An Old Echo Interupted

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.

Mile Long warehouses in the golden age

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.


Old London Dock fire with ruins of Tacoma Hotel which burned just 10 week before in the background
Tac Hotel
Ruins of Tacoma Hotel fire, October 1935


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.

1 comment

  1. Is the building hat houses the “dock street tavern” part of the old mile long wearhouse? It looks like it, but I read that there are only two sections of the original building left. I know the museum is one of those two sections, just wondering if the Dock Street building is the other section?


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: