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Published in the Seattle Times online on July 15, 2021
and in PacificNW Magazine of the print Times on July 18, 2021
Downtown broke out in tents after Seattle’s most disastrous fire
By Clay Eals
These days of human-made climate change, we steel ourselves for summertime forest fires that bring vile smoke to our air and lungs.
All the more reason to renew our awareness of Seattle’s most devastating fire, not from the wild but from an overturned glue pot in the heart of downtown.
The toughest aspect of that storied June 6, 1889, blaze may not have been its widespread destruction, but rather the arduous restoration of the city’s core. Our “Then” photo reflects the immediate emergence of a “multitude of tents,” many quite substantial, as headlined in the July 24, 1889, Seattle Post Intelligencer, which dispatched a reporter to count all 454 of them.
We look north to then-Denny Hill (pre-regrade) along Second Avenue (then Street) north of Spring Street, a section that escaped the more southern flames. A rippled banner at far left hints that the need for tents and signs “painted anywhere” was in itself urgent.
Among 11 make-do structures on this block is one on the west side sheltering Doheny & Marum Dry Goods, purveyor of women’s wear, drapery and linens. “Forty Cases New Goods Opened Yesterday,” the firm bellowed in the July 17, 1889, P-I. “Every department in our canvass establishment is now fully complete.”
Across the street, English émigré Arthur Letts hawked menswear from a lean-to. Seven years later, he moved to Los Angeles, reviving one famed department store, the Broadway, and creating another, Bullock’s.
A posthumous assist in researching these businesses came from citizen historian W. Burton Eidsmoe, a Seattle-area accountant who spent several years before his 1996 death at 81 typing up listings from the 1889 Polk directory and elsewhere. This resulted in his massive, 730-page report, “They Watched Seattle Burn,” available online via Seattle Public Library.
“He could get focused and single-minded,” says Eidsmoe’s son, Craig, of Mountlake Terrace. “He was a cross between (Sinclair Lewis’ fictional) Babbitt and H.L. Mencken, that American spirit of doing it on your own.”
Much, apparently, like the intrepid merchants who took to tents to lift downtown back onto its feet.
For contemporary resonance, here’s a coda: Of the 454 tents, 100 were small sleepers on a hillside block southeast of downtown, sent across the Cascades by the U.S. Army’s Fort Spokane.
“They are yet occupied for the distressed, under direction of the general relief committee,” the P-I reported. “These tents are all occupied nightly by men lately in want, who now get daily employment and will soon be out of need. No families are there. It is expected that this camp will be broken ere long and the tents turned over to the government.”
To see Jean Sherrard‘s 360-degree video of the “Now” prospect and compare it with the “Then” photo, and to hear this column read aloud by Clay Eals, check out our Seattle Now & Then 360 version of the column!
Special thanks to Phyllis Keller of Woodinville Heritage Society, who first brought the “Then” postcard to our attention!
Below are W. Burton Eidsmoe’s massive report, five additional photos and, in chronological order, three historical clippings from The Seattle Times and Seattle Post-Intelligencer online archives (available via Seattle Public Library) and other online newspaper sources that were helpful in the preparation of this column.