Fire destroys Great Northern Railway's grain and ore terminal at Smith Cove in Seattle on November 6, 1925.

  • By Daryl C. McClary
  • Posted 11/04/2013
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10653

Early Friday morning on November 6, 1925, a fire destroys Great Northern Railway's grain and ore terminal, leased by the Centennial Mill Company and Northwest Magnesite Company in Smith Cove. Because fighting the blaze on the narrow dock with hose lines is virtually impossible, the fireboats Duwamish and Snoqualmie protect nearby Piers 40 and 41 (now Piers 90 and 91) and the Great Northern Railway Ocean Dock with curtains of water vapor until the fire exhausts itself.  Switch engines are able to save most of the freight cars on the dock, but the inferno destroys the six-story grain elevator and the 600-foot-long transit shed. All that remains undamaged is approximately 75 feet of decking on the south end of the 2,000-foot-long dock. The structure will be rebuilt with a large grain manufactory, magnesite processing plant, and bigger warehouses.

The Great Northern Dock at Smith Cove

In the 1890s, James J. Hill (1838-1916), president of the Great Northern Railway, purchased 600 acres of property at Smith Cove and built two long docks to establish ocean trade between Seattle and the Far East. He formed the Great Northern Steamship Company in 1900, and had built two huge 600-foot steamships, the SS Minnesota and SS Dakota, to haul grain, lumber, and other raw materials to China and Japan and return with bales of raw silk and other cargo.  It proved to be a money-losing venture, but the docks were leased to other steamship companies and utilized for many years. In 1912, the Port of Seattle purchased property in Smith Cove from the Great Northern Railway and built Piers 40 and 41 (now Piers 90 and 91), adjacent to the Great Northern Docks, to expand Seattle's commerce with Asia. 

On October 15, 1918, the Great Northern's 2,700-foot-long grain terminal was the scene of a fire that did damage to freight and property estimated at $1,775,000. The bay end of the dock was leased to James Griffiths & Sons and used to store soybean oil imported from Japan by Mitsui & Company, DBA Oriental Oil. (During World War I large quantities of soybean oil were imported for use in munitions manufacturing.) In that fire, the entire store of soybean oil, valued at $1,500,000, was destroyed along with 550 feet of the dock. 

Fortunately, the oil storage facilities had been separated from the rest of the dock by a brick firewall, saving from damage Great Northern's six-story grain elevator, a two-story, 600-foot-long warehouse, two ocean freighters, and cargo worth millions of dollars. Firefighters stopped the blaze from spreading the length of the dock and fireboats Snoqualmie and Duwamish prevented it from spreading to the piers nearby. Although the cause of the fire was undetermined, federal investigators decided it was an act by German saboteurs.

Seattle Fire Marshal Harry W. Bringhurst (1861-1923) strongly disagreed, and issued a public statement to the Seattle City Council that the disaster resulted from sheer negligence. He indicted Great Northern for failure to heed repeated warnings about specific fire hazards and for having an indolent fire prevention program. Only the brick firewall, built at the insistence of Fire Marshal Bringhurst and insurance underwriters, saved the terminal from total destruction. On November 11, 1918, the armistice was signed, ending World War I (1914-1918) and consequently the demand for large quantities of soybean oil. The south end of Great Northern's grain terminal was not replaced. 

Again, Fire

In 1925, Great Northern's grain elevator was being leased by the Centennial Mill Company and the long, two-story transit shed by the Northwest Magnesite Company. Shortly after 4:00 a.m., Friday, November 6, 1925, night watchman Albert M. Pride saw smoke toward the shore (north) end of the dock, hurried to a fire box and turned in the alarm. A U.S. Customs inspector on duty at Pier 40 saw flames among the boxcars sitting near the grain elevator on the west side of the terminal and telephoned the fire department reporting that at least 150 feet of the dock was on fire. (Fires are always a threat to grain elevators and flourmills as the dust is flammable and potentially explosive.) The Seattle Fire Department responded to the general alarm with dozens of firefighting apparatus. The fireboats Duwamish and Snoqualmie, moored at Fire Station No. 5 on the central waterfront, got underway and headed to Smith Cove. Meanwhile, Great Northern switch engines pulled strings of freight cars off the dock into the rail yard. Due to flames and intense heat, nine boxcars sitting at loading bays had to be abandoned. 

