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Then and Now: While Spokane burned, the city’s water superintendent was in Coeur d’Alene doing boat repairs

The Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture used Twitter to tell the story of Spokane’s great fire on the 127th anniversary of the conflagration that razed most of downtown Spokane on Aug. 4, 1889. Using the research of local historians, the tweets rolled out through the afternoon and into the night.

The first tweet mentions that Spokane’s water superintendent, Rolla A. Jones, was in Coeur d’Alene doing repairs on his boat. Jones also ran a jewelry store.

Jones had built the first city waterworks plant the year before on Crystal Island, now called a Salish word for “salmon people” pronounced sin-HOO-men-huh, in the middle of the Spokane River. Before that, firefighting was little more than buckets and volunteers. The new waterworks incorporated a Holly Fire Protection System with a steam engine, pumps and hydrants.

Some thought that a bucket line could contain the blaze that started in a building on Railroad Avenue.

But the relentless flames hopped from building to building, devouring everything in its path, including the structure housing Jones’ jewelry store. Some said that only Jones knew how to turn on the full pressure from the pumps. Businessman Charles Oudin wrote later, “everyone crying for water, no water.”

The water pressure was so weak that, the Spokane Chronicle reported, “An ordinary garden hose would have been more effective in staying the flames.” Jones resigned his post after the fire.

Despite the tragedy, he went on to build Upriver Dam for the city, which is still used today. Jones also operated a nursery at his home near the dam. Jones died in 1934.

The waterworks building was abandoned in 1896, when the city switched from river water to well water. The building deteriorated over the years and was removed for Expo ’74.

In a 1989 recap of the big fire, Don Collin, grandson of Jones, said, “I don’t think he should have been blamed. Was he supposed to be there 24 hours a day, seven days a week?”