Flyer in Blue

From a warm summer day in 1891, this cyanotype of the legendary SS Flyer tied up under the Northern Pacific coal bunkers. The shadow direction indicates its morning and a line of loaded coal cars are standing by to fuel a modern steamship while an aging three masted sailing vessel from the quickly passing era of sail rocks on the tide below. Under the fastest conditions of wind and current, the Flyer could return to Tacoma from Seattle in less than an hour and even in the fog the swift passenger ferry could make four round trips a day. Its rare to see a photo of the Flyer at rest with no smoke coming from the stack.

The cool indigo coloring of cyanotypes like this is typically identified with blueprints and typography but inventive photographers appreciated how well the process worked with bright sunlight. The process had a magical aspect that could not be matched by silver nitrate or other light sensitive materials. A cyanotype left too long in the light would fade almost to blank but if left overnight, the image would return like it was gathered again from the dark.

Like the Flyer in the fog a century ago, there and gone and there again.


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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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