The Great Seattle Fire was a fire that destroyed the entire central business district of Seattle, Washington June 6, 1889
June 6, 1889
I woke up to another hot day. This sure is unusual weather for Seattle. The heat wave has been the talk of the town for days. While the breath-taking view of the mountains in the distance are grand, the wind blowing in from the north pushes the fog away leaving temperatures running hot all day. I was taken back on how I missed the morning fog that Seattle is known for. The morning fog always burned off reminding me of the clarity each day brings. I must confess though that this morning I did enjoy waking up to Mt Rainer in the distance. I had just 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 said the view from top was beautiful but that Mt Rainer was best appreciated from below looking up. I'll accept that fact being that I am not much of an adventurer myself.
I finish dressing and grooming for the day. I think I will do without my worn out coat today as I button up my black vest and rolled up the sleeves of my white starched shirt. I did need to replace the old threadbare jacket but was holding off on this expense 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 knew that the school was struggling on funds. Past years have forced them to close the doors, turning away those who wanted to further their education. I really do have all I need. A small dormitory is provided for the men 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.
It’s about 10 am when I walk out of the dorm and follow the path to the front of the main building.
“Good Morning Jack”
I looked over and see Hugh, the resident school custodian sweeping the front terrace taking refuge in the shade of the balcony above.
“Another scorcher I’m afraid” he commented as we both looked towards town and Elliot Bay beyond. Wooden barges lined 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.
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 were 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 was 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, a brief respite from the heat. I then move on to the cigar shop located down closer to the waterfront. I need 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. I decided today 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 had planned on stopping by the Lowman & Hanford Stationary and Printing Co and check on the status of a textbook I ordered since I was in the neighborhood but I am going to head back to the dormitory instead. The heat is starting to get to me. Looking up at the sun’s position in the sky I guessed it to be about two o'clock in the afternoon. Perhaps a nap would be the best way to beat this heat.
I was climbing up the hill, nearly at the grounds of the University, when I heard the enormous school bell ring from it's belfry. The sound of the ringing bell was alarming and right away I knew something was wrong. 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 were 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 #1 was 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 did what I could to fight the blaze. It was impossible to see that the sun had actually gone down when the Sheriff and his deputies rode about on horses. They are making the announcement that a curfew will be set in place and all citizens are to return to their homes. If their homes were not intact they are mandated to seek shelter of some kind. All saloons and other establishments are to be closed until further notice.
I headed back up the hill again, this time feeling defeated. Somewhat frightened. My newly adopted city burning behind me. The buildings I visited just this morning now just a pile of rubble and ash. 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!