Fires devastated Seattle, Ellensburg, Spokane in 1889

Jun 6, 2024, 6:42 PM | Updated: Jun 7, 2024, 4:27 am

When Washington became a state in November 1889, that wasn’t the only big news story that year.

In the final spring and summer of Washington’s territorial era, big fires ravaged major sections of downtowns on both sides of the Cascades, from Seattle, to Ellensburg, to Spokane.

Seattle’s fire struck on the breezy, blue-sky afternoon of Thursday, June 6, 1889. It was caused by an accident at a carpenter’s shop at what’s now First and Madison. John Back tried to extinguish a pot of burning animal-based glue by dousing it with water, but the flames spread to the sawdust and other combustibles on the floor of the shop, and then on to much of the rest of Seattle.

It had been a warm and dry spring, and the wooden buildings in the young city had seasoned like cordwood and were highly flammable. Add to this a lack of decent water pressure, and the leader of the volunteer fire department being out of town, and the stage was set for what became a massive blaze.

Fortunately, no one died. However, approximately 112 acres of the business district were destroyed, and an estimated $20 million worth of property was lost. Rebuilding the city would take about two years.

In 1953, the old MOHAI in Montlake dedicated a colorful mural depicting the fire. Several eyewitnesses to the fire were in the audience, and spoke into a microphone provided by old Seattle radio station KXA (direct “ancestor” of KIRO Radio’s sister station KTTH).

Recordings of the eyewitness memories were rediscovered in the MOHAI archives in the early 2000s, and offer a unique glimpse into the long-ago fire.

MRS. ROLLIN SANFORD (aka Kate McGraw, daughter of Washington governor John McGraw):
“Well, Professor Ingraham kept all the children in school. And then we were cautioned to go straight home. And I went straight to the fire and stayed until a policeman found me.”

“There was a big crowd. Half the people in town were down there at the fire. The man who started the fire was a roomer in our house and his name was John Back. He was the one [who] started the fire, and they were going to lynch him if they found him.”

“I watched the fire from Third and Madison. I don’t know why I wasn’t in school. But I stood there with mama, and we watched it burn in Grampa Bagley’s church, Second and Madison.”

“As usual, whenever the fire bell rang, Number One House, all of us kids would go immediately down there to see what was up. After the bell rang, we all left Mrs. Shorey’s duplex house on Third Avenue right next to Columbia Street. The progress of the fire was very evident by the huge smoke billows around. At that time, I was working in the abstract office of Osborne, Tremper and Company. I realized as the fire was progressing, it had jumped Marion Street in the Colman Block and saw that the fire was going to continue on. The books of the Osborne, Tremper and Company were uppermost in my mind. They had but three lot books and two land books, being the foundation stock of the abstract business. It didn’t take me very long to run up there and tell my brother, my half-brother, Eben Osborne, that we would have to get rid of those books right away. He had just purchased, or the firm had just purchased, a big safe that was warranted fireproof. I said ‘Eben, I am going to take those books up to our house at 4th and Columbia’. Ed Tremper quite agreed with me. So he grabbed two books and I the other. We took them up there, we made another trip down. By that time, Eben had started to put in the safe the lot and the deeds and mortgage records. All the merchants in town there, nearly all of them, were commandeering trucks and express wagons, especially do I remember Chester Clary’s big store in the Sullivan Block. He fortunately had a truck there, and you should have seen him pile that truck with the more valuable goods that were in the store.”

“I was working in a hardware store operated by P. Haines at 1007 Front Street [now First Avenue] which was a block and three or four doors north of where the fire started. We didn’t think the fire was going north we felt for an hour after its start that it was headed south and would not come our way. But soon, we found the smoke coming up through the boards and planks which covered the piles and on which the store building was built. The smoke and the flames began to come up and then we took the moveable stores out of the building and carried them across the street at the northeast corner of First and Madison Street. I had just completed a few weeks of service in that store and had money enough to buy a new suit of clothes and I was very proud of it. But in taking the material out of the store, I took off the coat and vest and put it in a desk and moved the desk across the street with the rest of the stuff. The next morning, the desk was gone and I never got the suit of clothes back.”

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Ellensburg fire

It was less than a month after the disaster in Seattle, and late on the evening of Thursday, July 4, when the Kittitas County seat of Ellensburg caught fire.

The cause of the Ellensburg blaze has never been satisfactorily determined, but the place where it ignited is believed to be a grocery store on Main Street between 4th and 5th Avenue. The fire started around 10:30 pm and wiped out about 10 city blocks. It took about four hours to burn and just four months for the city to rebuild. Damages were estimated at $2 million. Some historians say that the fire wiped out Ellensburg chances of becoming the state capitol, but there were likely other factors that kept this political “plum” in Olympia.

Spokane fire

And it was exactly one month after the Ellensburg fire when much of what was then known as Spokane Falls fell to a fiery onslaught.

The blaze in the hub of the Inland Empire was accidental. It started in the late afternoon of Sunday, Aug. 4 in a small hotel and restaurant on Railroad Avenue. Shifting winds – and efforts to dynamite buildings before they could burn – created confusion and chaos. The fact that the water superintendent – the only person who knew how to operate the water system – was out of town, added to the ineffectiveness of the response.

When it was all over several hours later, about 30 blocks of downtown Spokane Falls were burned to the ground.

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But much as had happened after the fires in Seattle and Ellensburg, provisions rolled into what was left of Spokane Falls by train from all over, even from recently devastated Seattle. There was so much in the way of relief supplies that many of Spokane Falls’ elected officials were accused of personally stockpiling cured meats in their home basements. This earned the city’s leaders the nickname the “Ham Council.”

Rebuilding 3 Washington cities

In the aftermath of the blazes, all three cities erected tents to house people and businesses until buildings – mostly brick this time – could be built to replace what had been lost in the fires of 1889.

For Seattle, in particular, the fire became a kind of before-its-time “urban renewal,” clearing away much of the pioneer-era settlement, and allowing for construction of a modern urban area with wider streets and more carefully planned utilities. And the city replaced its volunteer fire department with a professional force.

Later that autumn, long after the fires had been extinguished and the sounds of construction had replaced the roar of flames, the territorial era came to an official close on November 11, 1889.

In spite of the tallies of blocks burned and material goods lost in the blazes, there’s never been an accurate count of just how many newly minted Washingtonians welcomed statehood and the bonds of the Union from the discomfort of a canvas tent.

Editors’ note: This story originally was published June 6, 2018. It has been updated and republished multiple times since then.

You can hear Feliks Banel every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien. Read more from Feliks here and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea or a question about Northwest history, please email Feliks. You can also follow Feliks on X.

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Fires devastated Seattle, Ellensburg, Spokane in 1889