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.