Spokane’s Great Fire of 1889: How a catastrophe sparked a golden age
What was the most crucial year in Spokane’s history?
Was it 1881, the year the city was incorporated?
Was it 1974, the year the city hosted the world in Expo ’74?
Reasonable candidates, but when it comes to naming the pivotal year in Spokane’s history, it’s hard to beat 1889.
Take a look at what happened 125 years ago in Spokane Falls, as the city was still known:
• The Great Fire of 1889 destroyed most of downtown, reducing it to a tent city.
• Louis Davenport opened his “Waffle Foundry” in the burnt-out district, which would later evolve into the Davenport Hotel.
• The Washington Water Power Co. was founded.
• Washington achieved statehood.
• Spokane Falls rebuilt and began a major growth spurt that would last for the next quarter-century.
Here’s a recap of that eventful year, beginning with the most devastating event in the city’s history.
The great fire of Spokane
Spokane Falls received what many feared was its “death blow” 125 years ago this week.
It had been a hot, dry summer and smoke hung heavy from Idaho forest fires. On the evening of Aug. 4, 1889, flames were spotted in the upper stories of Wolfe’s lunch counter and lodging house, near Railroad Avenue and Post Street – now the alley that runs behind the Davenport Hotel parking garage. Someone might have overturned a gas lantern in an upstairs room, or a cook might have ignited a fire in Wolfe’s greasy kitchen.
At first, this fire seemed a “trifling affair” to bystanders watching as Spokane’s fire department arrived. One onlooker said, “Six men could check the fire with buckets.”
Yet bystanders soon noticed that the firemen were racing frantically from one hydrant to another. They had no pressure, no water. Firemen stood there with slack hoses as the flames slowly spread from the roof to the first floor. Soon the adjacent frame buildings were ablaze. Then the entire block was on fire.
William Monaghan and a friend climbed on a boxcar to watch the action, confident that firemen would knock the blaze down quickly. Suddenly his companion said, “Isn’t that the Pacific Hotel on fire?” It was one of the finest structures in the city.
“I said, ‘Yes,’ ” recalled Monaghan. “As the word left my mouth, the whole building crashed to the ground, leaving the chimney standing.”
The two men fled north on Lincoln Street, toward the river. Suddenly a blast went off in a livery barn and “two-by-six boards flew up.” Firemen still were grappling with hoses, but “they could not throw water 12 feet high.”
Eventually, Monaghan and his friend retreated down to First Avenue, but the fire had spread there, too. Something exploded in a bakery “and blew the whole roof 100 feet in the air.”
“It waved there like a large bird for a second or so until a hole burned through,” recalled Monaghan. “Then it came down just north of the building.”This graphic shows the buildings built in the 25-year period following the fire. The story continues below.
Water works superintendent out of town
By then, panic had spread as firefighters and residents realized that, in the words of newspaper editor and historian Nelson Durham, “no power could check the conflagration.” The superintendent of the city water works was out of town and nobody was able to fix the water pressure problem.
The explosion that Monaghan witnessed may have been intentional. To stop the fire from destroying every inch of downtown Spokane, authorities began blowing up buildings at strategic corners to create firebreaks. Firemen scrambled for “every pound of giant powder” they could find.
These blasts, of course, did nothing to quiet the spreading panic.
Here’s how the Spokane Falls Review described the scene in its Aug. 6, 1889, edition: “The terrifying shrieks of a dozen locomotives commingled with the roar of the flames, the bursting of cartridges, the booming of giant powder, the hoarse shouts of men, and the piteous shrieks of women and children. Looking upward a broad and mighty river of flame seemed lined against the jet-black sky. Occasionally the two opposing currents of wind would meet, creating a roaring whirlwind of fire that seemed to penetrate the clouds as a ponderous screw, while lesser whirlwinds danced around its base, performing all sorts of fantastic gyrations. … In this manner the appalling monster held high carnival until about 10 o’clock, when with a mighty crash the Howard Street bridge over the Spokane River went down.”
