On April 7, 1920, fire breaks out in Seattle's elegant Lincoln Hotel, one of the city's finest establishments. Hundreds of people flee the building as it quickly goes up in flames. Four people, including a Seattle firefighter, die in the catastrophe.
At the time it was built in 1899, the Lincoln Hotel was Seattle's most luxurious hotel. Located at the northwest corner of 4th Avenue and Madison Street, the hotel was seven stories tall on the east side and nine stories tall on the west. From its vantage point along the steep incline of Madison Street, its elegant rooftop garden offered views unmatched by most Seattle buildings at the time.
In 1900, the Lincoln opened as the city's first apartment-hotel, and was owned by local developer James A. Moore (1861-1929) and Dr. Rufus P. Lincoln, a New York investor. Although the Lincoln was considered one of the finest hotels in the city and the site of many social functions, room rentals suffered due to the hotel's distant location from the city's commercial district. Because of this, the Lincoln passed through a number of different owners over the years, until it was purchased by the Madison Realty Company on November 1, 1919, which invested $75,000 on remodeling the then 20-year-old building.
Fire Down Below
Shortly after 12:30 a.m., on the morning of April 7, 1920, A. A. Wright, a night clerk at the hotel, noticed something odd. The lights from all of the basement telephones – in the laundry room, engine room, and kitchen –blinked and then went out. Since no one was in those departments at the time, he waited for the night watchman to return, to ask him to investigate.
Just then, the watchman, who had been escorting a guest to his room, rushed out of the elevator yelling that there was a fire in the basement and that he had heard a muffled explosion and had seen the smoke. Wright called the fire marshal's office, set off the fire alarms, and began calling as many guests as he could on the telephone. The night watchmen began bringing people down in the elevator until it stopped working, and then proceeded to help the lower floor guests down the stairs. In all, there were over 300 people staying at the hotel.
Smoke filled the lobby as people streamed out of the hotel into the streets. Wright grabbed the hotel's cash and guests' valuables from the hotel safe, and brought them to the Elks Club a block away for safe keeping. Some of those who escaped from the lower floors caught their breath on the deck of the Carnegie Library across the street, and watched as the hotel went up in flames.
The Rush to Escape
The fire spread fast. Inside the hotel, the interior court acted as a giant chimney, sending the flames high above the hotel and showering nearby buildings with sparks and embers. By the time fire crews arrived, all of the stairwells were thick with smoke, trapping hundreds of people on the upper floors. As guests crowded the windows to gasp for air, people on the street shouted words of encouragement, urging them not to jump.
Some people were able to make it down the three exterior fire escapes, but others could not. Fire ladders went up and rescuers began carrying down the injured and the infirm. Some guests had to be lowered down by rope. The badly injured were whisked to hospitals, while others were brought to the Elks Club and private homes.
On the west side of the building, Fred Hamilton (1869-1920) -- owner of the Puss 'n' Boots Confectionery Company -- and his daughter, Gray Hamilton (1901-1920), whose name was often reported in newspapers as "Grace," were trapped in their room awaiting rescue. As they waited for fire ladders to reach their sixth floor window, the flames and smoke grew near. In a panic, the father jumped from the window and fell to his death. His daughter stepped out and hung to the ledge by her hands, before falling to her death as well.
After the Fall
Less than an hour after the fire started, firefighters had pulled most people from the building. They continued to douse the building with water, and at 2:30, the west wall of the hotel collapsed, burying some of the firemen in the rubble. Many were badly injured, and one -- Charles La Casse (1870-1920), Ladder Co. No. 4 -- died.
In the morning, another body was found in the rubble. It was believed to be Blanche Crowe (1896-1920), who had not shown up for work at Chauncey Wright's Restaurant Company offices in the Smith Tower. An autopsy later determined that Crowe had woken and dressed after the fire began, but could not escape. She had suffered from smoke inhalation and burned to death before being crushed by the collapse.
Because the hotel register was burned in the fire, it took a few days to canvass nearby hotels and apartment houses to determine if everyone else at the Lincoln made it out alive. At first it was though that five others had died in the fire, but they were found alive and well, having escaped the blaze and then finding new accommodations without telling anyone.
The Fire Department had considered the Lincoln Hotel a fire trap for years. Right after the disaster, Fire Marshal Harry Bringhurst (1861-1923) noted that when the hotel was first built it had no fire escapes at all, and that, "it was little else than a lumber yard with four brick walls around it" (The Seattle Times, April 7, 1920). When the hotel's new owners took charge in 1919, fire officials urged them to include fire safety features into their remodel, which they did, possibly saving countless numbers of lives.
During the coroner's inquest into the death of Blanche Crowe, witnesses told the jury that the doors to the fire exits were bolted from the inside and that they had to break through the door's windows to release the latch. R. B. Ward, assistant manager of the hotel, noted that the bolts were placed there to prevent burglars and thieves from gaining entrance, and that the words "Fire Escape -- Break Glass" were clearly printed on the glass. This was found to be acceptable under city law.
The coroner's jury determined that the deaths resulting from the Lincoln Hotel fire were likely caused by "conflicting building regulations and a laxity of city departments in enforcing the city building code" (The Seattle Times, April 16, 1920). Fire Marshal Bringhurst and Superintendent of Buildings James Blackwell took umbrage at this statement, claiming that the low number of deaths was evidence enough to prove that safety features were working and in in place. Nevertheless, the city's hotels and other buildings came under heightened scrutiny to make sure they were up to code.
Meanwhile, the destruction of the Lincoln Hotel got Seattle's business community to start thinking about the need for a new hotel that the city could be proud of. A funding campaign began, and within a few years, the Olympic Hotel opened to great success as the premiere hotel for Seattle visitors.