Tall Ships and a Steady Southwesterly

The age of sail lasted longer on Commencement Bay than most of the seaports of the world. Well past the time when steam and diesel engine technology had taken over shipping and passenger service, the last of the square rigged sailing ships and swift lumber schooners were still calling at the docks along Tacoma’s shoreline. Because the railroads carried wheat from the Dakotas and Eastern Washington to the long line of warehouses that chin strapped the downtown along City (Thea Foss)Waterway, the long distance sailing ships of the trans Pacific routes were a constant moving forest of masts and yards below the city. The deep water of Commencement Bay and the steady prevailing wind from the Southwest matched with the waterway and wharves cut to its direction made Tacoma a quick and protected port of call for the sail masters. Hard wheat could fill the engine-less hulls with stable ballast and easily last the weeks and sometimes months it took to reach the hungry ports of Asia.

The other non perishable commodity that was carried by sail was cut lumber and the mills along Old Town worked day and night to supply the schooner trade up and down the North American coast and Asia. The lumber schooners were the racers, with small crews, no engineers or mechanics, they were faster than the railroad in supplying builders in California and the Americas with framing lumber and  heavy timber. Hardscrabble sailors were still carrying lumber from Tacoma mills during the Depression of the 1930’s.

This dreamy photographic image was made on Tacoma’s waterfront by Willis Meacham in 1927, the year Charles Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic in his Spirit of St. Louis aircraft, Malcolm Campbell broke the land speed record at 175 miles per hour in an automobile, Al Jolson performed in the first talking motion picture, International radio broadcasting was initiated  and Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein defined the principals of quantum mechanics. On Commencement Bay there was probably a steady breeze out of the Southwest.


wheat ships 1889

Waterway 1905



Written by

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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