• Seattle In 1889, fire swept through the city and destroyed most of the structures in the business district— 29 square city blocks of wooden and brick buildings. Once the inferno cooled, the city rebuilt from the ashes with amazing speed. New mandates required building construction of brick or steel. Regraded landscapes transformed Seattle as street levels were raised by 22 feet. My father, Hans Pederson, a builder in the right place at the right time, contributed to the rapid growth of Seattle in the first third of the 20th century.
• Chicago It is difficult to imagine the scope of the great fire of 1871 that destroyed 18,000 buildings and left 100,000 people dead. Yet from the ashes the World’s Columbian Exposition Company brought pride back to Seattle as it developed the 1893 World’s Fair.
Ruins of the Great Fire at Portland, Maine 1866 courtesy Wikimedia Commons
• Portland, Maine Five years before the Great Chicago Fire, Portland’s fire was the largest yet seen in an American city. As a Yankee, I am reminded every Fourth of July of Portland Maine’s fire of 1866. Josephine Detmer describes the scene in the Greater Portland Landmarks book, Portland.
“On July 4, 1866, as the city was preparing to celebrate Independence Day and the end of the Civil War, disaster again struck and Portland suffered the greatest fire calamity the country had seen up to that time. Parades, fireworks, and a balloon ascension had been planned to enliven the festivities. Tragically, the holiday which had begun so happily, ended in a night of terror and destruction.
“A flicked cigar ash or perhaps a tossed firecracker started a small fire in a boat yard on Commercial Street. From the boat yard the blaze spread to a nearby lumber yard and then to Brown’s Sugarhouse on Maple Street (considered impregnable). It jumped the brick walls surrounding the building and melted the steel shutters on the windows and the roof of galvanized iron and tar. The building became a roaring inferno. A strong south wind whipped the flames to uncontrollable fury. Water was pumped from the city’s reservoirs, wells, and even the harbor. It was a useless effort. Firefighters were powerless in the face of the conflagration which raged all night, sweeping diagonally across the heart of the city from Commercial Street to Back Cove and to Munjoy Hill where it finally burned itself out.”
Fashionable Victorian buildings that replaced the original structures brought a modern face to Portland’s commercial district, but the colonial homes that had brought history and dignity to the waterfront area were gone forever.