On July 26, 1879, a fire breaks out in American House, a low-rent hotel located near the shore of Elliott Bay at Mill Street (now Yesler Way). Within minutes the flames spread in all directions, consuming buildings and almost everything else in their path. Seattle's first steam-powered fire engine, purchased a year earlier, races to the scene, but soon suffers a problem that takes more than four hours to repair. An old hand-pumped unit called into service can do little. Before being fully extinguished the next day, the flames will destroy Henry Yesler's sawmill, a significant portion of Yesler's Wharf, and a number of factories, warehouses, hotels, and homes.
Just a Matter of Time
Seattle, like virtually every other town and village in early-day Washington Territory, was built almost entirely from wood. Its first brick building, Schwabacher Brothers' prosaically named "Building 2," came in 1872, but it would not be until after the Great Fire in 1889 that wood would be largely replaced by masonry.
The risk of fire was not unrecognized. In fact, it seemed to most to be inevitable. Lighting was by candle and lantern, cooking by wood stoves, heating by fireplace, stove, or steam, with the steam produced in boilers that were themselves fueled by wood or coal. It was generally accepted that it was only a matter of time until something would go tragically wrong.
After a few small fires that only good fortune and bucket brigades stopped from spreading, in 1876 the city's first fire department was formed. The equipment and station were paid for by the city, but the firefighters were unpaid volunteers. They started with a single fire engine, a hand-operated water pumper bought used from Sacramento. After a couple of near disasters, in 1878 the city purchased its first steam-powered water pumper, a Gould, for $3,500.
Time Runs Out
On July 25, 1879, half the town of Kalama in Cowlitz County went up in flames. This was reported in Seattle's The Daily Intelligencer the next day. On the front page of that edition, there was an advertisement for "American House, E. C. Eversham, Prop'r.," which proclaimed it "The Best and Cheapest House in Town for a Poor Man" ("American House"). A few hours later, at about 9 p.m., the worst fire by far that Seattle had yet experienced began in Room 12 on the second floor of American House, the exact cause unknown. As The Daily Intelligencer mournfully reported the next day:
"Yesterday it was Kalama. Today Seattle. The long expected conflagration that was to destroy this wooded town has come and done its terrible work. In an hour a score of business houses were destroyed, half as many men ruined and a hundred and fifty thousand dollars worth of property destroyed" ("Seattle in Ashes").
Tallying the Losses
Although it was the largest Seattle blaze and worst unnatural disaster since the first non-Native settlers arrived in 1852, the 1879 event was not nearly as well-documented as the Great Fire of 1889, about which volumes have been written. Most of the available information on the 1879 fire comes from newspaper reports, primarily in The Daily Intelligencer. American House where the blaze began was described in the paper as of a "light and inflammable character" ("Seattle in Ashes"), which made quick extinguishment impossible and helped the fire spread rapidly over an area of almost 125,000 square feet. The Daily Intelligencer wrote, "It was a good deal the worst fire that ever devastated any part of Washington Territory," and its rapid progress was described:
"The fire passed from building to building, crossed the street and quickly spread north, south, east and west. The whole row of houses on the south side of Mill Street, from Uncle Jimmie's fruit stand toward the sea, were reduced to ashes, as also was the Schwabacher warehouses behind them, Hall & Paulson's upholstery shop, Keenan's stone works, and the Crawford and Harrington warehouse" ("Seattle in Ashes").
It was reported that "the streets were lined with furniture, boxes of groceries, clothing, drugs, jewelry, etc." ("Seattle in Ashes"). Later accounts recorded additional losses, including "five saloons ... a hotel, a seamen's bethel [chapel], a machine shop, a marble shop, two sash and door companies, a chair factory, a grist mill, a turning shop, Yesler's saw mill, and various other places ..." (Bagley, 502).
Several days later, the Vancouver Independent listed even more – George W. Harris & Co., druggists; a restaurant; a stationer; two grocery stores; a dry goods store; S. Kenny, merchant tailor; and Fred Barker, confectioner. And that is just a partial list. Almost miraculously, given the fire's late hour and rapid spread, no lives were lost, and there was only one serious injury, from a fall. Although much of the waterfront was destroyed, only one vessel, the scow-schooner Schwabacher, was burned.
