We’ve all heard of the 1889 Great Seattle Fire (ahem), but most of us haven’t heard of the Great Automobile Row fire that struck Capitol Hill in 1925. It started at 6:30 PM on Saturday, October 31, Halloween night on the southeast corner of Pine and 11th.
A witness across the street where Richmark Label is today described the scene to a Seattle Times reporter, and her words made print the next morning:
“We were sitting close to our front window when the explosion rocked our walls,” said Mrs. [C. T.] Dawson. “We looked out and saw a dense cloud of smoke pouring from the Miller-Norton building.
“The whole building was sheeted in flame, and we saw clouds of sparks falling on nearby buildings.”
Your mental image needs calibration. There was no daylight savings time in 1925. So unlike the last eight years with PDT out into November, the sun set before 5 PM that Halloween. The fire raged in the dark, in a city with much weaker streetlights than we have today, with comparatively little light pollution. The city was much, much lower. The Seattle Times declared, “The fire made a red glow in the sky which could be seen from downtown and drew hundreds to the scene.”
You know how any fire draws a crowd. Well, this turned into a huge fire, destroying several buildings and damaging others. The crowd on that dry night was huge, as the Seattle Times related the next morning:
“A Halloween crowd of more than 10,000 persons, including many youths and girls in costumes from dances and parties, jammed the streets for blocks around while the fire raged for two hours… twice the crowd was swept by powerful streams from runaway firehose, and more than a thousand persons were drenched.” – Seattle Times, November 1, 1925
The fire department struggled with low water pressure, and then overcompensated with too many pump trucks. Six fire fighters were injured by the hoses that whipped free under the pressure.
I’ve got names for three of the firemen and found a bit of what happened to them later in life. Ralph S. Clyde was lightly injured. He later made news in 1938 for saving a cat in a fire. The family had barely made it out of their house, but were troubled that their cat was trapped. Clyde rescued the cat which was “collapsed on the floor” of the basement. Charles E. Conklin (incorrectly reported as Pete Conklin) was part of company number 13 and received two broken ribs from a hose and was hospitalized. In 1930 Conklin’s wife Bertha filed for divorce on the grounds of cruelty. Finally there was Henry A. Rivers from the number 1 hook and ladder truck who received a bruised leg from a hose. Not long after the fire Rivers left the department to join the Seattle police force. In a moment of weakness in November 1927 he accepted a bribe from a from a man in Judkins Park who was hoarding wine — remember, this was during Prohibition — on condition that he not report him. Rivers was caught accepting this “protection money” and sent to the state penitentiary in Walla Walla for six months. He returned to Seattle and worked as a painter for a short time and then apparently left at the start of the Great Depression.
Winton to Miller-Norton to Sunset Electric
The fire started in the basement of the Miller-Norton Company, where leaking gas fumes were ignited by a boiler flame. Miller-Norton distributed Chandler and Cleveland cars, so their location was sometimes referred to as the Chandler Building.
The building was actually built in 1916 for the Winton Company to sell their popular Winton Six automobile. It was designed by architect Henderson Ryan, who did a bunch of stuff like the landmarked Ballard Library, a number of theaters including the landmarked Neptune Theatre, the Roycroft Apartments and Broadway Building (the original one on Madison).
In a typical advertisement thinly-veiled as news in the Seattle Times, Winton’s building got a glowing description. Still, it’s a fun look at the building at its best:
“When completed, this will be the finest-appearing and best-arranged motor car establishment in the city.
“The Winton Company has included in the construction every detail necessary to promote the happiness and satisfaction of its patrons.
“The building will be brick and concrete, decorated with terra-cotta… The ground floor will be devoted to new and used car showrooms, and service garage. The new car showroom… without a post, will be finished in oak throughout, including the floor. Main entrance will be on Pine Street…
“The mezzanine floor will be used for a ladies’ rest room, manager’s office and general offices.” – Seattle Times, August 20, 1916
Prior to moving here, the Winton Company had been located at 1000 Pike. They were here for seven years and then in January 1923 Winton backed out of direct sales in Seattle and gave the distribution contract to Pioneer Auto Company at Fourth and Columbia. Winton was losing the fight with Ford’s mass-produced cars. Just a year later Winton ceased manufacturing automobiles to focus on engines.
Coincidentally, as Winton was creating the shell of Sunset Electric in 1916, John Miller and Raymond Hall Norton came separately to Seattle. Miller brought years of mechanic experience from New York and Norton from Indianapolis. They both worked for Seattle Automobile Sales Company, which was founded in 1905 and one of the earliest businesses in Auto Row. When they joined Seattle Auto it was newly relocated to 1101 East Pike, which we know of now as the Baker Linen building and currently home to Retrofit. Miller was Seattle Auto’s Chandler mechanic.
