Seattle Now & Then: Seattle’s First Big Fire

(click to enlarge photos)

THEN:Ruins from the fire of July 26, 1879, looking west on Yesler’s dock from the waterfront. (Courtesy Museum of History and Industry)
THEN: Ruins from the fire of July 26, 1879, looking west on Yesler’s dock from the waterfront. (Courtesy Museum of History and Industry)
NOW: Both the historical and contemporary subjects were recorded from Yesler Way near Post Avenue.
NOW: Both the historical and contemporary subjects were recorded from Yesler Way near Post Avenue.

A detail from the featured photo showing the surviving warehouses at the end of Yesler's dock (or wharf). [Courtesy, Ron Edge]
A detail from the featured photo showing the surviving warehouses at the end of Yesler’s dock (or wharf). [Courtesy, Ron Edge]
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.

Ad for the American House, July 26, 1879
Ad for the American House, July 27, 1879

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.

Days later the Daily Intelligencer reflected on the combustible qualities of Seattle summarizing its greater losses to fires.
Days later the Daily Intelligencer reflected on the combustible qualities of Seattle summarizing its greater losses to fires.
Yesler's Wharf from the rear of the Peterson and Bros studio at the foot of Cherry Street, upstairs above The Intelligencer offices. "Someone" has dated this 1878.
Yesler’s Wharf from the rear of the Peterson and Bros studio at the foot of Cherry Street, upstairs above The Intelligencer offices.  Peterson -or his brother has dated this 1878.

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.

An 1879 advertisement for Peterson and his brother.
An 1879 advertisement for Peterson and his brother.   Their claims were probably true.  They were the best then  operating in town.  We will attach next an 1878 photo that looks north up Front Street (First Ave.) to Denny Hill from the  front or street-side east end of their studio, and another of the extended Peterson family posing at home as if not posing. 
Looking north on Front Street (First Avenue) from the front second floor window of the Peterson & Bros Studio at the foot of Cherry street. The date is 1878 and the hill on the horizon is Denny, although its principal owner, Arthur Denny called it Capitol Hilll in hopes of luring the state capitol from Olympia to this his hill.
Looking north on Front Street (First Avenue) from the front second floor window of the Peterson & Bros Studio at the foot of Cherry street. The date is 1878 and the hill on the horizon is Denny, although its principal owner, Arthur Denny called it Capitol Hilll in hopes of luring the state capitol from Olympia to this his hill.
The Petersons at home.
The Petersons at home with Abraham Lincoln.

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.”

Yesler's hall under the 1880 "Big Snow" (hereabouts the biggest recorded) shot by Peterson either from his studio window or the Intelligencer's front porch on Front Street, here at the foot of Cherry Street.
Yesler’s hall under the 1880 “Big Snow” (hereabouts the biggest recorded) shot by Peterson either from his studio window or from the Intelligencer’s front porch on Front Street, here at the foot of Cherry Street.  We will follow this with another of the 1880 snow, this one from the Peterson’s back window looking somewhat down at part of Yesler Wharf a half-year after the 1879 fire.
The Big Snow of 1880, with the Peterson record centered on a collapsed roof on Yesler Wharf. The King Street Coal Wharf appears beyond the tall ships. It is a West Seattle horizon.
The Big Snow of 1880, with the Peterson record centered on a collapsed roof on Yesler Wharf. The King Street Coal Wharf appears beyond the tall ships. It is a West Seattle horizon.
Most likely another Peterson & Bros shot from their studio window. The mill has been rebuilt and the sheds proliferate. The subject is "conventionally" dated 1884, five years before it all be destroyed by the Great Fire` of June 6, 1889.
Most likely another Peterson & Bros shot from their studio window. The mill has been rebuilt and the sheds proliferate. The subject is “conventionally” dated 1884, five years before it will all be destroyed by the Great Fire` of June 6, 1889.  We will include below a look at the 1889 destruction looking east from near the end of the consumed Yesler Wharf.
The first Yesler Wharf was built on pilings punched into and through fill. The subject looks east from the water end of Yesler Wharf following the 1889 fire that razed about 32 city blocks (depending upon how you define and count blocks.)
The first Yesler Wharf was built on pilings punched into and through fill. The subject looks east from the water end of Yesler Wharf following the 1889 fire that razed about 32 city blocks (depending upon how one defines and counts blocks.)  The backs of the ruined showstrip structures on the west side of Front Street (First Avenue) reach from Yesler Way on the right to Columbia Street on the left.
The 1889 ruins on Front Street (First Ave.) looking north from near where the Peterson and Bros Studio was a tenant in the late 1870s and early 80's. Compare this to the Elephant Store - Denny Hill shot above.
The 1889 ruins on Front Street (First Ave.) looking north from near where the Peterson and Bros Studio was a tenant in the late 1870s and early 80’s. Compare this to the Elephant Store – Denny Hill shot above.

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.”

WEB EXTRAS

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.

THEN:In late 1855 the citizens of Seattle with help from the crew of the Navy sloop-of-war Decatur built a blockhouse on the knoll that was then still at the waterfront foot of Cherry Street. The sloop’s physician John Y. Taylor drew this earliest rendering of the log construction. (Courtesy, Yale University, Beinecke Library)

THEN: Frank Shaw’s late winter composition of waterfront landmarks at the foot of Madison Street in 1963. (Photo by Frank Shaw)

THEN: For the first twenty years of his more than 40 years selling tinware and other selected hardware, Zilba Mile's shop looked south across Yesler Way down First Ave. S, then known as Commercial Street.

THEN: Local candy-maker A.W. Piper was celebrated here for his crème cakes and wedding cakes and also his cartoons. This sketch is of the 1882 lynching from the Maple trees beside Henry and Sara Yesler’s home on James Street. Piper’s bakery was nearby (Courtesy, Ron Edge)

THEN: Seen here in 1887 through the intersection of Second Avenue and Yesler Way, the Occidental Hotel was then easily the most distinguished in Seattle. (Courtesy Museum of History and Industry)

THEN: In Lawton Gowey’s 1961 pairing, the Smith Tower (1914) was the tallest building in Seattle, and the Pioneer Square landmark Seattle Hotel (1890) had lost most of its top floor. (by Lawton Gowey)

THEN: The driver, lower left, leads his team towards First Avenue up a planked incline on Madison Street. (Courtesy MOHAI)

THEN: The ruins left by Seattle’s Great Fire of June 6, 1889, included a large neighborhood of warehouses and factories built on timber quays over the tides. Following the fire the quays were soon restored with new capping and planking. A close look on the far-right will reveal some of this construction on the quays underway. (Courtesy, Seattle Public Library)

THEN: Looking north-northeast from the corner of Main Street and Occidental Avenue two or three weeks after the city’s Great Fire of June 6, 1889. (Courtesy the Museum of History and Industry – MOHAI)

THEN: The S. S. Suveric makes a rare visit to Seattle in 1911. (Historical photo courtesy of Jim Westall)

THEN: Pioneer mailman Dutch Ned poses on his horse on Cherry Street. The ca. 1880 view looks east over First Avenue when it was still named Front Street. (Courtesy: The Museum of History and Industry, aka MOHAI)

 

3 thoughts on “Seattle Now & Then: Seattle’s First Big Fire”

  1. 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!

    1. 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!

  2. 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?
    Thanks!!

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