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Ominous red cards are key to mystery of the Ellensburg Fire

The origin of the Ellensburg fire is not definitely known.  It was undoubtedly the work of an incendiary.  Some citizens think it was the work of an Indian squaw who had been outraged by some white man sought to obtain revenge by firing the town.  Still others think it was done by tramps and vagrants who have recently been infesting the city.  To strengthen this last idea several reputable citizens stated on the morning after the fire that they had found in their yards a red card on which had been written in ink the words, ‘You have no pity – we show no mercy.’  There is another supposition, however, which involves the standing and position of one who was burned out, yet heavily insured.  Investigations are on foot and if this party is found guilty, or indeed if anyone is apprehended, he will be most rigidly dealt with.

-Newspaper account in the aftermath of the July 4, 1889 Ellensburg Fire

During the hot and dry summer of 1889, Ellensburg suffered a major fire late on the evening of July 4. Ten blocks of the city were destroyed, but fortunately, there were only minor injuries and no one died.

Unlike the fire a month earlier in Seattle, which was blamed on a carpenter who accidentally set a pot of glue and then his entire shop on fire, and the fire in August in Spokane that began in restaurant, the cause of the Ellensburg conflagration has never been satisfactorily determined.

But there’s no shortage of theories.

Ellensburg fire theories

Ellensburg is the county seat of Kittitas County.  The community was an important railroad town going back to the 1870s, with typical 19th century aspirations for expansion and economic growth.

As it turned out, the day that Ellensburg burned was also the very same day that a constitutional convention got underway in Olympia.

Washington Territory was poised to become a state that fall, and delegates from around the territory gathered in Olympia beginning July 4 to hammer out a constitution and eventually choose a location for the state capital.

Ellensburg was vying for that political plum, as was what’s now Yakima – and, of course, the territorial capital of Olympia wanted to keep the seat of government there.

Sadie Thayer is director of the Kittitas County Historical Museum in downtown Ellensburg, just blocks from the site of the fire.  She says that historical accounts of the Ellensburg Fire are consistent about the fact that the blaze began in the vicinity of a mercantile store run by a man named J.S. Anthony.

But when it comes to the possible cause, and who or what might have been responsible, there are multiple compelling theories.

Thayer says the list of possible causes for the fire include errant fireworks, insurance fraud, faulty electric lights, striking miners, vagrants displaced by the Seattle fire, disgruntled Native Americans, disgruntled Chinese, even a disgruntled circus that had tried and failed to set up their tent on the edge of town in the high winds that were blowing that day.

Does Sadie Thayer have a favorite among the many theories?

“I personally look at the vagrants coming in from Seattle” who were displaced after the fire there and rode the rails straight to Ellensburg, Thayer said.

“Seattle burned in June, we burned in July and Spokane burned in August. So even though we know the cause of Seattle’s fire, people look at was there some connection between three locations and the fire, you know, an arsonist,” Thayer said.

For the most sensational theory of the bunch, Thayer says to talk to a retired Tacoma Fire Department investigator named Charlie Hansen.

Ellensburg arsonist?

Hansen lives on Vashon Island these days.  He’s spent many years studying the Ellensburg Fire, and he’s convinced it was intentionally set.

“The reason I can reach back in history and say it was definitely [set] on purpose is because later that night, somebody left these red cards in the yards of some of the prominent citizens, and these red cards had couple of sayings on them,” Hansen said.  “One of them was ‘You have no pity, we show no mercy.’”

It’s a creepy message, to be sure, but does the presence of the red cards prove anything irrefutably? What if there is no direct connection between the red cards and the possible arsonist?  That is, maybe somebody was just pulling an opportunistic prank in the wake of an accidental fire.

Oddly enough, the trail of the red card theory quickly grows cold partly because there are no examples of the red cards in the Kittitas County Historical Museum’s collection – and no red cards in any collection anywhere.  There’s also no definitive list of the Ellensburg residents who found them on their charred land 129 years ago.

Regardless, Charlie Hansen has done plenty of thinking and ruminating about the Ellensburg fire and what a tragedy it could’ve been if circumstances had been only slightly different.

For instance, Hansen says, hundreds of people were at a dance right next door to J.S. Anthony’s store, where the fire began.  A slight difference in the wind, and there could’ve been hundreds of deaths, Hansen says, and so this willingness on the part of the possible arsonist to risk the loss of this many lives might point to a motive.

“Who would do something so nasty? If you think about it, [it was] some rival. And so I cannot eliminate [a] political rival,” Hansen said.

“And who had the most to lose? It wasn’t Yakima,” Hansen said.

Pressed to explain, Hansen connected the dots to the competition to wrest the state capital away from the city that had been home to the territorial capital for more than 30 years.

“I always wonder about Olympia interests,” Hansen said.

Or, in other words, by burning down Ellensburg, Olympia interests eliminated the competition for securing the state capital.

Olympia, Hansen says, had shortcomings and needed the state capital to ensure its future.

“The economics had passed them by.  The railroad didn’t even go into town.  They were a backwater,” Hansen said. “Their harbor was known as, ‘it’s a fine harbor half the time.’”

If this political intrigue weren’t enough, there was at least one more salacious theory.

Remember J.S. Anthony?  Sadie Thayer spoke many years ago with a Ellensburg man well over 100 years old who recalled hearing stories about the fire as a young child. The stories, Thayer says, pointed to the shopkeeper’s extra-curricular activities as a possible contributing factor.

“J.S. Anthony, who had the store that the fire started in, was also quite the ladies’ man,” the man told Thayer.  “So there was a question, did a jilted lover or the spouse of the mistress, did either he or she burn the store down as a response to love that spiraled out of control?”

“I heard from the same gentleman that J.S. Anthony was known to keep a moonshine still in the basement,” Thayer said. “So there’s also that speculation” that the still might have exploded and caused the fire.

The Ellensburg Fire was a long time ago, but Sadie Thayer would love to acquire one of the mysterious red cards for the museum’s collection.  She agrees with speculation that there might still be an example left somewhere, perhaps tucked into a family Bible or other book, or among old insurance papers, just waiting to be discovered.

If your family has roots in 19th century Ellensburg and you still have books or other papers dating to that era, it might be worth marking the 129th anniversary of the fire by taking one more careful look.  Who knows what you might find.

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