Seattle's Auto Row on Capitol Hill is hit by fire on October 31, 1925.

  • By Daryl C. McClary
  • Posted 12/05/2013
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10678

On Halloween Night, October 31, 1925, fire engulfs the city block bordered by E Pike and E Pine streets and 11th and 12th avenues in the heart of Seattle's Auto Row. Flames totally destroy three large buildings, housing automobile dealerships, parts warehouses, and repair garages, before finally being brought under control and extinguished. Six firefighters are injured while battling the blaze, but there are no fatalities. Property damage is estimated to be $800,000.

Fire in the Age of the Auto

In the first quarter of the twentieth century, many of Seattle's automobile dealerships and related parts and repair businesses were concentrated on Capitol Hill between E Pike and E Pine streets, running east from Broadway Avenue. This section of Capitol Hill was dubbed "Auto Row."

At approximately 6:30 p.m. on Halloween evening, Saturday, October 31, 1925, an explosion occurred in the basement of a large, three-story brick warehouse occupied by the Miller-Norton Sales Company, 1107 E Pine Street, dealers in new and used automobiles. Company president John Miller and salesman Stanley Noren were in the sales office at the time. Charles Fellows, the parts department supervisor, had just left the stock room with a fan belt when the blast occurred.  The men were knocked off their feet, but not injured. They immediately fled from the building to look for help. The explosion had blown out all the windows and within minutes the entire building was engulfed in flames. 

The first alarm was turned in from a fire box at 6:35 p.m. by Percy E. Rossman, age 21. He lived with his parents, Roy and Ella, and brother, Homer, age 23, above Rossman's Tire Hospital at 1524 12th Avenue, half a block away from the Miller-Norton building. The explosion, which broke windows and shook the neighborhood, sent Percy and Homer Rossman racing down E Pine Street to find out what had happened. After sending in the alarm, the two brothers returned to the burning building and helped move automobiles from the showroom floor into the street. Left unattended during the chaos, some of these vehicles were stolen by car thieves. 

Halloween Night Inferno

The fire was raging out of control and spreading rapidly when the first apparatus arrived at the scene. Within 10 minutes, burning debris emanating from the Miller-Norton building had ignited the roofs of nearby buildings housing the Sands Motor Car Company, 1512 11th Avenue, Firestone Tire & Rubber Company, 1520 11th Avenue, Expert Radiator & Fender Repair Company, 1524 11th Avenue, Willys-Overland-Pacific Agency, 1519 12th Avenue, and the Ballou & Wright Company warehouse, 1517 12th Avenue.  The sheer immensity of the blaze determined it must be fought defensively to stop it from sweeping throughout the district. A second alarm, calling for more men and equipment, was sent in at 6:39 p.m., a third alarm at 6:55 p.m., and a special call for four more engine companies and an aerial water tower at 7:01 p.m. 

Fire bells and the sky's red glow drew thousands of people, many in Halloween costumes, to Capitol Hill. More than 2,000 onlookers crammed Broadway Playfield (renamed Cal Anderson Park in 2003), across from the Miller-Norton building to watch the spectacular blaze.  Seattle Police Chief William B. Severyns (1887-1944) dispatched scores of police officers to the Broadway area to hold back the crowds of pedestrians and clear the streets for incoming fire-fighting apparatus. 

The fire department's efforts were initially hampered by low water pressure, a chronic problem on Seattle's hills. But the arrival of pumper trucks soon remedied the situation. George F. Russell (1874-1958), superintendent of the city water department, ordered all the mains feeding the reservoirs on Capitol Hill be opened, ensuring that the fire department had an ample water supply. Firefighters streamed vast quantities of water into the inferno and soon the streets were flooded for blocks around. Ironically, the deluge caused almost as much damage to buildings in the neighborhood as the fire itself. 

The addition of numerous pumper trucks, however, made the water pressure dangerously high.  Several hose lines burst during the operation, knocking down firefighters and drenching the crowds of onlookers with water. Two firefighters, Charles E. Conklin, Engine Company No. 3, and Ralph S. Clyde, Engine Company No. 7, were seriously injured by runaway hoses and taken to nearby Providence Hospital for emergency medical attention. Four other firefighters suffered minor cuts and bruises during the operation. 

From the Miller-Norton building on E Pine Street, the fire swept down the west side of 11th Avenue toward E Pike Street, destroying the Expert Radiator and Fender Repair Company, Firestone Tire & Rubber Company, and Sands Motor Car Company.  The next two buildings were vacant, having been gutted by fire on a previous occasion, enabling firefighters to check the blaze before reaching Gardner Motors, the last building on the west side of the block.  On the east side of 11th Avenue, heat from the inferno damaged the buildings housing the Kelly Springfield Motor Company and Henry E. Schmidt Automobile Tire Company. Fire also spread east across the alleyway to the Willys-Overland-Pacific Agency and the Ballou & Wright Company warehouse on 12th Avenue. A newly installed automatic sprinkler system saved the three-story Ballou & Wright warehouse from destruction and stopped the fire's advance toward E Pike Street.

