Fire officials past and present discuss the famous fire of 1889
Aftermath of the July 4, 1889 fire Corner of Fourth Avenue and Pine Street

Ellensburg Fire Marshall Joe Seemiller likes to joke that if he does his job right then he'll run his fellow firefighters out of work.

As fire marshal, it's Seemiller's job to make sure all the buildings in Ellensburg fit the current fire code and he does so by educating building owners about fire codes. He said his biggest problem area and concern is the city's historic downtown.

"Of all the areas in Ellensburg we protect, it's the downtown that keeps me up at night," Seemiller said.

Seemiller said downtown buildings that share common walls and have old brick foundations can become troublesome if fire codes are not followed.

While it is currently bustling with specialty shops and acts as the city's center, Ellensburg's historic downtown core is no stranger to fire. On July 4, 1889, a fire gutted the downtown, destroying an estimated 200 houses and 10 brick blocks, causing about $2 million in damages. Today that amount would be closer to $450 million.

When asked about the fire, Seemiller said advances in fire codes and firefighting technologies mean it isn't likely such a large catastrophe could shake downtown today.

"I don't think we could have a fire to that extent," Seemiller said. "That's not to say we couldn't have a fire that would take out a block. That could happen. But the buildings are a lot safer now."

One of the facts about the 1889 fire that is well-documented is that the cause of the fire has not been determined. Seemiller said it is unusual that the source of such a large blaze is unknown.

"It's an unsolved mystery right here in Ellensburg," he said.

One man who has dedicated himself to investigating the historic fire is Charles Hansen. Hansen, a retired fire investigator from Tacoma, has been studying the 1889 fire and developed many theories in an attempt to unlock the mystery behind the event that partly molded the town into what it is today.

"When I started looking into it I didn't really think I would find anything," he said. "But I've really found out some interesting details."

While the cause of the fire remains unknown, Hansen speculates it was an arson. He said he has spent countless hours researching historic archives, newspapers, police and fire documents to determine a cause.

"It sure seems like it was planned and executed by someone who was angry," he said. "If that was true, it's pretty chilling."

One of the details of the fire he discovered through his research that points to a possible arson are the red cards that were found among blackened bits of debris with a message for citizens the day after the fire.

The cards read: "You have no pity - we show no mercy."

Hansen said the meaning of the message is unknown, as is the message's author, but he thinks all the signs point to an arsonist.

He said there are a number of possibilities why someone would be angry enough to set the town ablaze, ranging from the mistreatment of a Native American woman, insurance fraud or even retaliation by Chinese settlers.

He also said the battle to house the state's capital also was being fought between Olympia, Yakima and Ellensburg, and that politics could have played a role.

"I'm not saying it was politically motivated, but that's what was going on at the time. The list (of possible motivations) goes on and on."

He said he is excited about the possibilities as he continues to research and uncover details about the city's most famous unsolved mystery.

"It's purely fascinating to learn all the details. Hopefully the more I study the closer I will get to a cause. It's become a real hobby."


Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.