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.