Sea of Fire

Seattle Fire

No one watching could forget the Great Seattle Fire. Eyewitnesses described buildings succumbing to a wall of flame and a roar that could be heard for miles.

The big blaze broke out in early June during a storybook spring. Seattle, a timber town of wooden boardwalks and wooden buildings, had yet to stake its claim as an urban giant.

The aftermath appeared as “a horrible black smudge, as though a Hand had come down and rubbed the place smooth. I know now what wiped out means.”

Rudyard Kipling, British poet

In mid-afternoon, a glue pot overturned in a woodworking shop downtown. An assistant doused the fire with water. Flames shot across the floor, licking up scattered wood shavings bathed in turpentine. Smoke poured from the building and steam whistles sounded the alarm.

Volunteer firefighters fought thick smoke and scant resources. Private companies managed Seattle’s water supply and the fire hydrants were stationed on alternate streets.

The fire ravaged more than 25 city blocks and burned for 12 hours. In no time, a tent city emerged and eventually, the rebirth of Seattle in brick and stone.

McClure Letter

“The flames it seems were rising higher and higher and the front of the fire was lengthening every minute,” writes Henry McClure, an eyewitness.

Spokane Falls in Ruins

On August 4, flames tore through Spokane Falls, reducing to ashes 32 square blocks of the business district. The blaze ignited on Railroad Avenue, in a lodging house surrounded by wooden buildings and scrap.

The fire soon crossed city streets, melted glass and scorched buildings. Flames spread to the Arlington Hotel where a patron, George Davis, leaped from the second floor. Although he initially survived the fall and fled down Howard Street, Davis would become the fire’s only casualty.

Townspeople banded together and reconstructed in the wake of damages estimated as high as $10 million.

Her Hopes in Embers & Ashes

Well into the evening of America’s birthday, fire swept through downtown Ellensburg, casting a light so bright an eyewitness claimed he could read the paper from his darkened home. Another described buildings crumbling like eggshells. High winds pushed flames across 10 city blocks. Gone were 200 Victorian-era homes and the city’s bustling business district.

No one disputes that the spectacular fire started in a grocery store, but the debate over its cause has spanned 125 years. Theorists point fingers at an angry tribal woman, vagrants, fireworks or the Chinese.

The timing of the catastrophe threatened to dash the dreams of the railroad boomtown. The Northern Pacific Railroad had arrived and spurred development. The townspeople shared big dreams of hosting the state capital, and of becoming the “Pittsburgh of the West Coast” by transforming iron ore and coal deposits.

Ellensburg didn’t win the capital, but it did quickly rebuild. One newspaper declared, “Ellensburg has more brick buildings for its age and size than any other city in the United States.”

Ellensburg Ruins