I’LL VENTURE that this look across Railroad Avenue (Alaskan Way) and Elliott Bay as far as West Seattle’s dim Duwamish Head, left, was photographed a few weeks after the city’s Great Fire of June 6, 1889, burned everything on the waterfront south of University Street. The fire was ignited by a volatile mix of upset boiling glue and carpenter’s shavings scattered on the floor of Margaret Pontius’ frame building at the southwest corner of Front (First Avenue) and Madison streets, about a block behind the position the unnamed photographer took to record this rare scene of the waterfront’s revival.
Before the fire, this part of the waterfront was covered with the Commercial Mill and its yard. Built in the mid-1880s on its own wide pier off the foot of Madison Street, this specialist in sash, doors and blinds was nearly surrounded by stacks of lumber, great contributors to the conflagration. On the night of the ’89 fire, burning boards from the lumberyard carried high above the business district put on a fireworks show.
The small warehouse, right of center, was built by and/or for F.A. Buck for his business, California Wines, which he advertised with banners both at the roof crest of the shed and facing the city. It looks like the shed was being lengthened on its bay side. Railroad Avenue is also being extended farther into the bay. This work-in-progress can be seen between the vintner’s shed and the Columbia and Puget Sound Railroad’s boxcar No. 572. Far left, a pile driver reaches nearly as high as the two-mast vessel anchored behind the vintner’s warehouse. The city eventually got finger piers that extended into the bay, where visiting vessels were tied in the slips between them.
The bales of hay in the “Then” scene have come to the waterfront via either steamers from Skagit Valley farms or the Seattle Lake Shore and Eastern Railway, which had, only recently in 1888, reached both the agriculture hinterlands of King County and the Seattle Coal and Iron Company’s Issaquah coal mine.
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