A fire that started in the cheap American House hotel in 1879 ruined many waterfront businesses and ‘half as many men.’

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THE FIRE STARTED around 9 p.m. Saturday, July 26, 1879, in room No. 12 on the second floor of the American House. Only the day before, the hotel advertised itself in the Daily Intelligencer as, “The best and cheapest House in town for a poor man.” The hotel sat by the waterfront end of Mill Street (Yesler Way), near the Seattle Lumber Mill, which was reduced to rubble smoldering above a few salvageable saws.

On Sunday, the newspaper opened its first report on the fire with a sensational exaggeration: “The long expected conflagration that was to destroy this wooden town has come and done its terrible work. In an hour a score of business houses were destroyed, half as many men ruined and a hundred and fifty thousand dollars worth of property swept out of existence.” In addition to the cheap hotel where it started, the fire consumed “five saloons, a seamen’s bethel, a machine shop, a marble shop, two sash and door factories, a chair factory, a grist mill, a turning shop” and various other smaller structures. All were soon rebuilt, but to stricter fire codes enacted after the fire. Ten years later, Seattle’s business district was nearly wiped out by the “Great Fire” of June 6, 1889, which razed more than 30 city blocks, including Yesler’s Wharf and most of the waterfront.

This Peterson & Bro Studio photograph looks west from near Post Avenue through the ruins of the Seattle Lumber Mill. Volunteers, including sailors from ships in Elliott Bay, saved the warehouses at the end of Yesler’s Wharf with a great and heroic dousing of the dock. Volunteers armed with buckets and wet blankets also protected the Daily Intelligencer’s frame quarters at the foot of Cherry Street, which was also the home of the Peterson & Bro Studio.

The city’s nearly new Gould Steam Fire Engine performed well until its suction lining came loose. The engine had been delivered earlier that year with great fanfare. An enthused and expectant citizenry followed it and the six horses pulling it on parade from its waterfront landing — almost certainly on this dock — to Yesler’s Pavilion for a community dance and a “bounteous repast … prepared by the ladies of the town.”

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The Daily Intelligencer concluded its Sunday report with a description of the frantic evacuation by citizens with their goods from quarters that were never reached by the fire: “Every place of business in the Yesler block, on Mill and Front Streets, [was] stripped of its contents except those in the Intelligencer building … Stores were wholly or partially emptied, and the streets were lined with furniture, boxes of groceries, clothing, drugs, jewelry, etc. … Trusty men and horses and wagons were in demand at high prices. Reckless and ridiculous things without number, as is always the case on such occasions, were done on every hand.”