Most cities in Washington State within a decade of statehood in 1889 were touched by fire.
The urban cores of these communities had been built with wood and in a somewhat haphazard and tightly packed manner. If fire did come, it was able to spread quickly and decimate blocks of downtown cities before antiquated fire fighting companies were able to catch up.
In addition to the famous Seattle fire of 1889, Spokane burned several times in the 1880s, and Olympia had a least two major fires in 1882 and a smaller one in 1883. Tacoma alone had three major fires in just one year, 1884.
With this in mind, the Great Olympia Fire of 1882 seems meager.
At 2:00 a.m. on May 18, 1882 the outside wall of the Vienna Restaurant along 4th Avenue east of what is now Capitol Way caught fire from a cookstove stationed in the alleyway behind the building. The fire quickly spread to a nearby grocery store and Doane’s Oyster House next door.
At this point in Olympia’s history, there was no public fire department. The common practice was for local business owners to organize private companies to protect against fires. Olympia’s first public fire company started in the 1850s. In the 1880s, the Columbia Company was Olympia’s lone fire protection service.
The crew of one available pumper truck concentrated on the north side of the block, along 4th Avenue as the fire spread. Beyond the grocery store and oyster restuarant, the fire jumped to the city’s post office and a dry goods store. Two women and a number of children were also rescued from an apartment above the grocery store.
The fire company battled the fire but it moved slowly south, burning several other buildings including the first Talcott’s jewelry location and a beer hall that would prove to be pivotal to this entire story.
Conditions seemed ripe for the fire to spread quickly and devour the rest of Olympia’s downtown, but beer intervened.
Olympia had seen weeks of dry conditions that made the chance of the fire spreading fairly high. Also, reportedly, the private fire company was dealing with weak water pressure. Despite strong winds spreading embers throughout Olympia’s mostly wooden downtown, the fire was contained to only one block
During the height of the fire, the owner of the lost beer hall walked next door to the neighboring business, the Olympia Courier newspaper. The publisher was quickly trying to pack up, while Phillip Hiltz inquired how much the harried newspaperman wanted for his property. Seeing a good fortune with the fire bearing down on the building, the publisher quickly signed over the deed to Hiltz for a cheap price.
The fat German was not crazy, however. No sooner was the deed in his pocket than he trotted off to where the men of the Columbia (were fighting the fire on the north side of the block). There in stentorian tones, he announced to firemen and volunteer citizens alike that if they save the (buildings on the south side of the block) he would open his beer garden to all for a full day of unlimited refreshments on the house.
That change in tactics and (a timely cloudburst) prevented the Great Olympia Fire from getting any worse than it did.
There were a few predictable results of the Great Olympia Fire, in addition to an episode of massive drinking. Like many other Washington cities that also faced fires, the disaster allowed city residents to begin replacing wooden structures with stone and brick.
The fire resulted in the end of the almost total monopoly of the Columbia Fire Company. Citizens voted for the purchase of a brand new fire engine and that resulted in the creation of Olympia’s public fire department, then known as Olympia Fire Company #2.