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Curbed Seattle History Lessons - The Great Seattle Fire

Seattle is known for tree-huggers, Earth-firsters, moss-between-the-toes nature lovers. So, here's a story about how Seattle got this way by leveling hills, filling valleys, and rerouting water - or by raising the city by building a new one on top of the old one.


Remember Monty Python and the Holy Grail?

"Everyone said I was daft to build a castle on a swamp, but I built in all the same, just to show them. It sank into the swamp. So I built a second one. That sank into the swamp. So I built a third. That burned down, fell over, then sank into the swamp. But the fourth one stayed up." Go ahead and laugh. Seattle burnt down Seattle, and then rebuilt right on top of the rubble, and Seattle stayed up.

Wander around Pioneer Square. You're walking over the original Seattle. The Underground Tour that herds crowds of tourists is giving them an authentic view of Seattle's history that most locals miss. In 1889, Seattle had its Great Fire. Just like with Chicago (1871) and San Francisco (1906), rather than treat it as a reason to quit, they took it as a reason to rebuild and redefine the city.

History Link has the longer story, but the short version is this: a glue pot caught fire. The slightly longer version is that a glue pot caught fire in a city built of wood during a drought with a volunteer fire department that was overwhelmed. 29 city blocks burned. Only 4 wharves survived. No one died. It is easy to blame wooden water pipes, but too many fires and not enough water pressure were probably more to blame. The one upside was a significant reduction in the rat population.

The telling part about Seattle's character was that, instead of complaining, the next morning they got to work; and they got to work building a city where that wouldn't happen again. Buildings would be brick instead of wood. The fire department would be paid instead of volunteer. And the equipment would be improved; no more wooden water pipes. The telling part about the West Coast's character was that help flowed in by ship from Tacoma and San Francisco.

Pioneer Square has distinctive architecture because all of the buildings are brick, and also because many of them have quirky basements and lower level entrances that were street level originally. In addition to building with brick, the city decided to level the land by building up the city rather than tearing down the hills (as was done with the Denny Regrade.) Making the area less hilly made it easier to get around, and more appealing as well. The streets were walled in, filled in, and then built on top of. The city rose above the tide flats. Before the fire, 25,000 people lived here. Enough folks moved here to rebuild it that the population jumped to 43,000.

If you live in Pioneer Square, you're living above a history that redefined Seattle. Your building has more stories to it, in more ways than one. You might want to check your basement, and its basement. Those bricks weren't picked just for aesthetics. By the way, that lumber may be old growth: tighter grained, denser, and with a lot more character than your standard 2x4 framed wall. All the more reason to show off that architecture inside and out. Just make sure the building meets earthquake code. Of course, if anything happened, maybe Seattle would just take it as an opportunity to improve and grow again.
· Seattle's Great Fire [History Link]
· Great Seattle Fire [Wikipedia]
· Underground Tour [Underground Tour]
· MLS #533014 [Zillow]
· Denny Regrade [CS]
· All History Lesson coverage [CS]
Written by Tom Trimbath