They both resigned from Seattle Auto in 1921 and formed their own company, Miller & Norton, to repair Chandlers. They co-located with the Richardson Motor Company which had taken over sales for Chandlers in Seattle at their new home, 1412 12th Avenue.
In February 1923 Miller and Norton took over the Chandler sales franchise from Richardson. They reincorporated as the Miller-Norton Sales Company and moved into the old Winton building. Two and a half years later the fire began inside Miller-Norton. Luckily the three people in the building were not near the explosion and they quickly evacuated. But it was left an empty shell, with some walls collapsed.
After the fire Miller-Norton moved to Fourth and Virginia. The property at Eleventh and Pine was leased to Sunset Electric, who hired Stuart & Wheatley to design a new two-story building incorporating the remaining facade of the Winton building.
The fire spread quickly from the Chandler building, reaching neighboring Willys-Overland before the fire department could arrive. The brick facades did little to slow it, as paint, gas, oil and rubber ignited and lit the roofs aflame. More than 200 cars were feared damaged.
“Fire wiped three brick buildings off the north half of [a] block of Automobile Row.” – Seattle Times, Jan 1, 1925
Appraisers initially thought that Firestone Tire & Rubber Company was the biggest loser. Their basement warehouse was filled with enough tires to supply the region, and the entire inventory was estimated at a million 1925 dollars. At least half were discovered undamaged, dropping estimates to $250,000 to $400,000 overnight.Firestone’s warehouse moved into 1520 11th in 1914. Previously they were at 1420 Broadway from 1909 to 1911, and then at 918 East Pike from 1911 to 1914. Tom Heuser wrote about that building – now The Comet Tavern — for CHS last month. Firestone returned to 1520 11th after the fire, after it was rebuilt. That building is now Purr Cocktail Lounge and the dearly departed The Crypt.
Willys-Overland Pacific Company was the second building alit and had the second highest damage estimate at $400,000. A quarter for the building, quarter for the cars, and half for the equipment and accessories. The estimates were cut in half the next day because 100 cars were found undamaged in the basement.
Willys-Overland moved into their Victor Vorhees-designed building in 1917, which is now the Seattle Police East Precinct. Previously they were the first occupants of Sam’s Tavern at 11th and Pike when it was built in 1913. They left after the fire for a new building at Pike and Belmont. That building is now Kaladi Coffee, and was profiled in an earlier Re:Take along with Gay City Health and Ragen & Associates.
Other businesses impacted on the block were:
- Ballou & Wright, bicycle, motorcycle and automobile supplies. 1515 12th, now the Northwest Film Forum.
- Sands Motors Company, Studebaker maintenance. 1512 11th, now Grim’s.
- Quality Radiator & Fender, also called Expert Fender & Radiator Repairs. 1524 11th, the south bay of the Miller-Norton building, now Sunset Electric Apartments.
- Gardner Motors. 1100 East Pike, now Zion’s Gate Records, 35th North, and Annex Theatre.
- Vacant space at 1510 11th, now Barca.
Buildings across the street on 11th were also damaged, mostly shattered plate glass and melted tires. Those included Kelly-Springfield Motor Truck Company at 1525 11th and Henry Schmidt at 1529 11th, until recently Value Village. The corner space in the White Motor Company at 1531 to 1535 11th was empty, now home to the Rhino Room. That opening was convenient for Miller-Norton, who moved their salvaged stock across 11th and reopened until permanent quarters were secured.
Conflagration as confluence
A fire that spreads across an entire block is sure to affect many lives. But this was a special block at a special time, right in the heart of the growing and rising Auto Row. If we build a Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon for the fire, the web will quickly entangle all of the car and bike district, and a good chunk of the city.
There were several well-established firms impacted, which meant that they had already been in three or four or more locations. The buildings on the block had prior occupants, and because businesses shuffled so much in that era the six degrees fan out quickly.
The block contained only auto row businesses, addressing a market that still had an affluent image but increasingly was part of the lives of everyday Seattleites. Certainly the rich of Capitol Hill, First Hill, Queen Anne and other upscale neighborhoods couldn’t be more than three or for degrees from the fire. Much of the middle class must have been less than six steps removed from the fire as well.
With clear weather on Sunday, people streamed by to see the spectacle. Police directed traffic at every corner to let another reported 50,000 people view the wreckage. About a sixth of Seattle’s population supposedly saw it with their own eyes.
We can assume that the number was probably exaggerated. But does that mean it was still a tenth of Seattle’s 300,000 or so residents? A fifteenth? How many people heard about it from someone who saw the fire or its aftermath?
Maybe no one remembers the fire today (no one except HistoryLink writer Daryl McClary), but step through the six degrees among contemporaries and it doesn’t seem far fetched to call it the “great” Auto Row fire.