Saturday, May 2, 2009

From The Flames My Home

Ah! mother, we have such a city and country out here as there is nowhere
else on the face of the earth! Its greatness must be seen to be realized; its
people must be met to be understood.

~ Amos Matterson To His Mother ~
Describing Seattle After The Great Fire

My home was built as the result of the careless act of John E. Back, the man pictured to the right. On June 6, 1889, Back was employed in the Clairmont and Company cabinet shop, located in the basement of the wooden Pontius building at 922 Front and Madison Streets in downtown Seattle.

The people of Seattle were still reading in the local papers of the terrible June 1st tragedy of the Johnstown Flood, when they suffered the greatest disaster in our city's history.

In a small carpentering and paint shop under a boot and shoe store in a little frame building standing on piles, Back was heating a pot of glue.

On June 7, 1889, Back gave his account of what happened next to a reporter from the Seattle Post Intelligencer.

While working in the cabinet shop:

"I cut some balls of glue and put them in the glue pot on the stove … [and] went to work about twenty-five feet away, near the front door. After a while somebody said ‘Look at the glue.’ Another fellow, a Findlander from New York, then took a piece of board and laid it on to smother the glue, but the board caught fire. Then I run and took the pot of water to smother the fire and poured it over the pot of glue, which was blazing up high. When I throw the water on, the glue flew all over the shop into the shavings and everything take fire."

John E. Back, age 24, was described as a “short, thick-set blonde of mediocre intelligence.” Easily said after the fact. Back arrived in the United States from Sweden in 1887 and moved to Seattle in October 1888. It appears that shortly after giving this interview to the Intelligencer, John Back left Seattle.

Seattle had been built on slabs and sawdust. The building construction was of wood and was very flimsy. Seattle's fire department was entirely volunteer and the fire hydrants and water system were all from one source. A man among the onlookers observed, "I'm from Chicago, and the town is doomed!" And he was correct.

. . .the awful cry would be heard, "NO WATER!"

Forty blocks - eighty acres of land - and twenty acres of water front had been destroyed! Every wharf, every landing, every warehouse, every factory, every mill, the coal bunkers, almost all the businesses, the railroad stations, and countless homes had been burned from the face of the earth.

Rudyard Kipling, the British poet, arrived in Seattle by steamer shortly after the fire. He described the remains as “a horrible black smudge, as though a Hand had come down and rubbed the place smooth. I know now what being wiped out means.”

Rebuilding began immediately. ". . .to show the magnificent independence of the place and the heroic character of the people, the fund of several thousand dollars which had been raised for the Johnstown sufferers was sent on to be used for the purpose for which it had been subscribed and paid, notwithstanding that the people were living in tents, many of them shelterless, and that carloads of provisions and supplies for our own town were being sent in for the destitute and needy in our own midst." Amos Matterson.

The beginning of the fire, looking south on Front Street,
and a view showing the ruins, looking south

from Commercial Street.

Seattle needed construction materials. The area surrounding Seattle saw major growth in lumber, logging, and the shingle business. The same year as the fire, the Seattle, Lake Shore and Eastern Railway was completed to North Bend and provided an economical method of transporting building materials for construction in Seattle.

In 1892 August Lovegren and his partners formed the Preston Mill Company for the purpose of milling shingles. In 1896, Lovegren moved the mill to Saint Louis, which he renamed Preston, the town where I live. Lovegren encouraged extensive Swedish settlement in the Preston area and also served as Preston's Postmaster. Artifacts of life in Swedish Upper Preston have been discovered while digging in many of our backyards. Recently an old bank was found in a neighbor's back yard that read, " The Scandinavian American Bank, Seattle, WASH.

Lovegren acquired additional timber land in the Raging River canyon, built a flume to float shingle bolts down to the Preston Mill, and established the area known as Upper Preston. Here in 1899 my home was built as one of the mill houses rented to employees of the Preston Mill. Next to my house was the company store, across the street was the cookhouse, and just down the road was the mill school.

Both my house and the company store are still standing, along with mill houses that were built in later years. The area is referred to as Upper Preston to this day.

The photograph of my home to the left is from the office of the King County Assessor for the year 1940.

The Polk Directory for King County in 1911-12, listed Preston as having a population of 576 people, a shingle mill, a Swedish Baptist Church, Mrs. Carlson's milinary, the Preston Hotel (with an indoor pool), a grocery, meat market, a shoemaker, and Swanberg's Confections and cigars. The Baptist Church and the remnants of the mill are all that remain.

The Swedish Baptist Church

The Great Seattle fire rid the city of rats, opened the area to an influx of settlers working to rebuild her, made her the heart of the Pacific Northwest, and provided a need for the lumber and shingles from the beautiful Raging River canyon where I now live. Perhaps we should thank John E. Back.



Andrews,Elisha Benjamin. The History Of The Last Quarter-Century In The United States, 1870-1895.NEW YORK : Charles Scribners Sons, 1895.

Wilhelm,Honor L. The Coast. Seattle : The Metropolitan Press Inc., 1902.


John E. Back Courtesy of The

Seattle On Fire & Seattle In Ruins from the book; Andrews,Elisha Benjamin. The History Of The Last Quarter-Century In The United States,1870-1895.NEW YORK : Charles Scribners Sons, 1895.

My home, Digital Format, Office of the King County Assessor, 1940. Privately held by the footnoteMaven, Preston, Washington. 2009.

Baptist Church, a reproduction from Cathy Lykes. Unknown. Privately held by the footnoteMaven, Preston, Washington. 2009.


Lange, Greg. Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Seattle's Great Fire." : accessed April 23, 2009.


Blogger Nikki - Notes of Life said...

Very interesting!

May 3, 2009 at 5:24 AM  
Blogger Bill West said...

Interesting post, fM! Poor John, And that "Findlander" who threw the wood on the fire to smother it! Hoo boy!

May 3, 2009 at 12:17 PM  
Blogger Jasia said...

You always have a tale to tell, fM! What a fascinating history your house has. Don't you wish the walls could talk? Just imagine the history of the mill workers that they could tell us about!

May 3, 2009 at 7:46 PM  
Anonymous said...

I am pulled right into the middle of this. My home in Upper Preston was "reported" as having been the company store .... is that possible???

It is still standing today - right next to the old school field. It is no longer owned by my family.

Where exactly was your home? - I am just a little confused.

Thank you.

Vicki De Boer

May 16, 2009 at 12:41 PM  
Blogger footnoteMaven said...

Vicki, Hello!

We are told my neighbor's home was the company store. It is next to the field owned by the water district and used by Vasa Hall. The school did stand on this field, but is long gone.

I am the second house after Vasa Hall. Yes, that is not only possible, but true according to my research.

Glad you found me.


May 16, 2009 at 12:50 PM  
Anonymous said...

fM - thank you SO much for the information!!

I didn't realize that photos were taken of homes during the Census. May I presume that would be the best avenue for me to find a photo of the "company store"?

May 18, 2009 at 7:50 PM  
Blogger Charley "Apple" Grabowski said...

I had no idea Seattle had a major fire. Your house has an interesting history.

May 23, 2009 at 1:33 PM  
Blogger wannadanc said...

I have just come upon a photo of the school yard - taken from the middle of the sidewalk at my parent's home. Perhaps you would like to see that photo. It shows all buildings except the industrial arts one. Just let me know!!!


January 24, 2011 at 12:32 PM  

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