This NOT Just In: Great Seattle Fire

This past Sunday marked the 121st anniversary of the Great Seattle Fire, which destroyed a large portion of Seattle’s downtown area on June 6, 1889. The Seattle Fire obviously had a profound influence on Seattle, a city still in its infancy in 1889. The mark of the fire spread throughout the region, too. Rebuilding the city required a great deal of lumber. The sources closest to Seattle had already been depleted to build the city the first time around, and builders turned to lumber mills on the east side of Lake Washington to provide raw materials. This helped drive the lumber trade in eastside towns like Issaquah, Preston and High Point.

I happened to tune in to KUOW the morning they featured a piece called This NOT Just In: The Great Seattle Fire. The piece talks about the fire, but the main focus of the story is a rediscovered oral history artifact. If you listen to the piece, you’ll hear the only known first hand accounts of the Great Seattle Fire. The accounts were recorded at an event held at the Museum of History and Industry in 1953. The resulting record album remained in MOHI’s collection for decades, the value of its contents unknown. When MOHI staff played the recording in 2003, they were stunned to hear accounts of the fire as recollected by people who were school children at the time.

Imagine hearing people describe an event that they witnessed, more than a century in the past

This reminded me of the old oral history tapes “discovered” in our own collection — recordings made anywhere from 20 to 50 years ago. Up until last year, no one had listened to these recordings. Because of the age of the audio tapes, we didn’t want to risk playing them and having them break. A grant from 4Culture allowed us to get the recordings transferred over to compact disc and then transcribed. When we received the CDs in the mail, I sat down with the Jacob Jones, Jr. CD, the oldest recording, and played it.

The recording, a bit fuzzy but audible, began with Jones’ account of taking the train into Seattle at the age of seven, in the year 1888. Jones’ vote emanating from the computer’s audio speakers described a Seattle with wooden sidewalks and gas streetlamps. Jones’ voice, recounting a day more than 100 years in the past, raised goose bumps.

The sound is faint, so turn the volume up and have a listen to this voice from the past.

(transcript after the jump)

This recording was made in 1958 by Jake Jones’ grandson, Willard Krigbaum. Jones had already been diagnosed with the cancer that ended his life in 1959. This five-minute recording is a small fraction of the full Jake Jones oral history.

JAKE JONES: But anyway, we left here in the morning – Sam and Mother – and Dad packed Sam down at Goode’s Corner [inaudible] down the hill there. And got on a horse wagon and rode over the top of the hill to Newcastle. And when we got to Newcastle, we went over to the ticket office and bought a ticket on the coach of the little narrow-gauge railroad.

They were loading coal and the coach was on behind it – it was a baggage car and then the coach – to Newcastle. We had to wait a long time before the coal train was loaded. And the train started out, went down around Lake Washington on the narrow-gauge, went around by Renton, came into Seattle on a hard [trestle wood?] built out over the mudflats.

And from there, when we got into Seattle, at that time it was dark, getting dark. We’d left here at daylight in the morning [inaudible]. We got in there, and we went up on a wooden sidewalk, somewhere built way up high. And we got up at 7th and Lenora quite a while after dark. And I was pretty tired, I guess. I was about 4 ½ years old.

WILLARD KRIGBAUM, JR: It was after dark when you got into Seattle?

JJ: Yes, it was after dark when we got into Seattle.

WK: When did you leave Issaquah?

JJ: Daylight with a lantern in the morning. And then, we had something to eat and they put me to bed pretty early, I guess. I was tired and I fell asleep. And early in the morning around daylight, I heard a bell, like a sheep bell ringing. And I went up and looked out the window, and it was an old horse-drawn streetcar taking people to work with all its passengers, pulled by one horse, led on a 3’ narrow-gauge railroad. And the back, the seats were turned out sideways so you faced the side of the small car.

And the brakeman, or the fellow that was running it, he had more uniform badges and buttons and brass on it [chuckles] than a general in the Army!

But anyway, the next day we went downtown. We rode that horse-drawn streetcar. Went from 7th and Lenora, by Lake Union, down to 2nd Avenue. And they had an extra man with an extra horse to pull up the hill. When the fellow come down and met the streetcar, and they hooked on the head of the horse, and he pulled to the top of the hill and made it go, then it would go down 2nd Avenue. He had a brake on it, but there was no tongue or shaft in it. And that was the first streetcar they had in Seattle, in about 1885 … 1884-85.

And I don’t remember how we come back. We came back the same way, through Newcastle, on the train. And old Charlie Smith was a freight man. He run every other day over to Tibbetts’s store on the Squak Valley.

WK: Tibbetts’s store where?

JJ: Yeah, that was at Goode’s Corner. He had a store there. It was the only store in the valley.

So, that was the first trip into Seattle. The railroad was built on trestle wood piling all the way. Now it’s filled in, all that’s filled in where Sears Roebuck and all that company is all filled in, and buildings built on it. At that time, it wasn’t nothing but a big, dumb mudflat.

WK: You went through Renton, then?

JJ: Yeah, we went through Renton, across the Black River. Went along Black River till it comes to the bay [inaudible] followed the beach on this trestle wood. That was the first trip into Seattle. [tape recorder turned off]