On June 6, 1888, most of Ritzville's business district burns to the ground. At 4:30 p.m. a fire breaks out in the large American Exchange Hotel due to a defective flue. A southwest wind sweeps the flames into the adjoining buildings north of the hotel, and soon the entire northern portion of the business district is engulfed. The town has only rudimentary firefighting capability and most of the downtown is destroyed.
The fire swept up Ritzville’s main street and destroyed the hotel, the general store, a drug store, a newspaper office, the post office, a doctor’s office and many other buildings. When it was over, the town was left with only a grocery store, two hardware stores, two lumber yards and two livery stables.
Ritzville, which numbered only a few hundred in population, had little in the way of firefighting capability and even less in the way of water pressure. The town was still struggling to sink adequate wells. The Spokane Falls Review noted the next day that Ritzville had appealed for help from the Spokane Falls fire brigade, but no assistance could be given because the city's firefighting apparatus was incompatible with Ritzville's.
Some of the damaged businesses had insurance and re-building occurred immediately, with former mayor N. H. Greene building the town's first brick building. Many other brick buildings followed. An article 10 years later in the Adam County News stated that since the fire the town "had more than recovered, although it was a severe blow at the time" ("Big Bend").