The Queen City Burns

The Great Seattle Fire of 1889

“The setting sun shone blood red through the clouds of smoke... Every wharf, every coal bunker, every business house, restaurant, bank, newspaper, in short everything that could burn was destroyed to its foundation.”– Austin & Scott, The Great Seattle Fire

On June 6th, 1889, the worst fire in the city's history swept through downtown Seattle. Despite valiant efforts by the volunteer fire department to stop the fire’s spread, the structures in the area — the vast majority of which were wood — were doomed by strong winds and low water pressure. Seattle woke the next morning to smoldering ruin where the business district once stood.

The Fire’s Path

Tracking the path of destruction down Front Street

The main efforts to stop the blaze occurred as it spread south down Front Street (now First Street). Written accounts describe the growing realization of a major disaster as the fire approached the city core and buildings fell one after another.

Start »

The Fire Begins

2:40 p.m.

Steamer captains on the waterfront sound the alarm in response to smoke coming from the Pontius Block at Madison and Front. In the basement, a pot of glue has boiled over in Victor Clairmont's cabinet shop, igniting the wood shavings below. Carpenter John Back douses it with water — and the fire explodes. The entire basement is soon in flames.

Photograph of John Back circa 1885

John Back, circa 1885

The Denny Block Burns

3:00 p.m. • 20 minutes since start

At first, the damage seems small — but when firemen pry up the wooden sidewalks, they discover that the fire is spreading through wooden walls in the basement. The Denny Block to the south is the second building to catch fire — containing the Dietz & Mayer Liquor Store, which explodes.

The Hydrants Fail

3:15 p.m. • 40 minutes since start

The fire spreads north to the Kenyon Block and west to the Commercial Mill. As Frye’s Opera House catches fire to the east, tragedy strikes — firemen connect to another hydrant, and the water pressure in all of the hoses falls considerably. Without sufficient water to fight the blaze, the possibility of a major disaster becomes clear.

Drawing of Frye's Opera House

Frye's Opera House

The Fire Crosses Marion

3:30 p.m. • 1 hour since start

Propelled by strong winds from the north, the fire spreads further south. Firemen hope that the Reinig Building, a brick structure, will resist the fire; however, the fire from the opera house is hot enough that it soon ignites. On the west side of Front Street, the Colman Block burns.

Firemen Dynamite the Colman Block

4:00 p.m. • 1½ hours since start

Firemen place explosives under the Palace Restaurant in the Colman Block in an effort to demolish the building and block the fire’s path. They fail to destroy the building, however. On the east side of Front Street, the brick Kenney Block burns to the ground.

The Fire Crosses Columbia Street

4:30 p.m. • 2 hours since start

The fire reaches the core of the business district in just two hours. Firemen try to destroy the White Building and the San Francisco Store; both attempts fail. Debris from the collapsing Reining Building ignites the White Building. The San Francisco Store burns with all of its wares inside.

The San Francisco Store

The San Francisco Store

The Bucket Brigade

5:00 p.m. • 2½ hours since start

In the north, on Front near University, 60-70 men form a bucket brigade to save the house of Jacob Levy. Bets are placed by onlookers, but the house survives.

Meanwhile, the Boston Block at Second and Columbia is doused with water from buckets and pans. It catches fire several times, but survives.

The Boston Block standing amidst the ruins of downtown Seattle

The Boston Block after the fire

The Fire Reaches Yesler

6:00 p.m. • 3½ hours since start

Sparks land on the roof of the magnificent Yesler-Leary Building, which erupts in flames. Thirty minutes later, the Occidental Hotel — the grandest in Seattle, believed to be fireproof — erupts in flames. By 7:00, the most expensive buildings in Seattle have been destroyed.

The Yesler-Leary Building in 1884

The Yesler-Leary Building in 1884

The Fire Reaches the Southern Waterfront

8:00 p.m. • 5½ hours since start

After burning the opulent brick structures north of Yesler, there is little hope for the rest of the business district. South of Yesler, the mostly wood frame buildings burn quickly, and with few exceptions, are destroyed. The fire burns itself out by morning.

