Peering deep into our city’s early days can be visually transporting even if the color change gives away the time shift. These two wonderful cyanotypes, one recording the summer of 1887 as the brick Northern Pacific Headquarters building was going up and the other of the cyanotypers with their blueprintmaking equipment on the roof in 1894 with the University Club Building in the distance. Little else in the background has survived since the image was captured just as the city was transforming itself from wood and mud to stone and brick. The edge of City Hall frames the left side of the composition recalling the days when beerhall cynics down at the Theatre Comique quipped that you could toss a coin as to which side of the street ran the city, the politicians or the railroad. In those days it made little difference since many of the elected officials worked for the Northern Pacific.

The cyanotype process was used to reproduce architectural drawings which were first hand draw on linen with India ink and then contact copied onto light sensitive paper using sunlight when available. The rooftop shot with its Jules Verne meets the Lumiere Brothers look has a steam era special effects visual character that almost seems science fictional and in a way the rapid, zooming pace at which the city appeared around the NP headquarters building in the late 1880’s did have a fantastic quality. The metaphor of using a blueprint machine to record a city being built as fast as designers could create it on paper is just magical.cyano NP roof

cyanotype NP bld

Written by tacomahistory

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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