Millstones, Masts and Midgets

Maybe it was the considered time it took to make a photograph on glass and maybe it was the slow shutter speed that forced the picture maker into such a measured gaze at the subject. Whatever the circumstances, its impossible not to marvel at the composition, story narrative, and sense of wonder in glass plate photographs like this one from 1885. The image records a herculean moment on the waterfront below Old Town Tacoma during the territorial era as the daily routine of moving millions of board feet of cut lumber onto blue water sailing ships was interrupted by the massive weight and bulk of three industrial mill stones. No living thing could turn stones of this size, they were undoubtedly scaled to the age of steam and the mechanical horsepower of engines that could grind whole plains of grain and pull the largest steam locomotives in the world over the Cascade mountains. Steam was driving the sawmills on the waterfront and as technology advanced, Commencement Bay would become ringed by the industries of the age, among them the milling of flour. Look carefully at the scale of these objects fixed by the two men standing in the foreground next to the rows of oak barrels. The pioneering Hanson Ackerson Mill is in all three of these photos. It once sat below where the Spar Tavern is today. But back to the breathtaking photograph, carved out of an instant of time 130 years ago by a lens and eye that seem almost flawless.

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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: