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What Happened During the Great Seattle Fire?

Mar 25th, 2020

If you live in our luxury Seattle apartments, then you’ve likely heard about the Seattle Underground before. Known as a popular tourist destination, the Seattle Underground is a grim reminder of one of the greatest disasters the city has ever faced: The Great Seattle Fire of 1889.

Early Seattle history

Although Seattle is seemingly synonymous with technology and innovation, the city started out as a fairly average settlement in the mid-nineteenth century. Settlers from Illinois ⁠— collectively called the Denny Party ⁠— arrived in what is now West Seattle. Nearly seven months of travelling led the pioneers to settle at Alki Point on November 13, 1851, but after some consideration the settlers deduced that the eastern shore of Puget Sound would serve as a better location for harbors and ports, so the main settlement moved across the water a few months after arriving. 

The Denny Party and other early settlers, including a leading figure named David S. “Doc” Maynard, aggressively settled the area and drove out native people from their hunting and clamming areas. Chief Seattle of the Duwamish and Suquamish tribes reached out to Doc Maynard in the early 1850s, and the two of them settled on a mutual relationship agreement where the settlers would protect and support the tribes against neighboring enemies who had been at odds with Chief Seattle. 

Also, if you hadn’t caught on, this is whom the city was named after, too. Fun fact!

What Seattle looked like before the fire

The Seattle settlement grew as a logging town. There were plenty of coniferous trees all over the place, and the secure waterway gave easy access to Portland and California without exposing the settlement to the ocean weather. 

Because the city thrived on the logging industry, an increasing number of the fast-growing population began building their houses, stores and community buildings out of the very same timber they were shipping out. Wooden houses were cheaper, easier and faster to construct than brick houses, and wood was everywhere else, too. Hollowed-out logs were used as pipes, giant logs were used as support systems and building wooden houses on wooden stilts solved the occasional flooding issues that came with living on the waterfront. 

Essentially, Seattle was at risk of destruction if even one building caught on fire. Which, on June 6, 1889, one did.

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The Great Seattle Fire tore through the city's downtown on June 6, 1889, destroying hundreds of businesses and displacing thousands of Seattle's residents. Sparked by an overheated glue pot in a woodworking shop at the corner of Madison and Front St (now First Avenue), the fire quickly consumed dozens of city blocks. . The city didn't take much time to mourn, however. By July, businesses throughout the burned-out area had reopened in tents, houses, or wherever they could find space. Most businesses decided to rebuild where they had been, and rebuilding began almost immediately. . Explore this pivotal moment in Seattle's history this Saturday (6/8) during Fire Day at MOHAI with @seattle_fire ➡ . 📷: 2002.3.405, SHS511, 1976.6362.161, shs1243, MOHAI . #greatseattlefire #mohai #seattle #fireday #pnw #seattlehistory #seattlemuseum #historymuseum #seattlefire

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The Great Fire of Seattle

The summer of 1889 was an unlucky one for Washington cities. Spokane suffered a city-wide fire that destroyed the downtown area in August, Ellensburg burned on July 4, Vancouver’s downtown burned following a suspicious case of arson in June and, of course, Seattle burned from an accidental fire on June 6. 

History says that the Great Fire of Seattle started with a man named John E. Back, a worker at a cabinet shop on the southwest corner of Madison Street and First Street. Clairmont and Company held its cabinetry business in the basement of a large, wooden building, and John Back was one of the five men working in the store in the afternoon of June 6. 

According to Back in an interview with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, he had turned his back on a glue pot he’d just placed on a hot stove when the glue began to bubble over. The boiling-hot glue spat and shot out of the pot and Back, in an instant of panic, grabbed a bucket of water to throw over the small blaze.

The water, however, just made the situation worse. The water spilled the glue out the pot and scattered it across the shop, the hot glue landing on wooden shavings 

Back said the following to a Post-Intelligencer reporter after the fire:

“I cut some balls of glue and put them in the glue pot on the stove," Back said. "I put in some shaving where there was little fire, and then went to work about twenty-five feet away, near the front door. After a while somebody said 'Look at the glue.' Another fellow, a Finlander from New York, then took a piece of board and laid it on to smother the glue, but the board caught fire. Then I run and took the pot of water to smother the fire and poured it over the pot of glue, which was blazing up high. When I throw the water on, the glue flew all over the shop into the shavings and everything take fire."

Seattle’s already-flammable construction made it easy for the fire to spread quickly and violently. The fire started around 2:45 p.m., and by the morning of June 7, 1889, the fire had consumed 29 blocks of buildings in downtown Seattle. Luckily, no one died in the blaze, but the flames consumed every wooden building in its path as well as ten brick buildings and some wharfs. 

Rather than clear the rubble to rebuild, city planners decided to build the new streets and buildings on top of the charred remains of Downtown Seattle. The higher elevation would keep the newer brick buildings safe from potential flooding and rot, and it would be easier than trying to remove all the debris.

Local tip: If you take the Bill Speidel Seattle Underground Tour from Pioneer Square, you can get a glimpse of what Seattle’s earliest streets looked like before the Great Fire.  

Funnily enough, the Great Fire had two positive effects on Seattle's livelihood. Within a year after the fire and the subsequent rebuild, Seattle became a popular destination and the population grew by nearly 33 percent. Also, the fire wiped out its particularly abundant rat population the town had been dealing with. 

In the end, the fire was the catalyst that effectively transformed Seattle from a town into a city, and Seattle hasn’t looked back since. So if you’ve ever wondered why the city has an underground or what exactly happened in the Great Fire, just know that it all started with a pot of glue and a poorly-aimed bucket of water. 

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Featured photo "Great Seattle Fire" by -JvL- is licensed under CC BY 2.0 

Author of Article

Colleen Ford is a South African who now lives in Spokane, Washington. She loves to travel, camp (in warm weather) and bake.

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