Several other bridges also burned. The fire briefly jumped to the north bank of the Spokane River, but was beaten back with the help of some dynamite.
Yet nothing could stop the flames on the south side of the river. Within four hours of the first alarm, “all the banks, all the hotels, the post office, the land office, all the large business houses” were destroyed, wrote Durham – a total of 32 blocks in the heart of Spokane Falls. Only one man died, as he tried to flee his burning hotel room, but thousands of survivors began trudging in a sad procession over the two remaining bridges, the Washington Street and Post Street bridges.
“Over these, a terrified and motley stream of homeless people passed, seeking shelter under the pine trees and relief from the smoke and din of the ruins,” wrote Durham. “They were not heavily burdened, for there were few downtown dwellers who had time to save anything of value. Some had blankets, others pillows and few carried bundles on their backs, but most of them were scantily attired and bankrupt of all personal effects. Among these latter were many theatrical and ‘sporting’ people (a euphemism for gamblers, drinkers and prostitutes), who were in great distress, for they lost not only all they possessed, but their means of earning a livelihood was gone.”
The fire finally burned itself out late that night. In many ways, the aftermath was almost more trying than the fire itself. Martial law was declared at midnight, because, wrote Durham, “the city was filled with thieves.” Anyone entering the burned area had to show a pass.
The next morning, business owners picked through the rubble. At an emergency meeting, the superintendent of the water works was widely, and erroneously, blamed for the water pressure problem. In Durham’s careful phrase, the superintendent was “permitted to resign.” The superintendent was eventually exonerated – too late – when an investigation found that the real problem was neither incompetence nor neglect, but a burst hose.
People wailed that the city was finished and could never recover. However, just when spirits were at their lowest, some people in the crowd were overheard saying, “It was a blessing in disguise.” The old pioneer city was gone, and now the way was clear for a newer, bigger and more modern city. Before the sun went down on Aug. 5, 1889, “three banks had purchased corners at Riverside and Howard at $1,000 per front foot and architects and builders were at work.”
Within days, the burned out blocks were lined with white canvas tents, housing insurance companies, restaurants, cigar stores and Dutch Jake’s Beer Garden and gambling emporium, the latter in a 150-by-50 foot tent capable of holding a crowd of 1,000.
Louis Davenport’s Waffle Foundry
On a snowy December day in 1889, a little waffle restaurant called the Waffle Foundry opened in the city’s burnt-out district.
To say it was in a tent, as Spokane legend has it, is a little misleading. It was apparently two stories tall, although it did have a temporary tent-like roof.
Not much distinguished it from the other eateries in the charred business center, except for one thing: It was owned and operated by young Louis M. Davenport.
The patrons lining up for waffles on that snowy December day were the first customers in what would eventually evolve into today’s Davenport Hotel, the city’s landmark hotel for the past 100 years.
The Waffle Foundry didn’t last long under its canvas roof. Davenport, only 21, had bigger ambitions. In 1890, he moved his restaurant across the street to a permanent building on Sprague. This new restaurant was no mere waffle house; it featured snow-white linen, silverware and a “call bell” on each table. It was known as Davenport’s Restaurant. An 1892 menu included “young capon with egg sauce” and “braised noix of veal a ala Anglaise.”
The restaurant expanded quickly into adjacent buildings. Architect Kirtland Cutter was enlisted to design an “exuberant version of the mission style.” In 1904, Davenport and Cutter built the Venice-themed Hall of Doges ballroom.
In 1908, investors began raising money for a new first-class hotel on the same block, to be managed by Davenport. Many delays ensued, but construction began in 1912 on what was now called the Davenport Hotel.
When the hotel opened Sept. 1, 1914, a crowd of 10,000 paraded through the lobby to see for themselves what The Spokesman-Review called “a rare combination of artistic magnificence and homelike simplicity and comfort.”
Almost 100 years later, the Davenport Hotel remains one of Spokane’s most famous landmarks.
Washington Water Power is born
On March 13, 1889, a group of prominent Spokane Falls citizens signed the Articles of Incorporation for a new venture called The Washington Water Power Co.
