A cabinet shop at Front Street and Madison caught fire on the afternoon of 6 June 1889, starting what grew into the largest fire in Seattle’s history. One hundred twenty acres — essentially all of the city’s business district — had burned to the ground by sunrise the next day. Catastrophic though it was, contemporaries viewed the Great Seattle Fire optimistically and set out immediately to elevate the streets and rebuild the city’s downtown with fire-resistant materials. Historians today view the fire as the beginning of modern-day Seattle.
Much has been written about the Great Seattle Fire, but aside from a few hand-drawn maps of the burned area, very little has been depicted visually. Through visits to the Seattle Municipal Archives and the University of Washington libraries, and with essential help from historians and architecture experts, I pieced together what is known about the fire and created a series of visualizations, a selection of which are shown on the following spread.
Detailed accounts of which structures burned and when paint an interesting picture of how the fire spread southward through the business district. While some buildings were rebuilt after the fire (such as the Occidental Hotel at James and Yesler), records show that many more were not, including Frye’s Opera House at First and Marion.
In addition, other data show that the fire in Seattle was not a unique occurrence — in fact, fires were a common danger in 19th and early 20th century urban areas. Because fires were shared threats, donations poured into the city after the Great Seattle Fire; meticulously recorded, these donations reveal the generosity of other city governments, some of whom had no doubt faced similar crises.
At times I reached dead ends in my research. For instance, despite mentions of its existence, I could not locate a map of the city’s water system, whose catastrophic failure during the fire left hydrants inoperable. But overall, what I did find through this project is a story not only of burned buildings and displaced residents but resilience in the face of existential threat and the famous “pioneer spirit” put to the test.
See the interactive Seattle Fire walkthrough at www.tatestrickland.com/seattle-fire.