The Day the Old Days Died

I never seem to get tired of how history happens in the most impossible ways.
Very early on a Thursday morning October 17, 1935, an unexplained fire broke out in the basement of the grand Tacoma Hotel. It started against the north wall literally across the street from the main fire station but before it was noticed open flames and heavy smoke were pouring into the main floor. As hoses began spraying the exterior wall of the 1884 brick building more than 125 guests and employees rushed out through the dark paneled lobby where Mark Twain and Rudyard Kipling had once smoked their cigars and spun their yarns over whiskey glasses. The conflagration would last most of the day as the fire wagons and water pumps struggled first to extinguish the blaze and then to keep it from spreading to the rest of the city. Just after noon a southwest wind rose luckily carrying the heat, smoke and cinders toward Commencement Bay. There were some harrowing escapes from the upper floors but no casualties. The most remarkable survivor was the 100 foot tall totem pole that stood just south, and up wind, from the south side of the landmark hotel. In the first picture you can see how close the carved (and very combustible) cedar artwork was to the flames. And in the last two photos you get an idea of just how close the action of the day came to the 1903 Totem pole. Virna Haffer’s famous photo of the fire, with it’s operatic smoke clouds and completely overwhelmed firefighters seems to capture the drama best.



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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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