They believed in the power-generating potential of the roaring Spokane River. Their plan was to build an electric power station on the Spokane River at Monroe Street. But an independent business evaluation written that year was not optimistic; it questioned the suitability of the site, the credentials of the engineer and the chances that it would ever turn a profit.
Yet even after the great fire threw Spokane Falls into pandemonium, the fledgling company was able to push ahead with its project. The company’s founders were, as the same report conceded, “among the wealthiest, most enterprising, successful and reliable business men of the city.”
On Nov. 12, 1890, the Monroe Street Station started lighting the city. Soon, WWP went into the streetcar business, a natural progression since streetcars were powered by electricity. To promote more streetcar travel, WWP acquired what would become Spokane’s principal playground, Natatorium Park.
The company soon built more dams and power stations, rapidly expanding both its capacity and its service area. By the 1920s, it was providing electricity not only in Spokane, but also in towns and farms throughout the Inland Northwest.
WWP had become a regional powerhouse – so much so that it was threatened by a statewide push in the 1930s for publicly owned utilities. Yet the privately owned WWP survived.
In 1998, Washington Water Power changed its name to Avista. Today, anyone in Spokane with a gas or electric meter receives a reminder every month that this little 1889 startup remains an indispensable part of the region’s daily life.
Washington achieves statehood
On Nov. 11, 1889, President Benjamin Harrison used a pen made of Washington gold to sign the proclamation creating the state of Washington.
At the Legislature in Olympia, the applause “fairly shook the building” when the news arrived.
Spokane Falls greeted the news with rapture as well. Here’s what the editorialist of the Spokane Falls Review wrote the next day: “The 11th day of November has become a chronological mark that time can never efface. Other days rich in memory and historic importance will come to us with the rolling years, but none, nor all, can obliterate the day that brought the bloom of sovereignty to the fair state of Washington.”
Washington had finally arrived as an equal in the “sisterhood of states.” As a practical matter, it meant that the first U.S. representative from Washington would be Spokane Falls’ own John L. Wilson.
The pride of statehood is perhaps best illustrated by this poem, titled “Spokane Man Talks,” printed in the New York Tribune in 1891, not long after the city changed its name to just plain Spokane:
“Most people don’t know,” quoth one man from Spokane,
“That the name of our town rhymes exactly with man.
That in all the wide world, in towns big or small,
In growth in ten years, Spokane leads them all;
That it’s simply Spokane – the ‘Falls’ don’t avail,
That word has been dropped, like the polliwog’s tail.
But the biggest mistake in the whole category,
Is to say that Spokane is in Wash. Territory.”
The boom begins
Citizens soon realized that those fiery red clouds indeed had silver linings. The great fire never leapt outside the business district, which spared all of the city’s schools and churches and most of the city’s residences.
The property damage was estimated at about $5 million or $6 million, but about half was covered by insurance. Of the uncovered half, the loss turned out to be not as severe as first feared. The post-fire land actually was worth more than it was before, since many destroyed buildings were old and rickety. At the end of 1889, the city’s board of trade estimated that 500 buildings were under construction within the fire limits, mostly “in solid brick or stone, from three to seven stories high.”
In fact, the city’s total tax assessment went from $3.8 million in 1888 to $8.7 million in 1889 and $18.8 million in 1890. The city used some of that money to vastly improve the city’s water works and pumping facilities.
Meanwhile, that sad procession of fire refugees across the Spokane River did not, as feared, presage an exodus from the city. The city kept growing at a remarkable rate. By the 1890 census, the population was 19,922, up sixfold from the 1885 estimate of 3,000. It would shoot to more than 25,000 a year later. This was just the beginning of a dizzying population boom that would not abate for 20 years, when the city shot over the 100,000 mark.
As 1889 drew to a close, it became clear that Spokane Falls had dodged its “death blow.” The rickety wood-framed town of 1888 had become the sturdy brick-built city of 1890. Spokane Falls had come of age.