~posted by Jade
The Lincoln Hotel, Seattle’s first apartment-hotel, was built in 1900 at the northwest corner of Fourth Avenue and Madison Street, across the road from where the Central Library now stands. (In fact, a 1907 hotel brochure from our online collections lists proximity to the Carnegie library as one of the perks of staying at the Lincoln.) Despite its luxurious reputation and a rooftop garden with views of Mount Rainier, the hotel struggled to attract visitors because it was removed from the commercial center and could only be reached from downtown with a steep uphill climb. The Lincoln moved from owner to owner before being purchased in 1919 and given a significant remodel. Unfortunately, this investment was short-lived.
At approximately 12:40 a.m. on April 7, 1920 a night clerk noticed flickering lights on the hotel’s switchboard indicating something was amiss. Soon after, the night watchman emerged into the lobby, exclaiming there was an explosion in the sub-basement and flames were beginning to spread. Due to the early hour, many of the hotel guests were sleeping and had to be roused by the firemen appearing on the scene. Forty-five minutes into the fire, the west wall of the hotel collapsed, trapping firemen in an alley below. Shortly after that, the southwest corner of the building also fell. Firemen scrambled to rescue the hotel guests but found some of their ladders were too short. Other guests jumped from the building before they could be reached.
Newspapers breathlessly recounted tragic losses, narrow escapes, and tales of surviving guests left stranded with nothing but the pajamas on their backs. A Seattle Times article noted that “The big structure was apparently doomed from the first, and though dozens of streams of water were playing on it, the fire broke out again and again, flames shooting skyward, and brought a gasp of astonishment from the seething crowd that pressed forward to the ropes in an endeavor to get as close as possible.” In the end, four died in the flames and another 15 were injured. Some gave credit to the installation of fire escapes, a new feature from the 1919 remodel, as the reason the death toll did not leap higher.
Interested in learning more? We have postcards, photographs and ephemera from the hotel’s short lived history available in our online collections.