Before it was known for tech startups, coffee and airplanes, Seattle was a lumber town. Settlers first came to the area in 1851, and by 1853 its primary means of economic support was a lumber mill owned by businessman Henry Yesler.

Over the next few decades, Seattle continued to grow, supported by the lumber industry and later by the coal, fishing and shipbuilding industries as well. Scroll on to see shots of the city in the late 1800s, when it was still in its infancy.

Pioneer Square, 1896

pioneer square

Photo: Seattle Municipal Archives/Flickr

By the time it was officially incorporated in 1869, Seattle had more than 2,000 residents. Pioneer Square, still a hotspot today, was one of the first places that the city’s earliest inhabitants set up shop. 

Seattle waterfront, ca. 1878

seattle waterfront 2

Photo: Seattle Municipal Archives/Flickr

In the 1870s, Seattle was growing so quickly that it didn’t have the capacity to process its sewage. Unfortunately, most of the city’s waste wound up on the beach or in the bay, causing an 1876 diphtheria epidemic that plagued entire families.

Logs being loaded onto a ship, ca. 1880

seattle waterfront 1

Photo: IMLS Digital Collection/Flickr

Logging became a major industry in Seattle after Yesler set up his lumber mill. However, logging was a dangerous profession — while it helped the city prosper, it involved automated saws and heavy and cumbersome trees, and brought a horrifying death and dismemberment rate.

Cedar stump at Sedro-Woolley, ca. 1890

sedro woolley

Photo: Seattle Municipal Archives/Flickr

Logging was also crucial out in rural Washington, where workers extracted massive logs that were skidded away by oxen or floated down rivers to sawmills. Giant stumps were left behind and sometimes transformed into magical stump homes.

1st Avenue and James Street, 1886

first avenue

Photo: Seattle Municipal Archives/Flickr

Seattle’s first horse-drawn streetcar line was built in 1884 by entrepreneur Frank Osgood, and it cost just a nickel to catch a ride. Pulled by horses and driven by men, the city’s four streetcars ran on three miles of track, and quickly became very popular with Seattleites.

Aftermath of the Great Seattle Fire, 1889

seattle fire

Photo: IMLS Digital Collections/Flickr

In 1889, the Great Seattle Fire ravaged the city. It all began with a woodworker heating glue over a gasoline fire. The glue boiled over, caught fire and spread to the floor, which was covered with wood chips and turpentine. The woodworker tried to put the fire out with water, but that only thinned the turpentine and made the fire spread further.

The blaze quickly reached the Dietz & Mayer Liquor Store, which exploded, then came to the Crystal Palace Saloon and the Opera House Saloon. Fueled by alcohol, the entire block from Madison Avenue to Marion Street was aflame.

3rd Avenue and Jefferson Street, 1889

third avenue

Photo: Seattle Municipal Archives/Flickr

The day after the fire, there was a citizen’s meeting where nearly all attendees agreed that the streets in Seattle’s business district should be widened. Most people also agreed that “fireproof” brick buildings should be constructed — people lived in tents until those structures were built.

Madison Street Cable Railway Company barn, ca. 1890s

cable railway company

Photo: Seattle Municipal Archives/Flickr

The Madison Street Cable Railway Company barn and power house was where Seattle’s cable railway cars — not to be confused with its horse-drawn streetcars — were parked. The wood-framed facility had a tall smokestack and long, tall windows on its sides. 

Looking north at Front Street from James Street, ca. 1895

front street

Photo: Seattle Municipal Archives/Flickr

Front Street (now called 1st Avenue) became a bustling business district in Seattle after repairs were made following the Great Seattle Fire. 

The Denny Hotel, 1895

denny hotel

Photo: IMLS Digital Collection/Flickr

The Denny Hotel was conceived in 1889 by a group of developers, including Seattle founding father Arthur Denny. An economic depression known as the Panic of 1893 halted its construction, and its turreted shell hung over the city for a decade. Eventually, James A. Moore bought the building, and it flourished as the Washington Hotel after Teddy Roosevelt stayed in it for a night.

Downtown from Denny Hill, ca. 1880

downtown seattle

Photo: Seattle Municipal Archives/Flickr

This photo of downtown Seattle was taken from the top of Denny Hill. In the 1890s, city engineers decided to flatten the hill in a massive construction project known as the Denny Regrade.

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