Although some sources of the day erroneously reported that the fire started in the paint shop of James McGough, which happened to be on the floor above Clairmont`s workshop, the true source of the holocaust.
The unusually good weather in the spring of 1889, proved disastrous for Seattle. Little rain and consistent temperatures in the 70s (F.), caused excessively the dry conditions, creating a giant tinderbox.
On the afternoon of June 6, 1889, a young Swede from New York named John Back, an assistant in Victor Clairmont`s woodworking shop at Front Street (now First Avenue) and Madison Avenue, was heating glue over a gasoline fire.
Sometime after 2:15, the glue boiled over, caught fire, and spread to the floors, which were covered by wood chips and turpentine. He tried to put the fire out with water, but that only served to thin the turpentine and spread the fire further. The fire department got there within 15 minutes, but by that time, it was hard to find the source of the fire, and by the time it was found, the conflagration was out of control.
The pyre quickly engulfed two saloons and a liquor store, fueled by large quantities of alcohol, the entire block from Madison to Marion was ablaze. Due to an inadequate water supply, insufficient equipment, and with hydrants located only on every other block, the fire continued to ravage Seattle.
While Fire Chief Josiah Collins was at a fire-fighting convention in San Francisco, Mayor Robert Moran took command from acting Fire Chief James Murphy and ordered a firebreak to be established by blowing up the Colman block. Unfortunately for him and Seattle, the fire jumped the firebreak, and began to devour the wharves as well as everything up the hill toward Second Avenue.
In less than two hours it was realized that downtown Seattle was lost. So great was the inferno that the smoke plume could be seen more than 30 miles away, in Tacoma.
Residents cleared out as much of their personal property as they could. Some were able to hire wagons to haul belongings onto ships before the ships moved out of the harbor away from the burning wharves.
Trinity Church burned quickly as the fire reached Third Avenue. The fire jumped the street toward the three-story Courthouse. Not long afterward, the fire had reached Fourth and University.
A handful of buildings, including the Courthouse were saved. Quick-witted Lawrence Booth climbed to the roof of the Courthouse and armed with buckets of water dowsed the sides of the building, saving the structure as well as all the public records and the jail within. Booth inspired bucket brigades to save the Boston Block and Jacob Levy`s house. Someone had thought to cover Henry Yesler`s house with wet blankets.
As the Fire Dragon was devouring ever-increasing amounts of the city, Moran commanded shacks be either torn down or exploded in the attempt to create another firebreak before it reached Yesler.
In the face of all the heroic efforts, the fire crossed the gap, and consumed Skid Road in flames. Mayor Moran declared an 8:00 p.m. curfew that night and ordered all remaining saloons closed until further notice. The fire burned until 3:00 am.
After all was said and done, the damage was unimaginable. 120 acres, 25 entire city blocks, had been destroyed, as was every wharf and mill from Union to Jackson streets. Although the loss of human life was nil, it was estimated that 1 million rats were killed.
Thousands of people were homeless, and 5,000 men were without jobs. The city estimate of losses at more than $8 million, and that did not even include personal property losses or those of water and electrical services.
Seattle banded together, and at 11 a.m. on June 7, 600 businessmen met to discuss how to cope with the current situation and plan for the future. To combat looting, two hundred special deputies were sworn in and the town placed under martial law for two weeks.
A relief committee was formed to handle the charitable donations that were being sent from all over the country. Tacoma, no longer a rival, but an ally in the time of need, raised $20,000 and sent up a relief committee to help.
The armory was converted to a dining hall, so the displaced citizens would have a place to eat. Supplies from San Francisco (much of which had been ordered before the fire) arrived by June 18. Relief bureaus were able to close as quickly as June 20, as tent-restaurants had been set up quickly, and were able to meet people`s needs. Within a month of the fire more than 100 businesses were back in business, albeit out of tents.
Seattle rebuilt from the ashes with astounding rapidity. The fire had done a fine job of cleansing the town of rats and other vermin; a new zoning code resulted in a downtown of brick, stone, and iron buildings, rather than wood. In the year after the fire, the city grew from 25,000 to 40,000 inhabitants, largely because of the enormous number of construction jobs suddenly created.
Contrary to common sense, most businesses decided to rebuild where they had been. Wooden buildings were banned in the burned out district, to be replaced by brick, stone, and iron.
At the same time, streets were raised up to 22 feet in places, helping to level the hilly city. Within a year, 465 buildings had been built, most of the reconstruction was complete, and the businesses had reopened.
The fire also led to other changes for the city, the creation of a professional fire department, by October 1889; the city took control of the water supply, increasing the size of the pipes, eliminating wooden pipes, and added more hydrants.
The fire, which could have spelled the end of the city, instead became just a brief setback, and led to many significant improvements.