Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Great Fire of Seattle - Revised

The Great Seattle Fire was a fire that destroyed the entire central business district of Seattle, Washington June 6, 1889
June 6, 1889
“Good Morning Jack. It is going to be another scorcher today.”
I looked over and see Hugh, the resident school custodian sweeping the front terrace taking refuge in the morning shade of the balcony above. 
“It sure is Hugh. I’m beginning not to believe you folks when you tell me that each day starts with fog here in Seattle”, I half-heartingly joke with him as we both looked towards town and Elliot Bay beyond. Wooden barges line up along the waterfront as they were being loaded up with lumber. Railroad cars being pulled by a team of oxen with fresh cut pines keep the supply to the sawmills coming. 
“It’ll be back. Don’t you worry.  I hope so anyway. I do miss the morning fog burning off like it does. It reminds me of the clarity each day brings. Never mind  the fact that my morning chores around here are much more comfortable in fog rather than heat”, Hugh replies. He is always looking on the bright side of things. 
“Well take it easy Hugh. I’m heading into town for a bit”
The heat wave has been the talk of the town for days. The wind blowing in from the north pushing the fog away leaves temperatures running hot all day.  I do confess though that I have been enjoying waking up to seeing Mt Rainer in the distance. I recently read an interview in the the Seattle Post-Intelligencere  that a fellow named John Muir, climbed the mighty mountain last year. In the interview he says the view from top is beautiful but that Mt Rainer is best appreciated from below looking up. I'll accept that fact being that I am not much of an adventurer myself. 
Heading towards town I am glad that I decided to do without my coat today. I thought about it this morning as I was buttoning up my black vest and rolling up the sleeves of my white strached shirt and decided to put it aside for today. I do need to replace the old threadbare jacket but I better  hold off on this expense for as long as I can. As an academician I don’t get much of a stipend but I feel rich being compensated in other ways. As a recent member of the teaching staff here at Territorial University I know that the school is struggling on funds. Past years have forced them to close the doors, turning away those who want  to further their education. I really do have all I need. A small dormitory is provided for men like me who teach here. Right now there is only three of us. Together we teach Latin, mathematics and philosophy. From time to time prominent scholars from San Francisco or Portland will come and provide a semester long course in orienteering, astronomy and other specialized subjects. 
As I head downtown I stroll along Spring Street from Fourth Avenue.  I enjoy looking at the magnificent wooden homes built along here with the local timber. The homes are built on a graded hill looking yonder to the harbor sitting in a row  like birds perched on a fence. The house on the corner  is my favorite,  Dr. Bagley’s  grand Queen Anne mansion.  The lawn and garden beds are well manicured and the fancy spindle work on the balconies always appears as if the paint is still wet it looks so clean. I continue  down the street making eye contact with the horses tethered to the wooden posts with carriages attached to them, patiently waiting for their day to start. I walk past the Allen residence. While Alexander Allen lives on Mansion Row, his home is the most modest of them all. One would think the  manager of Seattle Dry Dock & Shipbuilding  could have a house as grand as the Doctor’s but he does choose his priorities differently. He gives his money to the Arts as well as to the University. I know this because recently I was the recipient of theatre tickets donated by Mr Allen. My colleague and I enjoyed a fine show several weeks ago at the Frye Opera House. A treat indeed. On the porch sits his daughter on a stool in front of an easel. She is engrossed in her paint palette and furiously stroking the canvas with a brush. I do not call out to her as not to disturb her. 
I cut over to Second Avenue and dodge an electric streetcar. I am still not used to sharing the streets with them as they are new to Seattle. Newfangled streetcars, a brain child of Frank Osgood, that are hooked to the overhead electric cables and run by on board motormen. The cars are always occupied by women who do not want the bottom of their petticoats to be covered in mud. 
My first stop this morning is the Puget Sound National Bank located in the lobby of the Occidental Hotel to deposit my semester pay. The marble lobby is dark and pleasantly cool feels good. A brief respite from the heat. I then  move on to the cigar shop located down closer to the waterfront. I want to pick up two cigars. Hugh and I have gotten into the habit of sitting on the steps of the University at night, looking at Mt Rainer in the light of the moon, and smoke. I enjoy listening to the old mans tales and I believe he enjoys the company. 
With the two cigars safely stored in my shirt pocket snuggled underneath my vest I head over to the wharf. When I first explored the waterfront months ago I got easily lost. The piers, docks and berths are all connected by boardwalks creates a maze of it’s own. At first I used landmarks such as the Crystal Palace Saloon, Russell's Bakery and other businesses  built on the wider planks of  the boardwalk until I got my bearings and have it figured out now. Today I am going to treat myself to a lunch time meal of fish and chips and an ice cold lager at the barroom inside St. Elmo’s Hotel. St Elmo’s is a questionable establishment in my mind. I have heard of late evening brawls and other shenanigans but I never pay much attention to such talk. St Elmo’s fish and chips, wrapped in newspaper, delicately fried just right is all I’m interested in. 
