Wheat Fleet

At the mouth of Thea Foss Waterway, not far from where a surviving section of the legendary “mile long warehouse” has been transformed into the Working Waterfront Museum, there are fragments of a time when sailing ships lined the waterfront. The great wheat ships bound for Asia began calling with the arrival of the railroad in the early 1870’s and by the mid 1880’s were a constant, moving forest of masts on Commencement Bay. Even after steamships were the most common vessels in blue water, wheat was carried by the sailing ships with their empty, engine free hulls and the dependable trade wind driven sailing times across the Pacific. Take note of the width of the Foss Waterway. It was determined by the standard length of the great wheat ships of the Victorian era. They could sail right up to the docks on the city side of the waterway thanks to the prevailing southwestern wind in our harbor and once loaded could keep a line tied at the stern, fill a foresail to pivot the ship in the waterway and then fill the main sails and run downwind out of port with no help from a tug or towboat. Marvelous to imagine that for millennia, until the middle of the 19th Century, the ancient forest came down to the tidelands over most of Tacoma. Then, just 20 years later, buildings covered the hillside and the forest draped in sails began coming and going with the wind and tides.

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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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