1889 - The Great Fire and its Aftermath

The Great Spokane Fire started at 6:00 pm on Sunday, August 4, 1889. How did the fire start, you ask? Well we don’t know exactly, but here are at least three theories.

  • Some think it may have started when Bill Wolfe was cooking pork chops in his lunch counter on Railroad Avenue. They think a burst of flame caught a greasy towel that was hanging up by the stove. It quickly spread up the stairs.
  • Some say the real cause was Irish Kate, a saloon girl on Railroad Avenue. While she was working, a drunken man came in and they got into a fight. Later she found that her hair needed fixing. She went up to her room and stuck a curling iron in a kerosene lamp. She did this at 6 pm on August 4, 1889. The man came up to her room and they had another fight. Kate fell into the table that held the kerosene lamp. The lamp fell over and started the fire.
  • Some people think it started from a spark from a passing train.
Then people called for the volunteer fire department. It took them a few minutes to get there. When they hooked up their hoses to fight the fire, there was no water pressure. Where was the water? The scene became very chaotic, everyone running and shrieking to get away from the fire. By seven o’clock, the volunteer fire department still wondered why there was no water pressure.

Watch a Quicktime video about the Great Fire of 1889


When the fire broke out, it wasn’t very big, so most people didn’t bother calling out “fire, fire”. They didn’t panic because they thought they could handle it. But, after a few minutes, the fire grew larger and larger and the whole building was in flames. By that time lots of people were running for their lives.

A major problem was that several of the fire crews’ hoses kept springing leaks. Others wanting reasons looked to the pump station on the bank of the Spokane River. There are two theories about why the pump station didn't work in the hours when the city needed it.

  • The first theory is that workmen were doing work on a water main on Post Street. After they finished, they forgot to turn the water back on. When the fire broke out, there was plenty of pressure at the pump station, but the water couldn't get past were it was turned off on Post Street.
  • The second theory was that the man who knew how to work the pump was in Coeur d'Alene on a fishing trip.
But the fire was going too fast. As it burned, a huge wind came up and pushed the fire all the way to the river. The people were very worried because there were two lumber mills near the river – perfect fuel for the fire. By now it was nine o’clock, a lot had happened--27 blocks had burned down. The fire was almost to the river. As the fire reached the river, the winds calmed down. Then the fire calmed down. The people were thinking: “this is a miracle.” The fire finally was out. The exhausted people weren’t sad, but they were a little discouraged.
So the city was doomed. The Mayor thought there was something he could do. So he used dynamite to blow up buildings along Lincoln Street to slow the fire down, and create a firebreak. That didn’t even put a dent in the raging fire. Some people were moving they’re stuff into the streets just to see them burn up in the flames. Others, on the other hand, climbed up to the tops of buildings and were ready with buckets of water and mops. They thought they would be able to save their belongings by wetting them down.
On August 5, 1889, after the great fire 75 to 100 acres of rubble and ashes lay where once was the small city of Spokane Falls. By sunrise Monday morning, the burnt city was under military rule to prevent looting.
All saloons, that were not burned down, were ordered closed. In the rubble, the safes that were located in banks that were destroyed were salvaged.

To replace the buildings that were burned down or damaged, the people put up tents to do business. When it was time to re-build the city, they decided to use brick so it would not burn down as easily.


After one week everybody was busy; everyone had a job. Indians were going through the city looking for relics, and the military were guarding the corners. If you were going into the city you had to have a pass.

By Monday afternoon the bankers rushed to the see if the important documents were ok. They found that important legal papers of Spokane had survived even though the safes were so hot that they had to be cooled down. The banks temporarily started doing business at the Crescent Block, a new building untouched by the fire.
All telegraphs sent to Seattle, or the west, were sent from the western station, and telegraphs going east were sent from the Stevens St. station. When the Telegraph Company was done setting up the two stations, 1,600 telegraphs were sent all over Washington, just on Monday, August 5, 1889.
The fire destroyed the telegraph office, and the wires across the city. Many relatives and friends were unable to contact residents in Spokane Falls. On Monday, the Telegraph Company went to work immediately setting up two stations at the fire’s edges, one on the east side on Steven’s street and one on the west side by a lumber pile.
After the fire many families were camped on the north bank of the Spokane River in a cedar, and pine tree grove, because their houses had been burned down in the fire. The town of Medical Lake offered to take in the homeless. The Centennial flourmill had just started operation on August, 3, the day before the fire. Since food was in short supply after the fire, the relief committee called to ask for some flour. The mill owners were able to donate the first 100 barrels ground by the mill. This proved to be a wonderful advertisement for the owner and it brought great profits after that.
Cartloads of supplies, food and tents, arrived from Helena, Portland, Rosalia, Seattle, and Tacoma. Seattle had suffered a fire in June of the same year. Spokane charities sent $15,000 over to Seattle to help them, and then when the fire occurred in Spokane, and the people of Seattle sent $45,000 back to help Spokane re-build. The city conducted an investigation into the cause of the poor water pressure in hose 2, which allowed the fire to spread quickly and uncontrollably. The investigation centered on Superintendent Rolla A. Jones.

The question was whether he neglected his duties by being absent on the day of the fire. The city council’s appointed committee found that a 20 year experienced mechanic was in charge of the pumping station and all pumps were working properly.

The reason there was such poor water pressure was that No. 2 hose sprung several leaks minutes after the fire began. The Committee found that there was not enough evidence to charge Mr. Jones.
At the end of the fire, people said “We will build Spokane bigger and better.” And they did.


 

Resources:
Nolan, Edward W. “A Night of Terror, Devastation Suffering and Awful Woe.” Eastern Washington Historical Society, 1989.


Images from Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture Archives:
L86-1004
L86-1058
L86-1060
L86-1012
L86-1047

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Revised: September 22, 2002 and March 5, 2004
Reports completed in 1997, 2001 and 2003.