A Small Note in Time

waterfront TacomaI’m not sure lyrical is ever an accurate term for the imagery in a photograph. In fact the very notion that there is anything musical in the way we look at a century old black and white moment in time is probably a mistake. But staring into this high tide perspective on the Tacoma Hotel above the downtown waterfront in the mid 1880’s there does seem to be a distinct tone-a clear note that rings like a vibration in the city’s watery reflection.

Nothing in this photograph has survived the 130 years since it was made except for the landform, the river and the rolling in and out of the waters of Commencement Bay. The grand hotel burned to the ground in 1935. The wooden houses and timber pile wharves have long since been replaced by commercial buildings and parking lots. The sailing ship in the harbor are a curiosity of history. The serpentine railroad trestle that  curves out of the lower corner would run under I-705 if it stood today. Barely visible is the trestle’s connection with the Prairie Line which rolls down the hillside from the left. In fact there is one thing that’s still there today. It’s the Prairie Line itself, the iron road beginning of Tacoma that was finished in 1873 and predates everything that was and is no more in this photograph.

waterfront Tacoma 1From about the same date but further down the tracks is this photograph of Puyallups landing their canoes along the cribbed railroad bed just under the Tacoma Hotel about where the Murray Morgan bridge stands. There are no photographs and little mention made in the written record about how the native people dealt with the coming of the railroad and the changes it brought so swiftly. By the time these images were made more than a decade had passed since the first steam locomotive appeared. Maybe this image tells as much as we will ever know with a beach lost to rails and cut timber defense work fending off the possession filled canoes and the big house looking over and past the people below. This composition was about to be erased as well by ambitious plans for landfill, dredging and large scale industry. The soft sweep of the Puyallup River under the city was about to be silenced as plans were made to close off the channel and engineer a wide, straight edged waterway that would bring ships to Tacoma’s closest water edge. The noise was about to begin.

waterfront tacoma 2

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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.

1 comment

  1. Thank you so much for sharing this with us. My paternal grandmother, Carrie Johnson Vieneau worked in housekeeping at the Tacoma Hotel so I am thrilled to see this picture of history.


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