Here’s a moment of pure Tacoma from April 1931. The Rialto Theater was celebrating a new novelty, sound pictures. Along with a major talky feature starring Marlene Dietrich and Victor McLaglen, the Northern Pacific Railroad was touring a special feature titled “No.1, The first transcontinental trip to be filmed in sound” in a somewhat desperate attempt to lure passengers. At the time automobiles were taking over travel in America and the railroads were in their last death throes as the Depression applied a coup de grace. “No. 1” traced a journey from Chicago to Tacoma with lingering panoramas of the Rockies and Cascades accompanied by a godlike baritone voice that marveled at the scenery and comfort of the ride. The familiar monad logo of the NP hangs under the marquee, echoing its twin in the arch at Union Station. Sadly the NP headquarters had moved to Seattle in 1928 and its building across from City Hall on Pacific had been turned into government offices. Nevertheless Tacomans knew the NP was tapping into its glory days recalling for moviegoers the monumental achievement of laying the first iron rails from the Great Lakes to the Pacific Ocean some 60 years before. They packed the Rialto for No. 1 and no doubt stayed to see how it ended.
I wrote this post a couple years ago, before the Prairie Line was becoming one of the Museum District’s most surprising features and a new wave of Tacoma’s were discovering an epic journey story running right through the downtown. Its crazy the way Tacoma’s narrative gets tangled and then unwoven, how the city can find historic railroad lines and lost silent films at the same time and then have them connected by a historic theatre we still treasure and use. A city without stories is a sad place and we are definitely not there.