Its the poor quality of this photo that makes it such a compelling document. As darkness set in on September 29, 1923, the 80-ton steamer “Rubaiyat” left Municipal dock with a heavy load below and canned goods stacked high on the decks. Just off the mouth of City Waterway (Foss Waterway) the vessel capsized and sank in less that a minute. It took the three men and a woman on board to their death in 35 fathoms of water. That winter a hard hat diver, Walter McCray, teamed with the Foss Launch & Tug Company in an extraordinary and very risky crusade to raise the Rubaiyat.
For weeks in October and into November McCray dove countless times into the 350 foot deep hole where the Rubaiyat rested on the murky bottom. He first explored the ship and then used logging chokers to attach heavy cables under the hull for a lift attempt. In late November he was in the water when the cables slipped and the attempt failed in a near disaster. He watched it all in near darkness 300 feet down through a 6 inch window in his helmet.
The following March McCray lowered himself over the side into the cold waters of Commencement Bay again. After weeks of work he single handedly removed 20 tons of plaster from the hold, reset the cable sling and on Friday morning of the 21st the stern of the Rubaiyat broke the surface.( the second photo captures the event). In the days that followed, the tragic steamer was beached, searched for the bodies that were never found and then salvaged by McCray and Fred Berg of the Foss Company. They were given the wreck for their efforts in accordance with maritime law. In the last photo McCray is on the far left standing next to Berg and others on the salvage crew that raised the Rubiayat. At the time it was the deepest shipwreck salvaging operation ever achieved on the Pacific Coast.

Written by tacomahistory

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.

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