Looking back on the Great Seattle Fire of 1889

Get ready for a wild ride.


The fire started on the corner of Front Street (now First Avenue) and Madison.

Table of Contents

A few weeks ago, we asked you all what you wanted to learn about this year and quite a big percentage mentioned local history. So why not dive into one of the wildest stories in city lore: the Great Seattle Fire of 1889.

Saddle up, y’all. There are some serious whoa moments ahead.

Quick beginnings

It’s 2:30 p.m. on June 6, 1889 and the fire begins with an honest mistake. An employee of a wood and paint shop at Front Street (now First Avenue) and Madison Avenue accidentally kicks a pot of hot glue over into a pile of wood shavings next to him. When the fire catches, the staff member tries to douse the fire with a bucket of water, however... this causes the turpentine in the glue to spread — and the fire along with it.

At 2:45 p.m., the fire department arrives. But by this time, there’s too much smoke for the firefighters to find the source of the flames. The uncontained fire does what uncontained fires do best and eats its way next door.

And it spreads

During this time, Pioneer Square is also filled with a lot of places to drink... and like busy humans, fire really likes alcohol.

The fire moves on to the liquor store next door, which then explodes. It spreads to the Crystal Palace Saloon, which also explodes. Then it spreads to the Opera House Saloon, which — you guessed it — explodes as well.

The poor fire department

The Seattle Fire Department also faced quite a few challenges during this time. First, its Fire Chief was out of town and helping out with some stuff in San Francisco, and the replacement was reportedly acting pretty “distraught.”

But it’s hard to blame the guy because the fire department didn’t have the water it needed to calm things down. Fire hydrants were more sparsely located than they are now, and not only were the pipes too small to handle the job, but they were also made of wood.

The firemen tried to compensate by pulling water out of the Sound, but their hoses weren’t long enough to reach the water which was inconveniently at low tide.


After the fire, tents were set up in Pioneer Square during recovery.

Photo via Seattle City Archives

The resolution

After a few hours, help from Tacoma, Portland, and Vancouver arrived and helped put an end to the fire by 3 a.m. the next morning — 12 hours after it began.

By the end 25 city blocks (or 125 acres) had been destroyed, $20 million in damage had been done, and an estimated one million rats had been killed.

However, as chaotic as the fire was, not a single person died in the mess. Plus, wagons were brought in during the blaze to help citizens and business owners clean out their belongings before the blaze spread, further reducing overall impact.

The city banded together and worked to rise from the ashes — within a year 465 buildings had been rebuilt, this time with brick vs. wood.

Want more history from us? Shoot us an email telling us what PNW tales you’re curious to learn more about.

More from SEAtoday