How Washington's 'summer of fire' nearly destroyed Seattle, Spokane and Ellensburg

On the cusp of becoming a state, the Washington territory suffered three major fires that would change the course of history.

Today's residents of the Pacific Northwest worry about wildfires burning our forests. But one summer in Washington it was our cities that burned.

In 1889, as the Territory of Washington was poised to become a state, a triple tragedy occurred. Seattle, Ellensburg and Spokane — all booming communities — burned to the ground in quick sequence, changing lives and the course of history.

First to go was Seattle, Washington’s biggest city with a fast-growing population soon to hit over 40,000. On June 6, 1889, at 2:30 in the afternoon, a pot of animal glue in a cabinetmaker’s shop at Front (now First Avenue) and Madison boiled over. A young Swedish immigrant, John E. Black, attempted to douse the ensuing flames, but the water simply spread the fire into sawdust. Soon, the entire business district in what is now Pioneer Square was aflame. Firefighters attempted to pump water from Elliott Bay, but the tide was out. Wind from Puget Sound fanned the flames. In 18 hours, 25 commercial blocks had been reduced to rubble, over 100 acres in all, including many wharves and railroad terminals. The militia was called in to prevent looting and what had once been a thriving downtown became a tent city of displaced businesses and people.

Almost exactly a month later, on July 4, fire hit again, this time in Ellensburg, east of Seattle across the Cascades. Ellensburg was a smaller city of about 3,000 then, but still thriving and with big ambitions: City leaders were lobbying for it to be the new state’s capital city. Boosters had even built a castlelike governor’s mansion to show their commitment. At the time of the fire, some of the town’s leaders were in the territory’s existing seat of government, Olympia, pressing their cause while helping to draft Washington’s new state constitution. At about 10:30 that night, amid gale-force winds, a fire started at a local dry goods store. Was it caused by fireworks? A stove? A moonshine still in the store’s basement? Was it arson by transients, disgruntled miners, Chinese workers, or circus folk passing through town? Theories abound and no one knows for sure. By early the next morning, 10 downtown blocks and over 200 homes had been destroyed — there wasn’t much left to burn.

There is a surviving witness: a scorched and blistered mantle clock in the collection of the Kittitas County Historical Museum. The clock is said to have come through the fire, according to a note on its back. There is even soot still inside. The clock is stopped at the time the flames reached it: 11:07 p.m.

Last but not least was a devastating fire in Spokane — then called Spokane Falls — one of the territory’s most vital commercial communities and a transportation hub. Exactly a month after the Ellensburg fire, on Aug. 4 at about 6 p.m., the fire is said to have started downtown in Railroad Alley, an enclave of wooden structures where train passengers and transients could get cheap food, booze and lodging. The ignition point was said to be a lunch counter called Wolfe’s Lodge.

The summer had been uncommonly hot, and wildfire smoke from elsewhere in the region lay heavily on Spokane. The fire was explosive — it raged through the downtown. As in Seattle, problems with the hoses made pumping water difficult. The decision was made to contain the fire by dynamiting brick buildings in its path, but that strategy seemed only to feed the fire by exposing the wooden frames within the exploded buildings to the flames. The best firewall turned out to be the Spokane River, which cut through town. In the end, 32 commercial blocks were left in ashes.

Washington cities were highly competitive, but the aftermath of the fires saw interurban cooperation. Firefighters from Tacoma rushed to Seattle. A rival for the new state capital, North Yakima (now just plain Yakima), sent aid to Ellensburg — though a common conspiracy theory holds that it was someone from Yakima who torched Ellensburg to prevent the seat of government from relocating there.

Spokane had perhaps the oddest experience with aid: the people of Portland sent trainloads of food. Yet prosperous Spokane was determined to recover on its own. So some members of the city council helped themselves to the goodies, including smoked hams sent for fire victims. After they were caught with their hands on the goods they earned the title of the “ham council.”

The losses were enormous in each city. Among the three towns, nearly $1 billion in today’s dollars was lost to the flames. Few lives were lost, however. In Seattle, only one or two people died, including at least one post-fire looter, according to newspaper reports. Also, historians estimate that the fire killed at least a million city rats.

No people were reported dead in Ellensburg, and perhaps only one in Spokane. Another victim might be said to be a young Spokane prostitute named Kate Barrett, known as Irish Kate. Urban legend has it that she started the fire by knocking over a lamp in an altercation with an unwelcome customer, but nothing was ever verified. Sadly, a few years after the fire, she died by suicide.

The three cities all rebuilt quickly and made improvements. They professionalized their fire departments and equipment, built less with wood and more with stone and brick. Seattle famously raised itself one story and left the original street level underground. All took the Phoenix rising from the ashes as a kind of new civic symbol.

Despite the triple fire tragedy, Washington still became the 42nd state in the union in November 1889. Our communities have proved resilient. Still, 130 years later, wildfires remain a threat to life and property.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.

Stephen Hegg

Stephen Hegg

Stephen is formerly a senior video producer at Crosscut and KCTS 9. He specialized in arts and culture.