Immense fire destroys Ballard mill (in Seattle) on May 20, 1958.

  • By David Wilma
  • Posted 5/22/2000
  • Essay 2445
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On May 20, 1958, the largest fire in Seattle since the Great Fire of 1889 destroys the Seattle Cedar Manufacturing plant in Ballard. The blaze consumes lumber in a three-block-long yard at 4735 Shilshole Avenue NW, a machine shop, seven drying kilns, and a two-story finishing mill. Total losses exceed $1 million. Five-foot-long pieces of burning lumber are carried aloft by the air currents, and some land as far as two miles away. Seattle residents use garden hoses to protect their property.

The fire started in a buildup of lumber dust next to steam pipes. After the alarm was turned in at 9:28 p.m., the sprinkler system was inadvertently shut off. A total of seven engine companies responded along with the fireboat Duwamish. Fire fighters remained on the scene for three days to insure that the fire was out. Ten firefighters, one harbor patrolman, and one civilian were injured.

Seattle resident Joan Watkins saw the fire as a child. The fire particularly frightened her grandmother, who had witnessed the Great Seattle Fire of June 6, 1889. Watkins recalls:

"My grandmother, Gertrude Mary Kuen ... wife of Harry J. Kuen ... witnessed the Seattle Fire in 1889 from Newton Street on top of Queen Anne Hill. As a child, I can remember when a lumber mill caught fire by the Ballard Bridge in the 1950s and she was terrified that Seattle was going to 'burn to the ground' again. She had my father (Donald Watkins) outside during the Ballard lumber mill fire spraying water with a garden hose on the roof of our home at 14th and Boston. We survived and so did our home, but watching the burning embers float over the neighborhood definitely made us nervous at the time."


Seattle Fire Department Centennial Commemorative: 1889-1989 (Portland: Taylor Publishing Co., 1989), 59-60; Joan Watkins to HistoryLink, July 2, 2001.
Note: This essay was revised on July 4, 2001.

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