Monohon Fire

Monohon Image 2


“A fire broke out in Monohon at noon today and as we go to press the entire town is being consumed in the worst holocaust that ever visited this district” begins a short story on page 3 of the Issaquah Press on June 26, 1925.

1925 had been a dry year, not just for Seattle but for all of the West. Newspaper reports from late June 1925 show the fire season had begun early and with a vengeance. To make matters worse, it was unusually hot: downtown Seattle had reported a then all-time record high of 98 degrees the day before the fire, and “private thermometers in outlying districts registered 103 in the shade” noted the Seattle P-I in a front page article on June 26.

June 26 also dawned clear and hot, but with a difference: a stiff north wind had sprung up. Although June 26 would actually be cooler than the day before, area temperatures would still reach the mid-80s, well above normal, with the dry north wind providing little relief from the heat.

At 7:30 that Friday morning the Monohon Mill whistle sounded and the men went to work in the lumber mill. The mill was located right along the lake front almost due west of where the Sammamish Plaza Shopping Center is today (near the intersection of East Lake Sammamish Parkway and Southeast 33rd) though the mill extended farther south than the shopping center does. Most of the businesses in Monohon were located near the mill, to the west of what was then East Lake Sammamish Road. While an earlier version of this road had run closer to the lake, by 1925 East Lake Sammamish Road was located where East Lake Sammamish Parkway is today, though in 1925 the road was just a two-lane ribbon of dirt. On the east side of the road were many of Monohon’s 60 or so homes.

At noon the whistle whistled again and the mill workers broke for lunch. Most headed outside to eat. But at least one man went into the washroom and had a smoke while he was there. On the way out, he casually flicked his cigarette butt into a pile of sawdust…and changed history.

The fire began slowly at first, and all witness accounts say it was not discovered for some time. When it was found the fire was still so small that witnesses later agreed it could have been extinguished with minor damage to the mill and no damage to the town. Then began an incredible series of events and errors that sealed the little town’s fate.

The Monohon Fire Department was called and with the men from the mill began fighting the fire. Several of the fire hoses broke. Then a hose was stretched across the train tracks that ran in front of the mill. A train accidentally severed the hose. The fire suddenly began spreading more rapidly, and heat from the fire began causing the hoses to melt. The mill sounded an alarm.

“We were eating lunch when we heard three loud blasts on the Monohon mill whistle. These were soon followed by another three, and later another series” said Carmen Olsen when she was interviewed about the fire for a 1976 Issaquah Press article. “Mother knew something was really wrong. We looked…and saw the first plumes of smoke”.

Archie Howatson of Providence Point was seven years old when he witnessed the fire. He agrees the series of toots on the mill whistle was a fire alarm--- but he remembers them sounding in series of five instead of three.

There were piles of lumber stacked neatly in tall rows in front of the mill. As the fire continued to spread the men realized that once the boards caught fire the wind could catch burning embers and spread the fire further. Someone came up with the bright idea to dynamite the boards to eliminate the hazard. The firefighters tried to set the explosion to where the boards would be blown west into the lake.

It didn’t work. Instead, the burning boards flew east into the town itself, landing on roofs and starting new fires. About this time or shortly after, the Issaquah Fire Department arrived, later followed by the Redmond Fire Department, but it was too late.

The wind caught burning roof shingles and pieces of lumber and flung them like flaming truncheons almost due south a mile or more. While most of the firefighters had initially stayed in the mill area to try and contain the fire, now they raced up into the town itself to fight the fire, to warn loved ones, and in some cases to try and salvage what they could before the fire reached their homes. Meanwhile, others began running from their homes toward the mill, either to fight the fire or to check on loved ones who worked at the mill. Around them women and children and a few men loaded whatever they could into their cars and, in a few cases, horse and wagons, and fled as the fire continued to spread.

“By 3:00 Monohon was gone,” says Howatson. “It was fast.” By then the fire had devoured virtually 100% of Monohon’s business district. Between 85% and 90% of Monohon’s residences were gone, save for a few north of the fire on the southern flank of Waverly Hills; Howatson’s home, located there, escaped the fire. Many people, mostly women and children, had fled along East Lake Sammamish Road to points south or north of the fire and watched as the flames advanced toward the few remaining homes. The men remained on the fire scene, valiantly fighting on.

A Seattle P-I reporter, R.B. Bermann, along with a P-I photographer arrived on the scene as the fire reached its peak. The next day the P-I ran several of the photographer’s pictures on page 3, under the breathless caption “Where The Fire Demon Stalked!” One shot looks southeast from the point of land that juts out into the lake just north and west of Monohon (roughly where East Lake Sammamish Parkway and SE 24th Way intersect today) and shows furniture, clothes and other belongings stacked in a hasty pile on the ground by those who had fled north from the fire; in the background, the fire rages on. Bermann wrote this unforgettable description of the fire for the accompanying article:

    “The heat was so intense that vegetables growing hundreds of yards away were shriveled on their stalks; leaves were blackened on trees a mile around; young chickens were killed by the smoke and baked to a crisp by flames a hundred feet away.
    “The fire raged on both sides of the highway (East Lake Sammamish Road) running through the town, making an arch of flame beneath which firefighters were transported in speeding automobiles when they had to change the scene of their activities.
    “It was like running the gauntlet through an inferno. Men were compelled to hold hats or handkerchiefs over their faces during the trip and even then their faces were blistered and their hair was singed. Watchers shuddered at the thought of what would have happened if one of the automobiles had stalled or left the road before reaching the other end.”

Then the wind changed.

The wind shifted from north to east, and began blowing the fire back toward the lake. Sadly, it was far too late to save anything other than the few houses to the north, but it did allow the firefighters to have the fire under control by nightfall at 10 pm. Still, the ashes smoldered through the night, and except for firefighters few dared return to the scene until the following morning. Pictures taken the next day near the mill show the ashes still smoking, with absolutely nothing left saved blackened bare trees and a large steel sawdust burner rising silently like an enormous elongated tombstone over the ruins.

Incredibly, no one died or was injured in the fire.

While the mill rebuilt and survived in various incarnations until 1980, Monohon itself was gone. The Lake View Hotel, the Monohon Boat and Canoe Company, the Norwegian Club of Monohon, the railroad station, general store—everything that had made this little town of 300 souls almost the Valhalla of Lake Sammamish—gone.

The week after the fire, an article in the Issaquah Press summed it up with laconic irony: “And all this through the careless flipping of a cigaret(te) stub!”

---Phil Dougherty


Freed House Freed House