Upon arrival, firefighters laid five hose lines to the dock from hydrants on W Galer Street and began streaming water toward the flames. Fanned by an offshore breeze, the fire had spread rapidly, engulfing the transit shed and grain elevator. Efforts to douse the flames were hampered by the narrow confines of the dock and the corrugated-metal sheeting covering the buildings. A dust explosion blew the roof off the grain elevator, sending flames and burning debris high into the air. Glowing embers drifted over the nearby piers and into Elliott Bay. The lack of water mains near the terminal and threat of the six-story grain elevator collapsing prevented firefighters from venturing onto the dock with hose lines. Fire Chief George M. Mantor (1872-1954) ordered the fire be fought defensively to prevent it from spreading off site. 

Fireboats Duwamish and Snoqualmie were the only apparatus that could get within range of the conflagration. At great risk, the fireboats maneuvered into the 200-foot-wide waterways on either side of the dock and, using fog nozzles, created curtains of water vapor, protecting adjacent structures from the live embers drifting through the air. At 5:30 a.m., the grain elevator collapsed onto the roof of the transit shed and tumbled into the waterway, narrowly missing several firefighters from Ladder Company No. Eight. The demise of the grain elevator enabled the Duwamish and Snoqualmie to move toward the dock and knock down the flames with their water cannons. Afterwards, firefighters ventured into the smoldering ruins with hose lines, dousing hot spots. The fire was “tapped out” shortly before noon. 

Damage and Loss

All but approximately 75 feet of decking on the bay end of the dock had been burned and most of the supporting substructure and pilings seriously damaged. The grain elevator, along with 1,500 tons of wheat, was totally destroyed, with charred remains littering the bay and shoreline. The transit shed was also a total loss and 2,000 tons of crude magnesite (magnesium carbonate) stored inside, had dropped through the weakened deck into the bay. Some five miles of railroad tracks bordering the dock had been warped and twisted beyond repair and nine boxcars had been burned to their steel frames and truck assemblies.  Although the cause of the disaster was undetermined, Fire Inspector John Reid (1885-1951) believed the combustion of highly flammable grain dust, saturating the atmosphere in and around the grain elevator, was the likely culprit.  Seattle Fire Marshal Robert L. Laing (1891-1958) estimated the loss of property to be $317,000.

Three firefighters were injured in the early morning two-alarm fire. John R. Brittain (1895-1943) from Engine Company No. 20 suffered an injury to his hand while coupling two lengths of hose.  Charles F. Grafton (1879-1959) and George R. Starrett (1886-1940) from Ladder Company 8 were injured in an automobile rollover accident while returning to Fire Station No. 18 in Ballard.  Both firefighters were rushed to Providence Hospital with life-threatening injuries, but they survived. After recovery, Grafton and Starrett returned to their duties with the Seattle Fire Department.

After the Fire

In 1926, the Great Northern Railway rebuilt the terminal at Smith Cove.  The Northwest Magnesite Company constructed a new processing plant on the dock with a storage capacity of 4,000 tons and installed modern, automatic equipment to unload carloads of magnesite ore at the rate of 150 tons per hour and load crude magnesite into bulk carriers at the rate of 500 tons per hour.

Great Northern built a large grain elevator and milling plant on the dock, which it leased to the Pacific Grain Products Company of Spokane. The Centennial Mill Company relocated its Seattle export operation to its large manufactory at the Port of Tacoma. (On January 30, 1947, a spectacular fire destroyed the entire Centennial milling and storage facility in Tacoma.)


Sources: "$317,000 Loss When G. N Pier Razed by Fire," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 7, 1925, p. 2; "Flaming Oil Burns Part of Oil Dock," The Seattle Times, October 16, 1918, p. 1; "U.S. Agent Still Busy on Dock Fire," Ibid., October 17, 1918, p. 10; "Firebug Blamed for Dock Fire," Ibid., October 18, 1918, p. 13; "Plans to Limit Hazard of Waterfront Fires," Ibid., October 22, 1918, p. 19; "Port Board Terminals, 3 Vessels In Danger," Ibid., November 6, 1925, p. 1; "$1,775,000 Fire Damage to Pier October 15, 1918," Ibid., November 6, 1925, p. 16; "Heat Warps Railroad Tracks; Rails Are Tied into Knots," Ibid., November 6, 1925, p. 16; "Bell Street Terminal of Port Save From Blaze," Ibid., November 7, 1925, p. 1; "Rolling Mill Latest of New Concerns Here," Ibid., May 23, 1926, Section Eight, p. 1; Richard J. Schneider, "SFD History: 1920-1930," Seattle Fire Fighters Union: IAFF Local 27 website accessed March 5, 2012 (www.iaff27.org/node/1511).

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