July 29, 2013 in City

Then and Now photos: The fire of 1889


Before the fire: This view shows Riverside Avenue looking east from Post Street in 1889. (The Spokesman-Review photo archive)

It was a long, hot summer in 1889. Forest fires raged around the region, and Seattle had a catastrophic fire earlier that summer.

But the bustling boom town of Spokane Falls, with 19,000 people, hardly slowed down for the heat. Around 6 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 4, fire broke out in a rooming house along Railroad Avenue between Lincoln and Post streets. The blaze swept through the wood-frame buildings along the railroad tracks before gobbling up brick structures. Volunteer firefighters grabbed hand-drawn hose carts, but water pressure was desperately low.

Eyewitness G.W. Roche, a real estate agent, described the scene: “The hoarse shouts of men running in all directions, the shrieks of women and children, the rattle of wagons, the tolling of church bells, the shrill whistles of locomotives as they hurried to and fro trying to save the cars lined on the tracks, the embers and shingles flying through the air, the explosion of giant powder (explosives used to demolish buildings to halt the flames) all combined to make the night hideous in the extreme.”

After the fire: This view of Riverside looking west from Washington Street shows little left standing. (The Spokesman-Review photo archive)

It took a little more than three hours to level more than 30 blocks. The rebuilding of Spokane is a tribute to those who fed the homeless victims, hired the unemployed to raze and clear away rubble, and rebuild it bigger and grander than before.

In the fire’s wake was built a new professional fire department with horse-drawn equipment and a better water system. In a retrospective in 1934, The Spokesman-Review wrote: “In the ruins of that fire, the courage of the empire builders was proved. Out of those ashes came the initiative and strength of purpose which planted tall buildings on the ground where pines once whispered.”

– Jesse Tinsley

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