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Great Seattle Fire. Photo by MOHAI. View the Great Fire photo set or the "This NOT Just In" slideshow >>.

Great Seattle Fire. Photo by MOHAI. View the Great Fire photo set or the "This NOT Just In" slideshow >>.


This NOT Just In: Great Seattle Fire

Feliks Banel

Like many a city, Seattle was once nearly destroyed by a 19th century fire. Recently discovered audio from eyewitnesses to the Great Seattle Fire, recorded in 1953, sheds new light on this major disaster, but on a decidedly more human scale.


Downtown Seattle was almost completely destroyed by fire in June 1889. The city miraculously rose from the ashes, however, and modern Seattle owes much of its form and feeling, as well as a boom in masonry construction to the after effects of the fire. Though the blaze took place more than 120 years ago, a recent discovery sheds fascinating new light on the disaster.

Emcee: "The date was June 6, 1889 and the hour was 2:30 p.m. It was a pleasant, sunshiny afternoon such as many of us enjoy in Seattle in June."

This audio comes from a recording of a party at Seattle's Museum of History and Industry, or MOHAI, back in 1953. The man was speaking to a large crowd gathered at the dedication of a life–sized mural of the Great Seattle Fire. I was on staff at MOHAI back in 2003 when we found this audio. It was recorded on a huge, unwieldy record, 16 inches in diameter. It's called an electrical transcription. As I listened to the recording with the MOHAI librarian, it was easy to understand why it had sat on a shelf for 50 years.

Emcee: "The estimated loss financially was something in excess of $10 million."

It was all pretty humdrum. The emcee recounted the familiar details of that famous local disaster, started by an inattentive woodworker and an overheated glue pot. But then came a shock.

Emcee: "Now, if I may have the handle and the technician to remove this microphone, I'm going to try and get the interview of these people here so that you may get their firsthand impression of what took place that afternoon."

As the needle made its way around the disc, we realized that we'd found the only known recordings of eyewitness accounts of the Great Seattle Fire.

Emcee: "I'm going to start out here with Mrs. Jenner, and ask her where you were at the time of the fire, Mrs. Jenner; that is, in what part of the city?"

Mrs. Jenner: "Why I watched the fire from Third and Madison. I don't know why I wasn't in school. But I stood there with Mama and we watched it burn in Grampa Bagley's church, Second and Madison."

Unidentified Woman: "Well, Professor Ingraham kept all the children in school and then we were, everyone, cautioned to go straight home. And I went straight to the fire and stayed until a policeman found me."

These might be considered silly schoolgirl memories, but they represent an amazing addition to Seattle history.

Audio recording was in its infancy in 1889, so the Great Seattle Fire is known mostly through photos, illustrations and writings. Even in the 1950s, portable audio recording was still pretty impractical, so it's a wonder that the event at MOHAI was recorded at all. And it wasn't just schoolgirls remembering the fire.

Unidentified Man: "We didn't think the fire was going north. We felt for an hour after its start that it was headed south and would not come our way, but soon we found the smoke coming up through the boards and planks which covered the piles and on which the store building was built."

Unidentified Woman Two: "I think there was a big crowd. Half the people in town were down there at the fire. The man who started the fire was a roomer in our house and his name was John Beck."

Emcee: "He was in the carpenter shop?"

Unidentified Woman Two: "He was the one started the fire and they were going to lynch him if they found him."

Nearly a dozen people shared their memories at MOHAI that day, and their firsthand reports help fan the Great Seattle Fire back to life. An event once muted by its place in the distant past, now has a voice of its own.

George Comstock, Seattle Historical Society president in 1953, thanks the crowd.

Comstock: "Thank you very much. And now, then, for your patience I know it's been a little difficult with our crowded quarters. You've been a splendid audience, and I hope that you've enjoyed this. And as a reward, please go out and get a cup of coffee and enjoy a social hour with us. Thank you very much."

I'm Feliks Banel for "This NOT Just In."

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