01 December 2010

Accidents: The Great Seattle Fire

By Jacquie Rogers

It was 1851. The first family group of European descent to settle in what is now Seattle (Alki Point, more accurately) in the Puget Sound was the Denny Party. Trees, trees trees! The pioneers might have been lacking in conveniences, but they sure had a lot of trees! More settlers showed up and lumber was the gold.

Henry Yesler built a sawmill on the pier at the beginning of Mill Street (now Yesler Way) in 1853. The road went up a good-sized hill, all forested. The lumberjacks cut the timber and skidded the logs down the street (origin of the term "skid row") to be processed. San Francisco was booming and hungry for timber and they bought a good share of it from Yesler.

Money poured into the town, and by 1869 over 2,000 people called the incorporated City of Seattle home. Resources were plenty. Besides trees, coal was discovered south of Lake Washington and of course the fisheries in the Puget Sound were plentiful. Salmon is still king.

The city grew exponentially and 500 new buildings were constructed in March of 1889 alone. All wood. So you can see where this is going. Bustling city, lots of buildings all made of wood, lots of lanterns...

The fire was started on June 6, 1889 by John E. Back, in the shop of Clairmont and Company cabinet maker located in the basement of a building on Madison and Front Streets. It was, of course, an accident:
I cut some balls of glue and put them in the glue pot on the stove...[and] went to work about twenty-five feet away, near the front door. After a while somebody said "Look at the glue." Another fellow, a Findlander from New York, then took a piece of board and laid it on to smother the glue, but the board caught fire. Then I run and took the pot of water to smother the fire and poured it over the pot of glue, which was blazing up high. When I throw the water on, the glue flew all over the shop into the shavings and everything take fire."
The fire consumed nearly all of the city's wharves, a dozen brick buildings, and 29 square blocks of wooden buildings. Rudyard Kipling was visiting the area and wrote this description: "...a horrible black smudge, as though a Hand had come down and rubbed the place smooth. I know now what being wiped out means."

It was an accident that turned into a disaster and ultimately changed Seattle from a town to a city. The townspeople agreed to widen the streets and implement a fire code, requiring buildings of a certain size to be "fireproof." They put in a city-wide water system and created the infrastructure for the robust city Seattle is today.

And whatever happened to John E. Back, the man who started the fire? An unidentified lady who witnessed the fire was recorded at a MOHAI (Seattle's Museum of History and Industry) event in 1950: "The man who started the fire was a roomer in our house... They were going to lynch him if they found him." He left town and was never heard of again.

City of Seattle
History Link

Jacquie Rogers writes quirky, magical romances. Available now are her contemporary western, DOWN HOME EVER LOVIN' MULE BLUES, a multi-era faery story, FAERY SPECIAL ROMANCES, and a Christmas story, FAERY MERRY CHRISTMAS. She's co-founder of 1st Turning Point, a pay-it-forward website where authors teach, share and learn promotion and marketing.