Fire destroys carousel and Ferris wheel near Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo on August 26, 1934.

  • By Paula Becker
  • Posted 9/28/2006
  • Essay 7939
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On August 26, 1934, fire destroys the Woodland Park Amusement Center in Seattle (located directly across Phinney Avenue from the Woodland Park Zoo). The blaze consumes George and Lucy Vincent's carousel, band organ, four small buildings containing arcade and carnival games, towering Ferris wheel, and part of a confectionary/lunch counter, along with a roller skating rink owned by John Manos.

A Spectacular Three-Alarm Fire

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer described the scene the following morning:

"A spectacular three-alarm fire destroyed the Woodland recreation center, Phinney Avenue and N. 55th Street late last night, lighting the sky with lurid flames that attracted thousands of persons from all parts of the city. ... Traffic along Phinney Avenue was blocked for more than half a mile as six engines and three truck companies battled the blaze, and special police details were called on to hold back the throngs that crowded in on the fire lines, courting danger from the snapping telephone and light wires... . Screaming animals in the Woodland Park Zoo added a weird accompaniment to the crackling of the flames, and many persons on their way to the scene imagined the fire was in the zoo buildings" ("Woodland Park Center Burns").

A Giant Beacon

Lucy Vincent, who with her husband George had operated a carousel and Ferris wheel at the location since 1919, later told investigators that nothing was amiss when she locked up at 10:00 p.m. About 11:00 p.m. a group of boys told neighborhood resident Ray Ginold that they saw flames at the Amusement Center. Ginold called in the first alarm at 11:06 and began trying to put out what was initially a small fire at the base of the Ferris wheel. But within minutes a 60-gallon barrel of gasoline stored nearby exploded. Flames shot 50 feet into the air and the fire spread rapidly. Firefighters arrived soon after but found that pressure in the water mains was not sufficient to subdue the blaze. Fire Battalion Chief Leo McCombs told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that heavy water usage during the hot summer weather was responsible for the insufficient pressure. By midnight a large crowd (several hundred according to The Seattle Times, thousands according to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer) watched as the entire city block blazed.

"A spectacular element was added to the fire," the Seattle Post-Intelligencer report continued, "by the collapse of the tall Ferris wheel, whose steel girders crashed in the heat. The wheel fell with a shower of sparks into the gaunt remains of the merry-go-round. The Ferris wheel sent flames high into the sky and was visible from nearly every part of the city, appearing like a giant beacon" ("Woodland Park Center Burns").

Swigging Soda in Smoldering Ruins

It was approximately 30 minutes before firefighters had enough water pressure to fight the fire. Nervous owners of nearby houses sprinkled their roofs with garden hoses as sparks from the blaze scattered on the strong breeze. Once firefighters finally had water pressure they were able to douse the blaze, but not before nearly every structure was destroyed. A small portion of the Vincents' confectionary stand and lunch counter at the far southeast corner of the block escaped the blaze. The Seattle Times reported, "After the blaze was extinguished, the tired firemen and police clustered around the counter and drank root beer and cherry 'pop' -- free. A few thirsty spectators, who edged up to the counter when they saw the fun, were shooed away by police" ("Refreshments Handy For 'Lads' After Big Fire").

Four firefighters, Whitman Stose, Ralph L. Forbes, Herbert J. Miller, and Emil M. Tyron suffered minor injuries as they battled the blaze. Seattle physician Frank T. Maxson treated them at the scene.

Cause: Unknown

The Seattle Fire Department annual report for 1934 included the blaze in the "Fires With Loss Of More Than $10,000" category. This report concluded:

"Due to the highly combustible nature of the construction of the buildings and fixtures, the fire spread rapidly. During the fire a strong wind was blowing from the south which aided the spread of fire onto the buildings to the north, and the department was considerably handicapped by extreme low water pressure at the hydrants which, along Phinney Avenue, was 22 pounds. As a result of its investigation, one Eugene Paulson, age 23, a mental defective and confessed pyromaniac, who was loitering in the building in the vicinity of where the fire originated immediately prior to its discovery, was recommitted to an asylum. However, he persisted in denying responsibility for this fire although admitting he had made an attempt to burn the buildings on a previous occasion. The loss to the buildings and contents, valued at $38,000 and insured for $25,000, was $38,000. Cause: Unknown (probably incendiary)" ("1934 Annual Reports: Fire Department 1934...").

Sources: "Woodland Park Carnival Center Burns; Spectacular Inferno Puts Zoo In Uproar," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 27, 1934, p. 1; "Four Injured In $50,000 Fire at Woodland Park," The Seattle Times, August 27, 1934; "$20,000 Loss By Fire Blamed on Lack Of Water," Ibid., August 30, 1934; "Club Opposes Amusement Center," Ibid., November 4, 1934; "Refreshments Handy For 'Lads' After Big Fire," Ibid., August 27, 1934; Dorothea Nordstrand, email to Paula Becker, July 27, 2006, in possession of Paula Becker, Seattle, Washington; Seattle Board of Park Commissioners Minutes, Vols. 8-20, August 1921-October 17, 1974, RG 9365-01, Seattle Municipal Archives; Kay Schlegal telephone interview with Paula Becker, July 31, 2006, notes in possession of Paula Becker, Seattle; Linda Allen teleephone interview with Paula Becker, July 31, 2006, notes in possession of Paula Becker, Seattle; 1935 Annual Reports: Fire Department 1935, p. 65, RG 1802-G4, Box 3, Folder 1, Seattle Municipal Archives; 1934 Annual Reports: Fire Department 1934, p. 58, Box 2, Folder 8, RG 1802-G4, Seattle Municipal Archives; Seattle Municipal Archives Photograph Collection, Items 9480-9493, Seattle Municipal Archives website accessed August 2, 2006 (

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