THIRTY-EIGHT YEARS after its founding, Seattle catapulted to worldwide attention via reports of catastrophic destruction.
The June 6, 1889, fire that incinerated more than 120 acres and nearly 30 blocks of downtown occurred on what might be called a slow news day. Only one week earlier, a burst dam in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, had swept away more than 2,200 lives, shocking the nation (in response, generous Seattleites pledged $576 for flood relief). The fire that leveled the wooden business district of our pioneer town — although it caused no fatalities aside from a Panglossian “million rats” — also was featured in newspapers across the country.
Within days, a New York Times headline read: “The Great Seattle Fire … It May Be a Blessing in Disguise.” Seattle land tycoon Henry Dearborn, visiting the East Coast, predicted: “The fire has cleaned out all these [tinder boxes], which were a constant menace to the city” but soon would be replaced “by fine, fireproof structures.” Seattle residents enthusiastically agreed.
At first, however, hometown papers adopted a gloomier tone. The morning after the fire, the Seattle Daily Press succumbed to purple prose: “Besides the smoking, tomblike ruins of a few standing walls … people are left living to endure with sheer despair … blackness, gloom, bereavement, suffering, poverty, the hideous remains of a feast of fire.”
Yet the same morning, 600 citizens gathered at the surviving Armory on Union Street between Third and Fourth avenues in a display of civic gratitude and confidence. The crowd cheered the news that archrival Tacoma had offered aid and succor, as had San Francisco and other cities and towns. When some suggested that aid pledged to the Johnstown homeless be diverted for Seattle use, the crowd shouted, “To Johnstown! Let it go to Johnstown!”
Echoing through the Armory was a commitment to “pull all together” and “rise like a phoenix” while constructing a new city of brick and stone. Streets would be widened and leveled, while a fervent appeal was made to “Seattle Spirit.” On Saturday, June 8, Post-Intelligencer headlines affirmed: “A New Seattle Will Arise … Sweet are the Uses of Adversity.”
Operating from tents, local businesses prepared to rebuild. Impresario John Cort, having reopened his burned-out Standard Theatre under a canvas big top, featured a joke that brought down the house: “How’s business?” asked the straight man. The comic replied, “Intense!”
The pun proved prophetic. In less than two years, Seattle’s population nearly doubled to almost 45,000, and 3,500 new buildings arose, mostly in the devastated core. Voters authorized a more dependable city water system, and a municipal fire department formed. Thus, just in time for the 1897 Gold Rush, a small pioneer town reintroduced itself as an ambitious young city.