GREAT CITIES OFTEN have burned to the ground, some over and over again until they got it right. New York, Boston, Chicago and London were reduced to cinders yet repeatedly rebuilt. The cruel lesson: Invest in incombustible masonry and stone, or pay the fiery piper.

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Young, aspiring Seattle learned that lesson at 2:30 p.m. June 6, 1889, when Swedish immigrant John Back, 24, overheated a glue pot in a cabinet shop in the basement of the wooden Pontius building at Front Street (now First Avenue) and Madison Street.

From the Post-Intelligencer: “I was about 40 feet away,” said Mr. Kittermaster, a fellow employee, “and I saw Back seize a pail of water to throw upon it. I shouted for him not to do it, but [he] seemed excited and danced about with the pail before he dashed the water.”

The hapless Back recounted, “I run and took the pot of water … and poured it over the pot of glue, which was blazing up high. When I throw the water on, the glue flew all over the shop into the shavings, and everything take fire.”

In minutes, Seattle’s first steam fire engine arrived but had trouble finding the source of the flames through the billowing smoke. In a miscalculation of planning, downtown hydrants had been planted at two-block intervals, with hoses a block too short. Led by Mayor Robert Moran, crews fought a valiant but losing battle. Overburdened city water mains lost pressure. Streams from the abbreviated hoses eased to a trickle.

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At First and Marion, in the basement of the Dietz and Mayer Liquor Store, whiskey barrels exploded, fueling the flames, which spread quickly to nearby saloons. By late afternoon on this hot, blustery day, the entire Denny block was a raging inferno.

Against a cacophony of steam whistles and pealing church and fire bells, homeowners and business owners raced frantically to save possessions, loading up wagons and retreating up to First Hill, south to the tidelands and even out onto the doomed docks.

Post-Intelligencer editor Thomas Prosch wrote, “For a couple of hours after the fire crossed Yesler, the spectacle was a magnificent one, the flames rising high in the air … while the noise of falling walls, the crackling, the occasional explosions, the shouts, added to the flare and heat in making the scene a memorable one.”

Seattleites watched that scene with horror and fascination as their firetrap of a city burned. In 12 hours, the downtown business district — 29 city blocks, nearly a square mile — had gone up in smoke. Amazingly, no one died, though it’s estimated the fire did $20 million worth of damage, in 1889 dollars.

Next week: the aftermath, and the phoenix arising from its ashes — a Seattle that rapidly learned the lessons of brick, sandstone and an abundant water supply.