Hey accidents happen and sometimes a really good idea just doesn’t work out as planned. A case in point…
In the wee hours of the morning on October 9, 1934 the superintendent at the Tacoma Grocery Building at 2108 Pacific Avenue broke out of a little nap when he noticed a soft, hypnotic sound emanating from the upper floors of the six story warehouse. The sturdy brick and timber building housed thousands of cases of groceries, sacks of grain and flour and tons of paper and cardboard, most of which was combustible. As a precaution the warehouse was equipped with a very innovative system of fire sprinklers with tiny heat sensitive wax triggers all fed by a massive roof mounted water tank. As the suspicious building super climbed the rear stairs he began noticing water running down from above-a good indication that there was a fire and that the sprinklers had been triggered. Within minutes after the alarm was sent five TFD Engine Companies were on the scene and fire fighters flooded into the building and up the stairs. Eerily there was no fire or smoke. In the tense and confusing moments that followed the water was turned off and everyone in the building became instantly conscious of a low scary groan that seemed to vibrate from deep in the structure. Intuitively the fire fighters retreated to the back wall of the building just as the entire front wall failed cataclysmically. In an instant, tons of water soaked cartons, bloated groceries and bags of freshly mixed flour dough crashed onto the sidewalk leaving 20 firefighters staring out from the back wall onto Pacific Avenue as if they were sitting in open air balconies. Somehow the sprinkler system had gone off and for hours the roof tank had drained into the building and its absorbent contents creating a massive weight load that finally overtaxed the structure. The front wall, with its big windows, was the weak point (not counting the wax triggers). Miraculously no one was seriously hurt. In the months that followed the front wall of the building was rebuilt in a streamlined Art Deco style which faces the avenue today-the mask on one of Tacoma’s great messes.

Tacoma Public Library. Richards Studio Collection Series 842-9 Unique 1233

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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.

1 comment

  1. I’m still curious to know the source of the line describing the sprinklers as having “tiny heat sensitive wax triggers.” By the turn of the last century and when this building was built, solder had become the ubiquitous and lasting system of choice. In his 1914 book Automatic Sprinkler Protection, Dana Gorham only makes passing mention only a few of these “odd types” (1880’s – 1901) using wax in the triggering mechanism. So while possible, it would have been extremely unique. And perhaps… problematic.


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