The Great Fire of 1911

SNOHOMISH — A hundred years ago today, the town woke up to a fire that destroyed the heart of downtown Snohomish.

The fire ravaged two blocks of businesses, forever changing the landscape of downtown. Even though no lives were lost, the blaze was so devastating it was named the Great Fire.
At the time, Snohomish woman Elvira Myrick wrote a letter to her son, Lon, who was in Maine, describing the fire and how the townspeople fought the flames.

“Old Joe Pelky almost got burned to death before they got him out of the Penobscot (Hotel),” she wrote.

The fire started below the Pioneer restaurant about 4 a.m., May 30, 1911, on 1107 First St., and quickly spread to two blocks between Avenue B and C, burning down 35 businesses including the Penobscot Hotel, the post office and several saloons.

The cause is still unknown.

“It has been the biggest and most destructive fire Snohomish ever had,” said David Dilgard, historian for the Everett Public Library.

The smoking ruins included most of the business district of the town. Many of the city’s saloons were located on those two blocks. At the time, Everett was a dry town — meaning no alcohol was served there so people who wanted a legal drink needed to head east.

Townfolks restored the flow of booze almost immediately by setting up tents.

“The ashes were not even cool when the saloons went back to business,” Dilgard said.

A reason the fire spread so quickly was the buildings were constructed on wooden stilts and there was not much space between them. Even though fire walls had been built between some of the buildings, the fire was so hot that it burned through the concrete, Dilgard said.

The Burns Building — also called the Schott Building — was made completely out of bricks which protected it from the fire and stopped the fire’s spread, he said.

Reconstruction started relatively fast because the economy was in good shape. Some parts of the street were never rebuilt because the land was too close to the river and insurance companies would have asked too much to cover businesses there.

Total damages costs varied, depending on the source. An Everett Herald article stated there were $175,000 in damages, a staggering figure at that time.

Rumors flew afterward with some speculating about lost lives.

“(Pioneer restaurant owner) Billy Basich was also among the dead until he turned up at a rival restaurant and ordered breakfast,” the article stated.

Photographer William Douglas took several pictures of the Great Fire. He made them into postcards and sold them, Dilgard said.

Lon Myrick kept the postcards and his mother’s letter and then passed them down in his family. They now belong to his granddaughter, Melody Gilfillan, who works at the Star Center Antique mall, just blocks away where the fire occurred.

After the fire, the buildings in what is now Historic Downtown were made of bricks.

“It was an urban renewal,” Dilgard said.

Alejandro Dominguez: 425-339-3422; dominguez@heraldnet.com.

A century ago, people moved in increasing numbers to towns and cities in Washington. Population growth led to the rapid construction of wooden buildings. Since the buildings were crammed close together, fire became an inevitable and serious problem. In addition, fire departments were mostly comprised of volunteers and didn’t have fire hydrants or other modern tools of firefighting.

Here are some of the major fires of the period:

Seattle, June 1889: About 100 acres of businesses were destroyed by a blaze that lasted 18 hours and caused about $20 million (about $500 million in today’s dollars) in losses.

Spokane, August 1889: One person died and 20 blocks of downtown Spokane Falls were destroyed by an evening fire that caused between $5 million to $10 million in losses.

Edmonds, July 1909: An early morning fire destroyed four businesses and the post office, resulting in an estimated loss of $20,000.

Everett, August 1909: It started in a blacksmith shop on Wetmore Avenue and spread, destroying the fire station and the Snohomish County Courthouse.

Snohomish, May 1911: Two blocks of businesses that included saloons, restaurants and the postal office were destroyed by the blaze. Saloons quickly set up shop in tents.

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