In 1889 Cheney was a young and fast-growing town, actively competing with nearby Spokane to be the largest city in the region. Cheney’s ambitions were delivered a devastating blow on April 18th of that year.
A fire began in the early morning at O. Butler’s General Store and quickly spread to the businesses and residences around it. The fire department lost time when it was discovered that the hose had been plugged up by a chisel handle. By the time water finally began to spray the fire had advanced and was noted as being a “fiery demon [that] had gained mastery of the situation.” Worse still, the hose soon split under pressure and buckets and volunteers were brought in, but the fire was impossible to control as the flames jumped from building to building with “almost lightning rapidity,” according to one witness.
By the time the sun rose the fire had been defeated, but the city was in ashes and “a scene of ruin and desolation” lay before the citizens. The majority of the business district in the city was destroyed by flames including forty-five businesses and homes starting from the railroads tracks all the way up until 2nd street and from Main to E Street in the West as well as Main to B Street in the East. However, the very next day rebuilding began in the young city with more buildings being composed of brick to prevent the same kind of devastation from reoccurring.
Investigations were launched on both the fire itself, which looked to have been started with some sort of “incendiary device,” and on the plugging of the fire hose. It seems that some troublemakers had "looked well ahead in laying the plans of destruction," according to the report in the Spokane Morning Review. The fire was estimated to have caused at least $150,000 in damage.
This tragedy wouldn’t keep Cheney from thriving. Later that year Washington officially became a state and was granted the ability to operate three “Normal Schools” for the education of teachers within the state and Cheney was chosen as a location for one of those schools. However, Cheney would never again rival Spokane for the leading city of the region.