No. 1

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.

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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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