- Historic Sites
The strange saga of a town that bragged, burned, and bullied itself into existence—and then became one of the most civilized places on earth
April 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 2
A bid to gentrify Seattle’s Pike Place Market was defeated, and the hustle and bustle of a fullfledged fish and vegetable market was preserved.
An adjacent block caught fire, and the splendid brick and stone facades along the east side of Front Street toppled as the fire found their timber frames. Over the next hours the fire scuttled across town, engulfing waterfront warehouses and chasing ships out into the harbor.
By the next morning 116 acres of the heart of Seattle were a ruin. As far as anyone can tell, not a single life was lost; human bones found in one block turned out to be the remains of the pickled cadaver of a Chinese immigrant awaiting shipment back to his home soil.
Even as the homeless shuffled about, begging for shelter in the residential neighborhoods that survived the devastation, people recognized that the fire had offered Seattle a second chance at living up to Doc Maynard’s expectations. Within a few days businesses, including numerous brothels, re-established themselves in tents, and the entire nation marveled at what came to be known as the Seattle Spirit.
My own favorite example was the moment when someone was shouted down for daring to suggest at a public meeting that local funds raised for the victims of the recent Johnstown Flood be diverted to relieve the ruined city. Seattleites had their pride after all. Within a few weeks they had begun to build an improved, fire-resistant reincarnation of their city.
Construction commenced a couple of months too soon, as it turned out, for the city had decided that in the interest of burying new sewer and water lines at a sufficient pitch, all the streets would have to be raised the equivalent of one story. The merchants refused to destroy their burgeoning brick and stone buildings and defiantly resumed construction; one year after the fire 130 brick buildings had arisen from the ashes.
But the city raised almost twenty-five blocks’ worth of its streets anyway. City engineers erected stone walls, some as high as thirty feet, along the curb sides, buried their pipes between them, and paved the streets a full story above the business district’s sidewalks and ground floors.
A visitor to 1890s Seattle was thus presented with the Keystone Kops spectacle of pedestrians crossing the streets by means of ramps and ladders. Droppings from horses tethered above were a lesser peril of Seattle pedestrian life, but seventeen people died as a consequence of the impasse; some falling, others crushed by the wagons and freight that occasionally toppled from the reeraded streets.
Eventually the merchants agreed to roof over the sidewalks with concrete punctuated by iron-framed skylights of magnesium glass, thus creating perhaps the first underground shopping mall in American history. Although later, during Prohibition, several brothels and speakeasies took advantage of the subterranean maze around Pioneer Squarethe walkways were officially closed in 1907. Ever since then the Romanesque buildings that arose from the ruins of the Seattle fire have passed off their second stories as ground floors, to no discernible aesthetic disadvantage. (Somewhat deranged tours of these underground walkways are now conducted daily from Pioneer Sauare. )
In the old days the streets were even steeper, so precipitous that a horse could barely pull a wagon up the grade.
But Seattle’s engineers had even bigger fish to fry. A visitor nowadays will wonder at the heartiness of the locals as they stride up the steep streets that rise from the edge of the harbor. But in the old days the streets were even steeper, so precipitous that a horse could barelv pull a wagon up the grade.
The incline of Yesler Way, lined with logs and lubricated with fish oil, had provided Henry Yesler with a natural timber chute or “Skid Road” to the door of his mill. (The Yesler Way area remains a hangout for Seattle’s vagrants—or “vags,” as they were called—and is proudly regarded by Seattleites as the original Skid Row.) But for the rest of the city, squeezed onto a rather narrow strip of land between the sound and Lake Washington, Seattle’s steepest slopes were a damned nuisance.
Between 1900 and 1910 Seattle’s population would almost triple to 237,194: the city badly needed elbowroom. The Great Northern Railway had arrived in 1893, and other rail lines quickly followed. In 1897 Seattle had become the jumping-off place for the Klondike gold rush, and the city’s merchants outfitted so many Klondike gold rushers for so many millions of dollars that Seattleites came to regard Alaska as a kind of municipal colony.