For half a century after its completion in 1889, Tacoma’s mile long warehouse was a wonder. Running along the western edge of City (Thea Foss) Waterway, the continuous monitor roofed timber structure was smartly oriented to the prevailing southwesterly winds and the efficiency of mooring the great sailing ships that carried wheat to Asia. Steam shovels worked for more than a year carving out the broad waterway so the wheat ships could turn on the headwind in the deep water and sail way loaded with grain from Eastern Washington and the Dakotas. One hundred and fifty feet wide, the heavy timber trusses supporting the roof repeated every 25 feet for more than a mile with the bottom cord of each truss a single beam of Douglas Fir measuring the full 150 foot dimension. The main floor open span inside the structure was a full one hundred feet between support columns.
By the early 1930’s the curtain was falling on the age of sail and one cold winter day in 1936 the timber wharves that set the scene were nearly lost to a spark. Late on the gray afternoon of January 7th a small fire broke out in the London Dock section and by the time the City fireboat and several Foss tugs began putting water on the blaze, a series of fierce explosions began. The fine wheat dust that rose with the super-heated air moving through the warehouses began going off in bursts, blowing out windows and firing off clouds of thick smoke. The sixteen men inside abandoned the fire once the sandpails were empty and the deafening explosions intensified. No lives were lost.
Brick wall fire breaks finally confined the fight to a 2000 foot section of the dock but there was no hope for the Old London portion which was completely burned out. When the ashes cooled a gaping section of the mile long wharves was gone. It was never replaced and several smaller fires followed during the 40’s and early 50’s taking away other sections of the once continuous warehouse.
By 1992 only four unconnected sections of the great wheat wall remained. When the city engineer declared the city owned municipal dock building dangerous and a threat to the Morgan Bridge if it burned, it was demolished. Today, the Foss Waterway Seaport Museum tells the clearest story of the timber wonder that once was Tacoma’s maritime chinstrap. The massive trusses in the building still play the melody that was once repeated over and over for more than a mile along the waterfront. It’s the echo that missing.