In January 1921 the tallest building ever constructed in Tacoma was nearing its topping out at 11th and Pacific. Across the Street, the 12 story Rust Building was newly finished and the city’s rising skyline seemed like a bellwether for community confidence. Then one rainy morning the workers didn’t show up at the Scandinavian American Bank construction site and low rumbles in high places, in the wood paneled board rooms and smoke filled council chambers, suggested something ominous. In the days that followed, the startling corruption behind the use of depositor’s funds by bank president Ole Larson to build the skyscraper lead to the seating of a grand jury and the eventual disclosure that in its collapse the bank returned money to influential individuals, City Hall, and even the Governor while one out of every eight working Tacomans saw their money lost or tied up for years. For most of the 1920’s downtown Tacoma was towered over by a 16 story skeleton, the spectral reminder of power and hubris gone darkly wrong.

 

That winter a young tubercular artist stood on the corner of 11th and Pacific in the shadow of the abruptly halted steel frame building. He was a shrewd observer of how American cities during the prohibition era were not sinister places because of just bootleggers, gangsters and street criminals. The rise and fall of modern cities and morality was just as often the fault of the rich and politically forceful. During the long street slick nights of that Tacoma winter, the novelist and detective writer Dashiell Hammett formed his experiences into a series of novels and short stories that culminated in The Maltese Falcon, a masterpiece of modern fiction. It is a story about greed, betrayal and situational ethics in a random urban world without heroes or daylight. Today the novel is considered the birthplace of Noir fiction and at its heart is a parable about a man standing on a street corner beneath an unfinished skyscraper in Tacoma. The skyscraper and the story are still there at 11th and Pacific.

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Written by tacomahistory

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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