What do you do when your business district is burning?
Rescue the liquor.
That’s what residents of the small Bellingham Bay town of Whatcom decided 131 years ago today.
On May 20, 1885, Whatcom was a cluster of wooden buildings in what is today’s Old Town section of Bellingham.
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About 1:30 that morning, fire broke out at — depending on the source — a hotel or a store. Arson was suspected but never proven.
Men raced to fight the blaze, but the fire spread and soon reached buildings on both sides of Whatcom’s business district on Division Street — located between today’s C and D streets and Astor and Dupont streets.
The block was a goner, so what did the men do? They sped into saloons and the Washington Hotel to rescue the local liquor supply in barrels, jugs, bottles, and demijohns (those bulbous, narrow-neck bottles usually covered with wicker).
After saving the spirits, the men again focused on the fire. They formed a bucket brigade from the bay’s high tide, but to no avail.
As the battle continued, the men mixed their firefighting with imbibing some of the rescued hootch.
Lelah Jackson Edson described the men this way in her classic 1951 book “The Fourth Corner” — “Gnome-like they circled their treasure, imbibed deeply, then leaped back to rescue more whiskey. Or perhaps they lurched to the bucket-line.”
According to Edson, a different account, written years later, said most of the men who fought the fire had a cup and a corkscrew, also rescued from the flames.
Finally, the men blew up a building to create a firebreak. By 4:30 a.m., the fire was out.
Seventeen buildings were destroyed or damaged. On the plus side, no one died or was seriously hurt, and the men celebrated their valiant effort with a toast, and then another, and then another.
For the full story, check out Edson’s book or go to HistoryLink.org, the online encyclopedia of Washington history.
A footnote: More than a century later, another early-morning fire in the Old Town district would destroy three buildings on March 1, 2010.