This Day In History: June 6

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On June 6, 1889, a fire ignites in a Seattle woodworking shop and sweeps through some 100 acres, destroying much of the city’s business district and waterfront. The Great Seattle Fire culminates in losses estimated at $20 million—and serves as a turning point in the city’s history.

The fire started shortly after 2:30 p.m. when a pot of heated glue at Victor Clairmont's woodworking shop in the Pontius Building on Front Street (now First Avenue) and Madison Avenue burst into flames. The blaze raced across the floor, which was covered in the highly combustible mix of wood shavings and turpentine. The fire quickly engulfed the wood-frame building, spread to the neighboring Dietz & Mayer Liquor Store, and—now fueled by alcohol—tore in all directions. The majestic Frye Opera House, then the most expensive building erected in the city, was in ruins within hours. In less than a day, the fire swept through the city’s downtown, consuming nearly everything along its path, including mills, warehouses, piers, and hundreds of businesses.

A combination of factors contributed to turning what might have been a small fire into what would be the worst in the city’s history. They included: an unusually dry, warm spring; a limited water supply; a poorly trained volunteer fire department; and a downtown whose structures were built largely of wood.

Despite the fire’s unprecedented scale, miraculously, no lives were lost. And while devastated, its citizens banded together at rapid speed. On June 7, 1889, more than 600 of the city’s civic leaders and businessmen gathered to discuss how best to rebuild. Seattle’s first comprehensive building code was passed, requiring structures within the fire zone to be constructed with brick or stone instead of wood. A professional fire department replaced the formerly all-volunteer one. And Seattle’s water supply—previously managed by a privately owned company, whose supply levels proved disastrously inadequate during the fire—was taken over by the city’s first publicly owned utility. Seattle emerged more modern and resilient, with 465 new buildings and a population increase of more than 30 percent within a year of the fire.

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