It was a miracle that nobody was killed in Seattle when a glue pot caught fire and quickly spread, burning up some 30 blocks of wooden buildings on 120 acres of the city’s downtown.
A million rats that infested the waterfront also died in the flames.
But when it was over, the city immediately rebuilt with bricks, stone and steel instead of wood — and modern Seattle was born.
It happened on June 6, 1889, when the city’s population was about 25,000. Business losses were estimated at $20 million — $512 million in today’s money — and for nearly a hundred years, the wrong man was blamed for the blaze.
Despite all the anguish and destruction, the loss of 5,000 jobs, the harm to businesses, and the cost of rebuilding a city destroyed, it turned out to be a blessing.
They rebuilt right on top of the old buildings.
Seattle was founded in 1851 mainly by the Denny Family of Indiana and Illinois led by one of the sons — Arthur A. Denny. After considering various sites, starting with Alki Point, they ultimately settled on an island in the mudflats on the east shore of Elliot Bay (Seattle Harbor).
That area would become today’s Pioneer Square — site of the Great Fire.
Huge conifer trees nearby — some 1,000 to 2,000 years old and nearly 400 feet high — were cut down, processed at Henry Yesler’s mill and the timber sent to San Francisco, where it was in high demand.
The lumber also was used to build Seattle’s first buildings, creating a serious fire threat.
The area Denny chose had other problems as well: “The area was at or below sea level, the fledgling town was a frequent victim of massive floods, requiring buildings to be built on wooden stilts, according to one report. “The town also used hollowed out scrap logs propped up on wooden braces as sewer and water pipes, increasing the combustible loading.”
Twice a day, rising tides backed up into toilets that emptied into the bay.
Then it happened.
On June 6, the fire started in a building built on a landfill that was below sea level; one report noting that “the Seattle that existed from the early Denny pioneers to the loggers and dockworkers of the 1880s was a place of flooded streets and tidewater toilets. People drowned crossing the road. Sewage backed up into houses at high tide.”
The fire changed all that.
John Back, a Swedish assistant in Victor Clairmont’s woodworking shop at the corner of Front Street (now First Avenue) and Madison Avenue, was heating glue over a gasoline fire. The glue boiled over and caught fire and started spreading, igniting the floor covered with wood chips and turpentine.
Back tried dowsing the blaze with a bucket of water, but that only made it worse.
For nearly a century the fire was blamed on a paint shop above Clairmont’s because of an erroneous report in the newspaper the next day.
The volunteer firemen got there about a half-hour later, but by then it was out of control.
The fire quickly spread to Dietz & Mayer Liquor Store, the Crystal Palace Saloon and the Opera House Saloon — all loaded with alcohol. Towering plumes of smoke could be seen as far away as Tacoma, 30 miles south.
Fire Chief Josiah Collins was out of town, attending a fire-fighting convention in San Francisco, and Mayor Robert Moran took command from acting Fire Chief James Murphy, quickly ordering a firebreak by blowing up the Colman block. It didn’t work. The fire jumped the firebreak, and started burning up the wharves.
Business and homeowners scrambled to save what possessions they could — even hiring wagons to cart them to ships that would sail out into the bay before the fires destroyed the wharves.
The Seattle Times saved most of its books and files by rushing them aboard the schooner “Teaser.”
Meanwhile, the mayor’s troubles mounted. Seattle’s water supply was provided by private companies using pipes made of hollowed-out logs — many too small to carry large volumes of water. Soon, water pressure dropped, some of the wooden pipes burned up, and firemen couldn’t fight the blaze.
Wooden sewer pipes also went up in flames.
They tried using water from the bay, but it was low tide and their hoses weren’t long enough to reach from the water to the buildings.
When the courthouse and jail caught fire, fireman couldn’t stop it because of the low water pressure. Quick-thinking Lawrence Booth saved the building and all of the public records by climbing onto the roof and pouring buckets of water down the sides of the building.
Mill owner Henry Yesler’s house was saved by covering it with wet blankets.
However, after two hours, they knew the city was lost — and crowds were yelling at the firemen.
To prevent looting, 200 deputies were sworn in and the town placed under martial law for two weeks.
Mayor Moran and 600 businessmen immediately planned rebuilding. New building codes required that structures be built with brick, stone or steel. A new sewer system would no longer use wooden pipes, and newly imported “Thomas Crapper” toilets from London were introduced.
The improvements would require raising all downtown streets to the same height — up to 33 feet in some parts — to stop high tides from flooding the downtown area.
Their plan was to blast the steep hillsides around the tidal flats with high-pressure water, and remove enough dirt to reduce the slope on those hills from a steep 49 degrees to today’s 18 degrees. That would raise the city 8 feet to 35 feet, depending on location.
No more backed-up toilets, or people drownings in flooded streets.
But the effort was taking too long, and businessmen were complaining.
To appease them, authorities allowed businesses to rebuild where they were providing they install a door on the second floor that would become ground floor after the new streets and sidewalks were built. First floor display windows and lobbies in the pre-fire buildings would become basements.
But to raise streets between the existing buildings, retaining walls were erected and backfilled with dirt. Then the city ran out of money after the streets were built, with no funds left for the sidewalks.
One account explained, “For a time if you wanted to cross the street you’d exit a building by the usual door, step out into the sunshine on the sidewalk and be greeted by a soaring retaining wall on which the new street rested. You’d walk down to the corner, climb up a ladder, cross the street and climb down another ladder — and some of these ladders were 35 feet tall.”
Within a year, new roads and sidewalks were completed over the spaces below and 465 buildings were open for business.
Soon, the underground part of the city was abandoned — but not for long. Others moved in and set up a 25-block Red Light district of opium dens, brothels, speakeasies and gambling halls. Supposedly, 2,500 of the city’s women worked there — reporting their occupation as “seamstress.”
Seattle needed money so they taxed the sin industry — instead of the powerful lumbermen who controlled things — and for nine years, the sin-tax accounted for nearly 90 percent of the city’s revenues.
All of that ended in 1907 when there was panic over an infestation of rats with rumors of possibly bringing a Black Plague to Seattle, so the underground sidewalks and doorways were sealed off and forgotten.
In 1965, historian and entrepreneur Bill Speidel opened it back up, cleaned it up and offered underground tours through parts of it.
Other parts are still abandoned — or used for storage — and some allegedly have become a venue for drugs, prostitutes and homeless.
Sadly, the rats are back too. They love the climate and they love the wet. A 2013 American Housing Survey says it’s getting worse. “Rat sightings were reported in 28,600 homes here — that pencils out to 2.1 percent of all occupied housing units in the Seattle metro. Of the 54 areas surveyed, that makes us the 7th rattiest.”
That’s not as bad as New Orleans where they invade 46 percent of the homes — but nevertheless in Seattle the guide for the Underground Tour tells visitors: “The rats are pretty big down here, so don’t fall behind.”
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Contact Syd Albright at email@example.com.
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Local lore holds that the term “skid row” originated in Pioneer Square — when timber would be slid down Yesler Way to a steam powered mill on the Seattle waterfront.
In May 1970, the Seattle City Council named 20 square blocks in Pioneer Square an Historic District, and now it is also listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
All housing facilities in old Seattle were connected with the main sewage line lying on the waterfront. The reverse force of tidal water would back up and flood all the toilets in the city, and a person could get blown off the seat.
John Back after the fire…
After the fire, John Back was questioned about what happened, and he said he didn’t know that throwing water on the blaze would spread it. Some reports say that he was turned down by 14 insurance companies. Then he disappeared into the pages of history and no one knows what became of him.