"Yesler's saw mill" was reported as being totally consumed, and but for a few salvageable mechanical components, it was. However, it was no longer operated by Yesler, and had not been for several years. Due to financial difficulties, he had closed the mill in 1871, and it sat idle for some months. In 1872 Yesler leased the mill to a San Francisco concern, Preston & McKinnon, whose Seattle representative was James Murray Colman (1832-1906). The mill was still important to Seattle's economy, and the lease was welcomed by the local press, with one newspaper reporting, "The arrangement will greatly add to the business prosperity of the town …" ("Yesler's Mill").
At some point before the 1879 fire, Colman became the sole lessee of the mill. Yesler's Wharf was still operated, profitably, by Yesler. After the mill was destroyed, Colman decided to build a new mill on tidelands to the south, using the salvaged equipment from the old mill. During 1881-1882 Yesler made the necessary repairs to the wharf and built on it a large and entirely reequipped sawmill, his third, and his last on Elliott Bay.
The city's almost-new, steam-powered pumper engine was quickly dispatched to the scene of the fire, drawing water from the many cisterns that had been built for just such an eventuality. It set to work, "throwing three streams and doing wonders in the way of saving" ("Seattle in Ashes"). But only briefly; an early newspaper account told a sad tale: "In a little time, however, it became clogged with sand, sucked in from the bottom of the cistern, and unfortunately was compelled for an hour to desist from pumping, the old hand engine in the meantime being brought out and taking the place of the disabled steamer" ("Seattle in Ashes").
This proved to be incorrect, in both cause and duration, and was clarified in a follow-up article three days later:
"The steam engine was not broken or clogged with sand or in anywise out of kilter ... After examination [the fault] was found to be in the hose, and, by the use of a knife in cutting a sort of blister, was remedied. Four of five hours of valuable time were thus lost ... Pumping was resumed by the steamer at 4 o'clock on Sunday morning and kept up until half past 12 at night, throwing at the rate of 400 gallons of water a minute or 500,000 gallons during the whole time. It proved its efficacy in a manner thoroughly satisfactory to all property owners" ("Seattle's Fire …").
That was the good news, but the account went on:
"We are grieved to record it, but it is nevertheless true, that a large number of persons developed the scoundrel in them on the occasion of this fire. The drug stores, book stores, cigar stands, grocers and others lost heavily by theft. Broken boxes of cigars and tobacco, packages or paper and envelopes, axes, liquors, buckets, etc. disappeared in this way to a value on not less than a thousand dollars. It was found necessary to place guards over the property left in the streets to save it from being destroyed or stolen, but unfortunately they were not placed until the loss above recorded had occurred" (“Seattle's Fire …").
Despite the looting, the efforts of volunteer firefighters and others who saved the town from even worse destruction were universally lauded. One person was particularly grateful – Henry Yesler. He lost a mill that he no longer operated, but much of his valuable, uninsured wharf had been saved. Page 2 of the July 29 Daily Intelligencer carried this bold-face notice, entitled "Card of Thanks." It read:
"The undersigned returns his sincere thanks to the Fire Department and the citizens generally for assisting in saving his property from the destructive fire of Saturday night last. H. L. YESLER."
The new mill that Yesler built burned to the ground in late 1887 and was not replaced. Less than two years later, his wharf was totally consumed in the Great Fire of 1889, but was quickly rebuilt in part. Yesler sold the wharf in March 1891, ending his long tenure on Seattle's waterfront, where in 1853 his first sawmill had given the tiny and struggling settlement a lease on life. His essential contribution was perhaps best put by a historian in 1891, the year before Yesler’s death.
"Yesler's mill did not create the town, yet it did more than any one thing to fix the seat of the place. As the first steam mill, and the first mill of any capacity, it gave a temporary advantage to the town, placing the means of building decent houses and establishing pleasant homes within the reach of the people. The effect of this in fixing the people here was very great" (Grant, 243).