(click to enlarge photos)
The fire started around 9:00 on the Saturday evening of July 26, 1879, in room No. 12 on the second floor of the American House. Only the day before the hotel advertised itself in the Daily Intelligencer as “The best and cheapest House in town for a poor man.” The hotel sat by the waterfront end of Mill Street (Yesler Way), near the Seattle Lumber Mill, which was reduced to rubble smoldering above a few salvageable saws.
On Sunday the newspaper opened its first report on the fire with a sensational exaggeration. “The long expected conflagration that was to destroy this wooden town has come and done its terrible work. In an hour a score of business houses were destroyed, half as many men ruined and a hundred and fifty thousand dollars worth of property swept out of existence.” In addition to the cheap hotel where it started, the fire consumed “five saloons, a seamen’s bethel, a machine shop, a marble shop, two sash and door factories, a chair factory, a grist mill, a turning shop” and various other smaller structures. All were soon rebuilt, but to stricter fire codes that were enacted after the fire. Ten years later Seattle’s business district was nearly wiped out with its “Great Fire” of June 6, 1889, which razed more than thirty city blocks, including Yesler’s wharf and most of the waterfront.
This Peterson & Bro Studio photograph looks west from near Post Avenue through the ruins of the Seattle Lumber Mill. Volunteers, including sailors from ships in Elliott Bay, saved the several warehouses that were standing at the end of Yesler’s wharf with a great and heroic dousing of the dock. Volunteers armed with buckets and wet blankets also protected the Daily Intelligencer’s frame quarters at the foot of Cherry Street, which was also the home of the Peterson & Bro Studio.
The city’s nearly new Gould Steam Fire Engine performed well until its suction lining came loose. The engine had been delivered earlier that year with great fanfare. An enthused and expectant citizenry followed it and the six horses pulling it on parade from its waterfront landing – almost certainly on this dock – to Yesler’s Pavilion for a community dance and a “bounteous repast . . . prepared by the ladies of the town.”
The Daily Intelligencer concluded its Sunday report with a description of the frantic evacuation taken by citizens with their goods from quarters that were never reached by the fire. “Every place of business in the Yesler block, on Mill and Front Streets, [was] stripped of its contents except those in the Intelligencer building . . . Stores were wholly or partially emptied, and the streets were lined with furniture, boxes of groceries, clothing, drugs, jewelry, etc. . . Trusty men and horses and wagons were in demand at high prices. Reckless and ridiculous things without number, as is always the case on such occasions, were done on every hand.”
Anything to add, lads? Surely Jean, starting with nineteen Edge links and then followed by whatever we get up after lunch (your time dear reader) on Sunday (this day). It is 3am, and time for me to prepare to walk the stairs to my horseshoe-shaped pillow in time to hear the birds outside my window welcome the light while I cover my eyes with a black sock for the duration.
3 thoughts on “Seattle Now & Then: Seattle’s First Big Fire”
Re: the article titled “Fir Will Burn”: what in the heck are “mad houses?” I can’t imagine they are actual mental institutions. This is slang I’ve not heard before so I’m curious!
Hi Shannon, the referenced “madhouses” (also called in the vernacular of the time, “squaw dance houses”) were early dive bars with bad reps – hard men went there to drink hard liquor. When the Pinnell madhouse burned down in 1878, no one tried to put out the fire – they just watched it burn!
I have wanted for years to ask somebody about this but have never known who to ask. The story about Seattle’s first big fire has given me inspiration!
In the story you refer to Post Avenue but I am almost certain that may not be correct. I used to drive a delivery truck in Seattle back in the 70’s and I distinctly remember the street signs being Post Street. It had the distinction of being the only “Street” in Seattle running north and south(As opposed to an Avenue), In recent decades I have noticed that it has somehow now become Post Alley or Post Avenue and the “Street” designation is now gone. Do you know of any history surrounding this?