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The Great Seattle Fire: Photos of early Seattle, the fire, and its aftermath

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Before 1889, what’s now Pioneer Square was a whole different neighborhood

Taken just after the fire, this photo shows the ruins of the neighborhood with Elliott Bay in the distance.
MOHAI, PEMCO Webster & Stevens Collection, 1976.6362.161

On June 6, 1889—130 years ago—a burgeoning Seattle was completely transformed in less than a day. At 2:45 p.m., a worker threw water on an overheating glue pot in a cabinet factory, starting a fire that raged through what’s now Pioneer Square. It roared through the fire-vulnerable wooden buildings and docks, and by morning, the majority of the neighborhood was gone.

The devastation was overwhelming: British poet Rudyard Kipling was touring the Northwest at the time and witnessed Seattle soon after the fire. With the wharves burned down, said Kipling, the steamship he was traveling on was “crashing into the rotten foundations of a boathouse as a pig roots in high grass.”

“In the heart of the business quarters there was a horrible black smudge, as though a aand had come down and rubbed the place smooth,” continued Kipling. “I know now what being wiped out means. The smudge seemed to be about a mile long, and its blackness was relieved by tents in which men were doing business with the wreck of the stock they had saved.”

From the ashes grew Pioneer Square’s current look, with the more fireproof brick buildings and infrastructure. By popular demand, the city also raised and widened the street, creating Seattle’s underground, which can be accessed through two different tour companies: Relatively newer outfit Beneath the Streets and the original Bill Speidel’s Underground Tour, although the latter has been known to make some embellishments in its history lectures.

More than a century later, it can be hard to grasp what life was like for residents after a total wipeout—and to picture what the city looked like with those long-gone buildings. Thanks to the Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI), we’ve compiled some photos around the time of the Great Fire, from old Seattle to the active destruction to the immediate aftermath.

Before the fire

The view of Elliott Bay from First Hill in 1885—the large building in the center, a school built in 1883, was destroyed in an earlier fire. Other visible buildings include a 1877 hospital.
MOHAI, Robert Roblee Collection of William N. Bell Family Materials, 2008.54.16
The Chicago Boot and Shoe Store, pictured here around 1889, was one of the businesses destroyed in the fire. Owner John Henry Rengstorff is leaning on the left side of the doorway.
MOHAI, 1980.7092.2
The view up Yesler Way on June 5, 1889—the day before the fire—from Railroad Avenue, later Alaskan Way.
MOHAI, 2002.3.489

During the fire

This photo captures the fire soon after it started, with crowds gathered on Front Street, now First Avenue, to watch it burn.
PEMCO Webster & Stevens Collection, Museum of History & Industry, 1983.10.5989
This photo from about 40 minutes after the fire started shows one of the area’s vulnerable wooden buildings.
MOHAI, 2002.3.405
The Great Fire is pictured here in the late afternoon, about 45 minutes after the blaze started.
Courtesy of MOHAI, 1983.10.6204
In addition to business along what is now First Avenue, the fire destroyed the docks along the waterfront—although in this photo, a dock is a gathering point for spectators.
MOHAI, Seattle Historical Society Collection, SHS708A

After the fire

Later in June, shortly after the fire, the Bank of Commerce on Second and Cherry was still standing, but many of the businesses destroyed by the fire reopened in tents, visible in the background.
MOHAI, Postcard Collection, 1998.62.2
Shortly after the fire, a pair of doctors sit in a makeshift office, with a blackboard on the center pole as an appointment book.
MOHAI
By July, most businesses had relaunched in homes and tents, with some emergency services set up among them. Here, they’re pictured facing south from Second Avenue.
MOHAI, Benjamin Pettit Photograph Collection, 1980.6923.122
An undated photo—circa 1895—shows what is currently First Avenue S, called Commercial Street at the time. Rebuilding was well underway, and the raised streets built after the fire are visible here.
MOHAI, William S. Newton Photographs, 1991.5.26