Seattle Now & Then: Polson Building Fire, 1974

(click to enlarge photos)

THEN: The Alaskan Way Viaduct side of the Polson Building on Columbia Street during its 1974 fire. Photographed by Frank Shaw
NOW: The sturdy concrete and timber Polson Building on the south side of Columbia Street between Alaskan Way and Western Avenue has survived big fires in both 1974 and 1996.

The Alaskan Way Viaduct was shut-down on the afternoon of June 14, 1974 when the still standing six floor Polson Building beside it at Columbia Street, was first ignited by an arsonist (apparently) and then bathed by the heavy streams seen here shooting above Alaskan Way.  There were other spouting hoses aimed at the Paulson, those from its east façade facing Western Avenue.  The first single alarm was made at 1:32 pm and fire fighting continued until 5:50 pm.

Later that afternoon, Photo by Frank Shaw from the Western Avenue side of the Polson and Western buildings.  The Poulson is on the right.  The Columbia Street access to the Alaskan Way Viaduct covers the top of Shaw’s shot.  The buildings in the haze far left are on the south side of Yesler Way between First Avenue and Alaskan Way. 

The Fire Department keeps good records. Galen Thomaier, the department’s historian as well as the curator of the Last Resort Fire Department, an interpretive museum for retired fire-fighting artifacts, was there in 1974.  (Ron Edge has inserted at the bottom of this blog a button to Thomaier’s museum web page.) Although that day not on duty he was there and surprised by the “four throbbing three-and-one-half inch lines (hoses) that were laid across Alaskan Way.  They led to a manifold that distributed both the salt water from the bay and municipal water from the hydrants.  Thomaier followed the hoses to their source, and found the Duwamish, then still  “the world’s most powerful fire boat afloat.”

Photo by Ellis, Courtesy John Cooper ( We do not mean to suggest with this postcard that the Duwaumish shot at the Polson fire with its canons.  It contributed through hoses laid across Alaskan Way and under the viaduct.)

Frank Shaw, one of our favorite historic photo sources, recorded these well-composed tableaux.  Near its center, uniformed fire fighters wrestle with a 55-foot long ground extension ladder while other fighters are implied by the bright silhouette that includes three steams shooting at the smoking building.  The atmosphere of spray gives back a shower on what Thomaier describes as a  “six person crew assigned to the six person ladder.” They wear helmets. Sixteen of the day’s crew temporarily wound up in the hospital from smoke inhalation.  There is also some falling debris in this mix.  Flying embers burned two of the Polson fire’s many uncovered pedestrian gawkers. The single man in the sports coat with a camera dashing across the puddle in the featured photo at the top was, according to Thomaier, “probably media and should not have been there.”  Shaw stands as close as allowed.

Surveying the damage, the top two floors of the Polson suffered the most fire damage.  The bottom four floors were soaked.  . (photo by Frank Shaw)
Some of the coverage appearing in The Times four days later on June 18, 1974.

Years after the 1974 Polson fire, an investigative reporter with whom internal fire department records were shared, concluded a “most plausible theory…that the blaze had been set by pull-tab manufacturers from Chicago who were fighting the Polson Buildings owner, Benjamin Mayers (of Ace Novelty) for control of the Seattle-area pull-tab gambling market.”  In 1996 another un-caught arsonist torched the Polson, again taking the top two floors: the only two by then not guarded with sprinklers.  The principle victims of the 1996 fire were artists. The Polson had become what local art pundits described as one of the largest artists’ colonies on the West Coast.  When the renters were at first not allowed into the ruins to inventory loses, they joined a protest by painting on the street.

A ca. 1948 aerial of the Colman Dock with four of Black Balls fleet, including the Kalakala, in her slips. The Alaska Way viaduct was completed in 1953 (for the most part) and so is here not yet in place.  The “Welcome Home” banner on the dock’s west facade is, we assume, for both citizens and returning vets.  (Courtesy, Michael Maslan)

WEB EXTRAS

Anything to add, lads? Yes Jean, Ron has supplied a rugged sampler of our more recent features that apply – somehow – to this one, and I following Ron have come home from fishing for some of the older of the roughly 1800 examples of repeat photography, hereabouts, that we have stocked in our now thirty-six year old pond.

THEN: From boxcars and rooftops to the planks of Railroad Avenue, excitement builds for the ceremonial re-enactment of the S.S.Portland’s 1897 landing with its “ton of gold” on the Seattle waterfront, the city’s first Golden Potlatch Celebration. [Courtesy, Michael Maslan]

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: This post-1889 waterfront block of sheds and ships was replaced in 1911 by the Grand Trunk Pacific Dock, described at the time as “the largest wooden finger pier in North America.” The exception was Fire Station No. 5 on the left at the foot of Madison Street. A brick station replaced it in 1913. (Museum of History & Industry)

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: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: In this 1887 look up Columbia Street from the waterfront is the bell tower of the fire station, tucked into the hill on the right. It would soon fail to halt the city’s Great Fire of June 6, 1889. The station and everything between it and Elliott Bay were reduced to ashes, smoldering bricks and offshore pilings shortened like cigars. (courtesy, Kurt Jackson)

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

THEN: Arthur Denny named both Marion and James Streets for his invalid brother, James Marion Denny, who was too ill to accompany the “Denny Party” from Oregon to Puget Sound in 1851. (Courtesy, Gary Gaffner)

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: F. Jay Haynes recorded this ca. 1891 look up the Seattle waterfront and it’s railroad trestles most likely for a report to his employer, the Northern Pacific Railroad. (Courtesy, Murray Morgan)

THEN: Constructed in 1890 as the Seattle Fire Department’s first headquarters, these substantial four floors (counting the daylight basement) survived until replaced by Interstate Five in the 1960s. (photo by Frank Shaw)

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Front Street (First Ave.) showstrip ca. 1887 lookng south from Columbia Street. (Courtesy, Kurt Jackson)

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One thought on “Seattle Now & Then: Polson Building Fire, 1974”

  1. Thanks for posting this photo of the Polson Building fire; it was one of the fires I watched as a lad that led to my 38 years as a career firefighter, though in Yakima. I specifically remember being impressed by the amount of water pouring out of the building at street level! This was a tough fire as attested to the number of injured firefighters, thankfully there were no deaths.
    I’m impressed by this one scene, as I have been part of a crew that used similar large, heavy ladders early in my career (As budgets and crew sizes shrank 35 foot ground ladders became the norm for many departments). The work of placing that heavy ladder while getting soaked and probably being worn out from the afternoon’s job must’ve been difficult.

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