A Long Night and the Morning After  

The smoky fire raged for more than three hours before it was brought under some semblance of control. It was finally declared "tapped out" at 12:54 a.m. Two engine companies, two ladder companies, and a special detail of firefighters, commanded by Battalion Chief Robert Rogers, remained at the scene throughout Sunday extinguishing stubborn hot spots amid the tons of smoldering rubble and conducting mopping-up operations. Pumper trucks were put to work emptying water from basements in the neighborhood. 

On Sunday, November 1, 1925, the streets around Auto Row were jammed with motorists and pedestrians anxious to see the devastation first hand.  Police officers were stationed at every corner for several blocks around the scene of the fire to keep traffic moving. It was estimated that 50,000 people viewed the ruins during the day.

Aftermath

The investigation by Fire Marshal Robert L. Laing (1891-1958) and Fire Inspector Robert T. Davis (1896-1927) concluded the explosion and subsequent fire had been caused by the combustion of vapors from a leaking gasoline storage tank in the basement of the Miller-Norton building. An oil heater in the boiler room ignited the fumes and the fire was fed by stores of gasoline, motor oil, rubber tires, and other combustible materials in the building. 

Initially, the damage caused by the blaze was estimated to be $1.8 million. When it was discovered that a considerable amount of inventory was either undamaged or salvageable, the estimation was reduced to $800,000. Out of 235 automobiles thought to have been destroyed in the Willys-Overland-Pacific Agency, some 100 cars parked in the underground garage came through the fire practically unscathed. Firestone Tire & Rubber Company reported that 75,000 tires had been destroyed by the fire, but discovered that a large stock of hard rubber tires and rims was undamaged. Its entire inventory of pneumatic tires and innertubes, however, were a total loss. Within a week, all the businesses razed by the fire had resumed operation at new locations on Auto Row.

On Halloween night, all available apparatus in the city had been dispatched to the four-alarm fire on Capitol Hill. Fire companies from outlying communities moved their equipment into the city, ready for immediate callout. Seventeen engine companies, four ladder companies, and one squad wagon had been required to bring the raging fire under control. More than 200 firefighters, commanded by Seattle Fire Chief George M. Mantor (1872-1954), participated in the battle that saved Auto Row.

Six firefighters sustained injuries, but there were no fatalities. 


Sources:

R. B. Bermann, "Blaze Rages Three Hours Over Entire Block; Tire Company Heaviest Looser," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 1, 1925, p. 1; "Here Are Firms and Buildings Hit by Flames," Ibid., November 1, 1925, p. 1; "Flood Gates Opened to Check Blaze," Ibid., November 1, 1925, p. 3; "All Apparatus Summoned at Blaze Alarm," Ibid., November 1, 1925, p. 3; "Baked Tires in Fire’s Wake," Ibid., November 1, 1925, p. 3; Carlton Fitchett, "Spooks, Goblins Set Real Thrill for Halloween," Ibid., November 1, 1925, p. 3; "Salvage Cuts Fire Damage on Auto Row," Ibid., November 2, 1925, p. 1; "Water Lack at Auto Row Is Explained," Ibid., November 2, 1925, p. 3; "Here’s Revised Damage List," Ibid., November 2, 1925, p. 3; "Six Injured as Gasoline Explosions Feed Blaze," The Seattle Times, November 1, 1925, p. 1; "Firestone Company Loss Is $1,000,000," Ibid., November 1, 1925, p. 3; "Hundred Policemen Establish Fire Line," Ibid., November 1, 1925, p. 3; "Auto Struck by Firetruck: Two Occupants Escape Injury," Ibid., November 1, 1925, p. 3; "More Than Ten Thousand Persons Crowd Every Available Space to See Great Fire," Ibid., November 1, 1925, p. 3; "Lack of Water at Fire Brings Investigation," Ibid., November 2, 1925, p. 1; "Action for Protection of Property Being Asked," Ibid., November 3, 1925, p. 1; "Fire Victims Busy in New Quarters," Ibid., November 15, 1925, p. 7; Richard J. Schneider, "SFD History: 1920-1930," Seattle Fire Fighters Union, IAFF Local 27 website accessed March 5, 2012 (www.iaff27.org); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Seattle Neighborhoods: Capitol Hill, Part 2 -- Thumbnail History" (by John Caldbick), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed April 5, 2012).


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