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The Great Seattle Fire Essay, Research Paper

The Great Seattle Fire On the front page of the Seattle Post Intelligence for June 7, 1889 the Seattle fire was said to have been started by a glue pot in McGough’s paint shop which was reported to be in the basement of the Pontius Building at the corner of Front and Madison Streets in what was known as the Denny block. The false report that the origin of the fire was James McGough’s paint shop has often been repeated and has become a fictitious part of Seattle’s history. When Mr. McGough was interviewed he said, “My shop was in the flat just over where the fire occurred.” The room below McGough’s paint shop was occupied by Clairmont and Co., cabinet makers. The story of the fire starting in McGough’s paint shop was corrected in a June 21, 1889 issue of the PI where the place where the fire started was reported to be Clairmont and Co., but the idea that it had started in McGough’s paint shop was already popular belief. It was here that several men were working at the time. The one who caused the fire was a Swede named John E. Back. A Seattle PI reporter who interviewed Back, asked what happen. While heating up a glue pot it caught fire, Back stated, “When I throw the water on, the glue flew all over the shop into the shavings and everything take fire.” So started the great Seattle fire.There was no delay in responding to the fire. The hose cart from Second and Columbia got there first, pulled by a crew of men and boys, but Steam Pumper Number One was a much more reassuring sight when it came rolling in from the main fire station. The hose cart had already been connected to the fire plug at Madison, so the steamer’s crew took the next one, two blocks south. The long dry spell had kept the water level low in the reservoirs. Two feeble streams of water searched for the heart of fire that was hidden in the blinding smoke. The blaze ate through the walls to light off the high-proof contents of a liquor store in the Denny Block next door. It spread from there to a row of saloons and in less than twenty minutes the whole block from Madison to Marion was wrapped in fire.The firemen concentrated on trying to keep the flames from spreading to the Commercial mill behind the Denny Block and to the Opera House and Colman Building on opposite corners of Marion and just across the street from the fire. The fire bell kept on banging away and Steam Pumper Number Two came dashing up to pump salt water from the bay, but the tide was out, and the hose wasn’t long enough to reach the heart of the fire.The crews on First and Marion fought the fire to a standstill for a while, until embers flew upward to settle on the Opera House roof. Inside of seconds the city’s proudest building was roofed with solid flame. Then the whole side of the Colman Building seemed to flare up at once and the Commercial Mill began to burn.

Tough, capable young Mayor Robert Moran took command, ordering the Colman Block and other buildings in the path of the fire dynamited. The flames roared across the wreckage chewing their way south and west across the yard to engulf the waterfront docks. Within an hour of the glue pot’s tipping it was evident that the whole business district was doomed.The bay stopped the fire on the west after the docks were gone, and it was under control to the east, but there was no stopping its race south to engulf the Lava Bed with its saloons, cheap hotels, and fancy bawdy houses on the sawdust flats. It had taken twenty years to develop the Lava Bed, but twenty minutes of fire wiped it out, which was the end of the Lava Bed for all time.Seattle had been happily engaged in slugging it out with all the other towns of theNorthwest for supremacy, Tacoma most of all. Seattle, the blasted, burned-out shell of a town found that even disliked neighbors can be comforting to have around when things get really tough.The fire hadn’t had much more than an hour’s headway when a big red fire engine came rolling through town from the waterfront. The letters on its side read Tacoma Fire Department. A little later the fast steamboat Fleetwood came in from Olympia with the capitol city’s new steam pumper on the forward deck. Strange fire engines kept coming in all afternoon and evening, from Port Townsend and Snohomish and New Whatcom. At half past two in the morning the pumper Multnomah, of the Portland Fire Department, came in from Oregon by train. The fire burned itself out before dawn. There wasn’t anything left in the business district or the Lava Bed for it to feed on. The waterfront was swept clean of docks and mills and coal bunkers from Jackson Street to Union. Twenty-five blocks, sixty square acres of the little city had been wiped out overnight. Tacoma was busy setting up big tents in which to serve 3000 meals a day. Towns on Puget Sound were bringing food and clothing and medical supplies when the sun came up. The loss suffered by the city and by destruction of streets and docks was $1,100,000. Many of the small sufferers lost everything, and in that portion of the city south of Yesler avenue, where the hotels and lodging houses were, the loss of personal effects runs into the hundreds of thousands. A careful estimate places the total loss to buildings and property at $20,000,000. BIBLIOGRAPHY1. Frederick James Grant, History of Seattle Washington (Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1993), pp. 214.2. Julian Hawthorne, History of Washington (Echo Publishing Company, Vancouver, 1992), Vol. 2, pp. 316.3. Dr. James R. Warren, The Day Seattle Burned (Oxford University Press, UK, 1989), pp. 20.

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