A Common Danger

The threat of fire in the 19th and 20th centuries

The ubiquity of wood as a building material and lack of modern-day firefighting equipment made fires a common danger in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Though the Great Seattle Fire of 1889 was a critical event in the city’s history, a timeline of significant fires below shows that it was not a unique occurrence in the United States and Canada. This chart does not include even more destructive wildfires, such as the Great Peshtigo Fire of 1871 (on the same day as the Great Chicago Fire) that burned 1.5 million acres and killed up to 2,500 people.

A timeline of fires in the 19th and 20th centuries
The Great Fire of 1861
The Great Fire of 1861
What may have begun as a cooking fire accounted for most of the damage that Charleston sustained during the Civil War.
The Great Chicago Fire of 1871
The Great Chicago Fire
Began in or near a barn owned by the O’Leary Family, as the folk song goes — but whether or not it was the cow’s fault can’t be said for certain.
The Great Seattle Fire
The Great Seattle Fire
Seattle burned in 1889, the same year that Spokane and Ellensburg also had large fires — a bad year for fire in the Washington Territory.
The Great Fire of 1901
The Great Fire of 1901
Destroyed over 2,368 buildings and caused a smoke plume that was visible from Raleigh.
The San Francisco Earthquake and Fire
The San Francisco Earthquake and Fire
A 7.8-magnitude earthquake and subsequent fires killed over 3,000 people. One of the largest fires, the “Ham and Eggs Fire,” was started by a woman making breakfast for her family.

* Area not available for the Medina, Ohio fire.

Aid for Seattle

Cities donate to the recovery effort

Donations flowed in as word spread about the fire. Notable were immediate contributions from Tacoma, Seattle’s southern neighbor, whose citizens set aside their heated rivalry to send supplies, funds, and volunteers.

By July 11th — just over one month since the fire — the General Relief Committee had documented $98,805 in total donations, $70,769 of which came from city governments in the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere.

Map of donations from cities in the northwest United States and Canada

Building a Safer City

City ordinances ensure the new downtown is more resilient than before

The old business district had been built almost entirely out of wood, which was in plentiful supply — and which fueled the fire to disastrous proportions. Days after the fire, Seattleites unanimously passed a regulation that prohibited all-wood frame buildings in the downtown area. As documented by Jeffrey Ochsner and Dennis Andersen, Seattle also enacted a number of new building requirements that made buildings, if not truly fireproof, then more fire-resistant than before.

Warehouse Construction

New buildings took advantage of warehouse construction — also called heavy timber framing, semifireproof construction, or slow-burning construction — to make buildings resistant to fire. The wood was arranged in heavy masses so as to present fewer combustable points, which would also allow for water to reach more easily into the building in the event of a fire. The heavy timber girders and columns used in this style of construction would char, rather than burn through and collapse quickly, allowing for ample time for occupants to escape and for firefighters to react.

Warehouse construction model
Floor planks rest upon floor beams, which are supported by heavy timber posts and the brick exterior walls.
Floor beams are anchored to the wall in such a way as to prevent them from pushing the wall out if the beam were to burn.

Masonry Division Walls

The July 1, 1889 ordinance required buildings more than 66 feet wide to contain a masonry division wall, also known as a firewall or a demising wall, that cut through the whole building from front to back. Its purpose was to slow the spread of fire. The Pioneer Building, completed three years after the fire and which still stands, contains a firewall to the left of the main entrance.

Illustration of the Pioneer Building with firewall to the left of the entrance

“Our city will be rebuilt at once... the immediate loss which has befallen us will prove to be a great and permanent blessing. From the ruins of Seattle there will spring a new Seattle, just as from the ruins of Chicago there sprang a new and mightier Chicago.”– The Seattle Post Intelligencer, June 7, 1889

The days of Seattle’s volunteer fire-fighting company, founded in 1876, ended with the Great Fire. On October 17, the city council created the city’s first professional fire department. The Water Department, too, was established in the fire’s wake, acquired from private companies whose pumps had failed during the disaster.

The January 1, 1891 issue of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer listed every structure that was under construction or completed in the previous year — a staggering 1,951 in all. In just a few years, residents had rebuilt completely, laying the foundation for a modern Seattle.