  After my noonday meal I walk past the Lowman and & Handford Stationary and Printing Co. I should stop in here and check on the status of the textobbk I ordered but the heat of the day is starting to get to me. Looking up at the sun’s position in the sky I am going to guess that it is  about two o'clock in the afternoon. Perhaps a nap would be the best way to beat this heat and now is a good time to start heading up the hill back to the campus.
Something is wrong I ghought as soon as I hear the school belling ringing from it’s belfry. The sound of the ringing bell is  alarming. The bell is only rung when school is in session, or to alert ships in Elliot Bay that land is near in extremely thick fog and those two scenarios are impossible. I instinctively turn around and immediately see a bellow of smoke coming from where I had just come from. The downtown was on fire and I could see from my vantage point that it was spreading and growing into a huge inferno. The buildings downtown are completely made of wood feeding the fire into a frenzy. Fire Engine Company #1is on scene working fervidly. I start running down to the center of town, as well as other business men, clerks and everyone else who is aware of what is going on. As I get closer the thick smoke starts to burn my eyes and the intense heat feels like it is physically pushing me back, like a bully in a schoolyard fight. Wind whips the flames carelessly about causing wreckage in it’s path. Buildings are quickly destroying in front of my eyes. In the midst of such chaos however the pulling together of humanity is keeping a somewhat calm order. Bucket brigades are being set up as lines of men are passing buckets of water from the bay to each other to assist the efforts of the Fire Engine company. It is clear that their resources are failing quickly. Apparently it wasn’t thought out at the time of inception that wooden water pipes would probably burn in a fire. Water pressure is failing and the water hoses are useless. 
 I feel a huge crash behind me and watch the Frye Opera House come tumbling down.This is unbelievable and it feels so unreal.  I feel it though. I smell it. I hear it. It is real. I snap back into reality and help a young woman and her child with their  belongings. The barges have dumped their load of logs into the water and are taking on board passengers and whatever they can carry. Once on board the plan is to push out  and push out to the far side of the harbor. Once I get the young mother and her child on board I run back through the maze of wooden planks, sparks dancing about my feet and one actually landing on my shirt sleeve burning a small hole. 
I run back towards Third Avenue where I could see a flurry of activity even through the smoke. Men are shouting that every available bucket of water is to be poured onto the courthouse. An enormous effort ensues and the building was spared as the fire moves on towards skid row. Through the roaring din I can hear explosions. Barrels of booze being ignited someone explains to me. 
I continue on with the work efforts doing what I am told by those who seem to know what to do. What seems like only minutes has turn into hours. I do what I can to fight the blaze. It was impossible to see that the sun had actually gone down when the Sheriff and his deputies ride about on horses. They are making an announcement that a curfew is now set in place and all citizens are to return to their homes. If their homes are not intact they are mandated to seek shelter of some kind. All saloons and other establishments are to be closed until further notice. 
I head back up the hill for the second time todayThis time I feel defeated.  Somewhat frightened. I just watched my newly adopted city burn down. Right in front of my eyes. I can’t believe that the buildings I visted just this morning is now just a pile of rubble and ash. How did this happen?  
There is no sign of Hugh as I walk along the path to the back dormitory. Exhaustion takes over the minute I enter my room. I quickly peel off my smoke stenched vest and shirt and toss it to the chair. In doing so the forgotten cigars fall to the floor. I am sitting on the edge of the bed and bend down to pick them up. It seems so long ago when I bought these. Was it really just this morning?  Surprisingly they survived the day, unlike the shop they came from. I lie back and close my eyes. I fall asleep with the cigars in hand. 
This story inspired by Sandra's Writing Workshop! This is my first ever entry.  Thank you Sandra for your words of encouragement and giving me courage to jump into the writing world! Please everyone... go and check out her webpage and join her workshop! 


  1. Lucy, this is a GREAT revision! So much more immediate –– you start the story with a scene rather than narrative info. Much more effective! The reader is quickly grounded in story, as we follow him through his day. And I'm just in awe of how comfortable you seem in the writing of historical fiction; I could never do this! Did you research this? Anyway, you certainly have established a place and time in history that maybe you can pursue? Who might be others in his circle? I'm interested in seeing more of Hugh; that relationship could be of great potential! Bravo. Revision is so key to success. You're on the right path!

  2. Beautifully written, Lucy! Sorry it took me awhile to stop by but I am glad I am here. Vivid description of everything.