Prairie Line 1929

In 1929, the Northern Pacific Railroad systematically photographed the conditions along their right of ways in Tacoma and for a moment in time the Prairie Line was frozen in visual memory.

Typical Full page, Joint Use Record

The photographs and numbered notes recorded the details that mattered to the railroad but the images and observations also captured the busy patterns of workday activity and architecture that was both fleeting and lasting. Its wonderful today to see so much that remains and contributes to the University of Washington Tacoma campus and surrounding neighborhood. Its also fascinating to see the lost pieces of the landscape-the vehicles, signs, wires and people that have vanished in the 90 years since these photos were made.

In the 1920’s Union Station was only a decade old and its location had dramatically changed the daily routines in the warehouse district. In the early years, Tacoma’s main passenger depot and arrival point was on the Prairie Line just above where it crossed Pacific Avenue. The hotels, ethnic organizations, restaurants and taverns that catered to the various nationalities of newcomers were along Jefferson where the Swiss Hall, Carlton Hotel(German), Massasoit Hotel(French/Swiss), Buddhist Temple (Japanese) and other establishments ringed the Northern Pacific Depot. They created a multinational edge to the warehouse district and supplied a workforce that spoke the universal language of heavy lifting, boxcar loading and hard earned wages.

When these photos were taken, the passenger traffic had moved across Pacific Avenue to the grand Beaux Arts station and the warehouse district was left to the daily business of railroad freight cars, delivery trucks and the tangle of overhead telephone wires and water tanks. At night, the heavy work of the locomotives played out as loaded and empty boxcars were moved in out of the district. During the day shifts, the trucks and wagons took over, loading small, mixed cargoes of goods and perishables for delivery to retailers and smaller communities all over the region.

So here is the window into a point in time, into Tacoma’s Prairie Line during the early 1920’s…..


Prairie Line crossing 19th looking north
Prairie Line Looking south from behing the Russell Joy Building
Prairie Line/Commerce looking south



Prairie Line crossing Pacific Avenue

Commerce Looking north behind Harmon Building
Commerce looking south behind Harmon Building

This remarkable collection is from the Jim Fredrickson Collection at the Pacific Northwest Railroad Archive:

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.


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