On a wet Saturday morning in May 1934 hundreds of kids stood in the rain to have their picture taken in front of the Rialto Theatre before crowding into a free double feature. For many of these Depression era youngsters, getting into the movies for free was a big deal especially if you could see action star Douglas Fairbanks jumping out of a perfectly good airplane with a parachute. But there was little question that the big attraction that day was Will Rogers playing a small town physician in John Ford’s film Dr. Bull. Will Rogers was a personal friend of Henry Sicade, the Puyallup tribal leader and he visited the city often. A little more than a year after this picture was taken Rogers passed through Tacoma with his aviator friend Wiley Post in a single engine Lockheed Orion-Explorer on their way to Point Barrow Alaska. Will Roger’s weekly newspaper column ran on the front page for years and his radio jokes were retold in every bar, social club and church hall in Tacoma as if they were invented by a family member. When news of his plane crash and death in Alaska replaced his syndicated column on front page of the Ledger in August 1935, the whole city felt the loss. But that was a dark cloud still unformed for these damp movie goers excited about the smell of popcorn and the unfailing magic of Hollywood airplanes, silk parachutes and cowboys in the clouds.

Tacoma Public Library, G65.1-093Rialto Kids

Will Rogers

Cowboy, actor, broadcast commentator, humorist and writer Will Rogers (far left) poses with legendary sled dog breeder Leonard Seppala, aviators Wiley Post and Joe Crosson, just before takeoff in Fairbanks, Alaska, on the last leg of his fatal flight. His small plane crashed due to engine failure near Barrow, Alaska, on August 15, 1935, and both he and pilot Post were killed. Joe Crosson had the sad duty of returning the bodies of Rogers and Post from Alaska by air. The nation mourned their deaths and Rogers, a Oklahoma native, was honored by his state in many ways, including statues, schools (13 public schools were named after him), airport and roadway as well as by California in the form of parks, highways and even a submarine. Will Rogers had visited the Tacoma area several times in the past and had developed friendships with Ray Gamble and Henry Sicade. TPL 5448 ( (image is stained at bottom and right edge)


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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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