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.

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