Rising from the Ashes

Spokane after the Great Fire

When walking around Downtown Spokane, even the casual observer is likely to notice the absence of buildings that predate the early 1890s. The area that now comprises Downtown was first settled by European-Americans in 1871, and the City of Spokan Falls (later Spokane Falls, and finally shortened to Spokane) was incorporated in 1881.

Why, then, is virtually no urban architecture from Spokane's first twenty years still in existence? The answer is the same as that of Seattle, San Francisco, Chicago, and many other American cities: a Great Fire.

The Fire Destroys Downtown

On August 4, 1889 just after 6:00 pm, fire broke out in Spokane at a restaurant and lodging house near the Northern Pacific railroad depot. The low-quality, mostly timber construction of nearby buildings enabled the flames to quickly engulf a large area near the railroad tracks. Rubbish located in narrow back alleys provided fuel to the blaze that quickly spread to other areas of Downtown.

The intensity and size of the blaze soon enabled it to spread to the brick and stone buildings further from the source of the fire. A newly-formed volunteer firefighting force responded to the initial reports of the fire, but was unable to contain the inferno due to a lack of water pressure in their hoses.

In a desperate attempt to stop the spread of flames, city leaders ordered structures to be dynamited before they were engulfed. Unfortunately, this practice did not have a significant effect on the blaze but destroyed many buildings of its own accord, and may even have created additional fires.

By the time the fire burned itself out later that night, over thirty city blocks had burned to the ground, and the Howard Street Bridge crossing the Spokane River had been destroyed as well. One person died attempting to escape a burning hotel, and several others were hospitalized with severe burns.

The Immediate Aftermath

The story of the Spokane Falls Fire spread across the nation, and relief services poured in from near and far. In fact, the amount of humanitarian aid so exceeded demand that embezzlement indictments were later handed down against city officials accused of hoarding surplus goods.

Many entrepreneurial individuals also took advantage of the situation to sell goods and services to the newly-homeless residents of Downtown. One such businessman was a young Louis Davenport, who opened a tent-roofed waffle house and later a hotel on the site of what is now known as the Davenport Hotel, one of Spokane's enduring landmarks.

The Great Rebuilding

Spokane Falls had been a rapidly-expanding frontier city at the time of the Great Fire, and that pace was continued after the flames subsided. Aided largely by foreign investment, mainly from The Netherlands, many important and still-standing buildings were constructed in a 25-year boom following the fire.

Some prominent examples of buildings constructed during this period include: the Spokesman-Review Tower, the Peyton Building, the Carnegie Library, the US Post Office, the Davenport Hotel, and the Clemmer Theater. Also born from the ashes of the Great Fire was Washington Water Power, the Spokane-based energy cooperative that is now known as Avista Utilities.

While the fire was a devastating reminder of the perils associated with rapid growth and unmetered development, the legacy of the disaster is one of rebirth and strength. The resolute, seemingly impervious structures or brick and stone that give Downtown its turn-of-the-century feel would certainly not exist in their current abundance were it not for the Great Fire of 1889.

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Below: This is a view of Riverside Ave looking west that shows the destruction caused by the great fire of 1889.

Riverside Ave and the destruction caused by the great fire