Sea Born


Coming down the 30th Street hill this morning, with its dramatic foreshortened perspective of Commencement Bay and the massive container ships at anchor, I was reminded of something we Tacomans often overlook. We are a port city and not an insignificant one. Tacoma is one of the great seaports in the world and we all live in a global setting that is immediately connected with a maritime world view. A century ago, just before Christmas, the aptly named Seaborn Shipyard on Thea Foss Waterway(then called City Waterway) was about to launch the wood hulled sailing vessel Orcas, a graceful four masted cargo ship that would be among the final and most refined windjammers made in North America. Like the last and most satisfying silent films made before the novelty invention of talkies, there was a drama and elegance about the last ships produced in the great sailing vessel boatyards of the world with their cloudy steamboxes for shaping fresh cut lumber, their sailmaker’s lofts and the risky work of hemp line riggers.
So on December 23rd,1916 the hand made and finely tuned Orcas slipped from its land ways and took to the saltwater of the Pacific here in Tacoma. The country’s entry into World War One would fuel a boom for the wooden shipyards and Tacoma’s industry would benefit big time but for the most part they were rushing through the mass production of cheap, short lived ships most of which would be scrapped in less than a decade. The Orcas was among the last of the hand made, cargo ships that were crafted from oak and Douglas fir and carried sail. She was like a cello among banjos.
By the mid 1920’s, brokers along the west coast were buying wood sailing ships for pennies on the dollar and not for the scrapyards. Whole fleets were bought by the movie studios in Hollywood and the last minutes afloat for many vessels like the Orcas were captured on film in the sea battles of movies like Captain Blood and the Black Pirate. The cinematographers and demolition specialists probably cared little about where the prop ships came from but in 1916 Tacoma’s shipbuilders were not making movie sets. They were all about sailing around the world for real.
la fin.


Written by

This site is about the way history, in this case of a city and it's surrounds, is remembered or recorded in stories and small bits of memory. It's also about the way images and stories go together, how they inform and enrich each other and how we as thinking people fill in the content between a narrative and a visual document. So here is my city in time past, the way it looked and the people and events that create its character. For more than 20 years I have taught a 5 credit course on the History of Tacoma at the University of Washington Tacoma. With an average of 30 or 40 students a year, each doing a research paper as their primary focus for the course, I have benefited from many paths of inquiry and many researched and assembled stories. Here are some of them in the retelling along with the treasures of photographs and images in the collections of the Washington State Historical Society, Tacoma Public Library, University of Washington Digital Archives, Washington State Archives at the Office of the Secretary of State, Library of Congress, Washington State University, Alaska State Library, and many other archives, libraries and private collections.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: