Now & Then -- Seattle's Great Fire of 1889

  • By Paul Dorpat
  • Posted 1/01/1999
  • Essay 2583
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This file contains Seattle historian and photographer Paul Dorpat's Now & Then photographs and reflections on Seattle's Great Fire of 1889.

Seattle's Great Fire

It takes a conspiracy of coincidences to turn an ordinary fire into a great one. Mid-afternoon, June 6, 1889, Seattle was ready with a heat wave, a fanning wind from the north, its fire-chief out of town, next to no water pressure, a business district constructed of clapboard, and an upset pot of glue. By sunset Seattle had burned to the ground in what has been called ever since the Great Fire of 1889.

Burning south through the night, the fire extinguished itself in the tideflats south of Pioneer Square (from the 1970s to 1990s the site of the Kingdome, and in 2000 the site of Safeco Field). The fire burned north as well, incinerating 30 blocks in all, including the press of The Seattle Times. The next morning the exhausted citizens woke to a smoldering landscape which, depending upon their disposition, inspired some to meditate on human folly and others to set up tents for business over warm ashes.

The photograph of the fire itself and the crowd (standing well back from the heat) looks south down Front Street (now 1st Avenue) from Spring Street toward Madison. There, on the corner of Madison and Front, the fire ignited on the floor of a carpenter's shop from wood shavings and boiling glue.

William Boyd, a professional photographer, shot the scene. His own studio stood on the far side of the fire he photographed. (We do not know whether he made it back in time to save his equipment. Within two hours the studio had burned to cinders.) He shot the scene around 3 o'clock in the afternoon, shortly after the fire began. It is one of the few images of the fire itself. Most photographers were, no doubt, too busy trying to save their equipment to use it.

Thomas Prosch, editor of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in the late 1880s, described the conflagration: "For a couple of hours after the fire crossed Yesler, the spectacle was a magnificent one, the flames rising high in the air ... while the noise of falling walls, the crackling, the occasional explosions, the shouts, added to the flare and heat in making the scene a memorable one."

The Seattle Times, according to Murray Morgan's classic local history, Skid Road, was "stunned until Monday, the 10th, when its first post-fire edition announced that "the Times is still on earth. It is slightly disfigured but still in the ring ... The Times office went up in flames, nothing being saved except the reporters, the files and a few other implements of the trade."

No human lives were lost in the Great Fire, though thousands of rats died, and at least one horse. The Times reported that the stench from the carcass (of the horse) in a vacant lot off Madison near Broadway was sickening and that if the owner did not remove it he would be reported to the police.

On the morning after the fire, June 7, the photographers (those who still had cameras and film) got busy recording the romance of ruins -- more than 30 picturesque city blocks of them. Actually, most of the ruins were undistinguished -- the remains of a firetrap business district built of wood.

The photographers had to shoot quickly. The picturesque ruins were soon razed. Within the first year 150 brick buildings were started and some completed.


Paul Dorpat, Seattle: Now & Then Vol. 3 (Seattle: Tartu Publications, 1994), Story 28.

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