage of the large but short-lived Squire Building, here at the northwest corner of
Main Street and Second Ave. (Occidental). In the 1888 Sanborn real estate map this corner lot is captioned “Excavation for Brick Block to be three stories.” For his research on Pioneer Square neighborhood structures, Greg Lange found in the 1889 Polk Directory more than thirty tenants renting quarters in Watson Squire’s namesake block. Once the fire, heading south, reached Yesler Way around six pm, Watson’s renters must have already started gathering what they could before scrambling up First Hill.
MORE POST-FIRE RUINS, TENTS & RECONSTRUCTION
Anything to add, fellas? Yes Jean, but first Ron and I – and now the readers too – wish you and yours a happy farewell as you fly away to Europe with twenty-five (about) Hillside students and your protective cadre of instructors to visit first London and then Paris, and surely some of the same sites that you and I explored together in 2005. I will send you – as you have instructed – some shots I took when first visiting the same cities as a teenager in 1955, for your intentions to repeat them now sixty years later – gadz. Perhaps we can sneak them into Pacific – one or two of them. It will depend, I think, on how sentimental the editors are feeling at the time of submission, and the pun is intended. Bon Voyage Jean and carry our love to Berangere, who, I know, will be helping you in Paris. Often I’d just like to move there and follow BB around those ancient blocks with a bag of bon bons and one light weight digital camera.