Seattle Now & Then: The Great Seattle Fire, Part II – Out of the Ashes

(click to enlarge photos)

THEN: Built in 1883, the luxurious Occidental Hotel covered the flatiron block bounded by Second, Yesler and James. In our “then,” its three-story stone monolith looms over a crew of weary firemen. Locals rated the Occidental “the largest and best equipped house north of San Francisco.” Destroyed in the Great Fire, it was succeeded by the Seattle Hotel, which held court for 70 years.
NOW: Erected in 1961, the “sinking ship” garage proves a dismal replacement. Dismay at the loss of the Seattle Hotel incited a passionate preservationist movement in Seattle. It might be said that it was the “sinking ship” that launched a thousand faces.

Thirty eight years after its founding, Seattle catapulted to worldwide attention via reports of catastrophic destruction.

The June 6, 1889, fire that incinerated more than 120 acres and nearly 30 blocks of downtown occurred on what might be called a slow news day. Only one week earlier, a burst dam in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, had swept away more than 2,200 lives, shocking the nation (in response, generous Seattleites pledged $576 for flood relief). The fire that leveled the wooden business district of our pioneer town – although it caused no fatalities aside from a Panglossian “million rats” – was also featured in newspapers across the country.

Within days, a New York Times headline read: ‘The Great Seattle Fire … It May Be a Blessing in Disguise.” Seattle land tycoon Henry Dearborn, visiting the East Coast, predicted: “The fire has cleaned out all these [tinder boxes] which were a constant menace to the city” but soon would be replaced “by fine, fire-proof structures.” Seattle residents enthusiastically agreed.

At first, however, hometown papers adopted a gloomier tone. The morning after the fire, the Seattle Daily Press succumbed to purple prose: “Besides the smoking, tomblike 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.”

A spectacular Ron Edge find and stitch. The brick foundations on the right are the remains of the Frye Opera House, pictured in last week’s ‘Then’ photo just before it burned to the ground.

Yet the same morning, 600 citizens gathered at the surviving Armory on Union Street between Third and Fourth avenues in a display of civic gratitude and confidence. The crowd cheered the news that arch-rival Tacoma had offered aid and succor, as had San Francisco and other cities and towns. When some suggested that aid pledged to the Johnstown homeless be diverted for Seattle use, the crowd shouted, “To Johnstown! Let it go to Johnstown!”

Echoing through the Armory was a commitment to “pull all together” and “rise like a phoenix” while constructing a new city of brick and stone. Streets would be widened and leveled, while a fervent appeal was made to “Seattle Spirit.” On Saturday, June 8, Post-Intelligencer headlines affirmed: “A New Seattle Will Arise … Sweet are the Uses of Adversity.”

Another Ron Edge special. In this panoramic view, Front Street (1st Avenue) is being rebuilt. The Pioneer Building foundation is being lain on the left. The corner of the same building appears on the left in our ‘Now’ photo above.

Operating from tents, local businesses prepared to rebuild. Impresario John Cort, having reopened his burned-out Standard Theater under a canvas big top, featured a joke that brought down the house: “How’s business?” asked the straight man. The comic replied, “Intense!”

The pun proved prophetic. In less than two years, Seattle’s population nearly doubled to almost 45,000, and 3,500 new buildings arose, mostly in the devastated core. Voters authorized a more dependable city water system, and a municipal fire department formed. Thus, just in time for the 1897 Gold Rush, a small pioneer town reintroduced itself as an ambitious young city.

WEB EXTRAS

For a good time, click on through to our spoken word 360 video.

Anything to add, firebugs?   A few off fires.  We will be restrained.

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