On the early-dark evening of December 30, 1925 one of Tacoma’s municipal streetcars approached the 11th Street Bridge (Murray Morgan Bridge) just before 8. The car was about half full of waterfront workers and local communters on a winter Wednesday
as fog settled in and the lights of the city blurred in the distance. The operator moved the car along at its usual brisk pace as it climbed the approach knowing that the catenary lines providing power to his electric motor were synchronized with the lift mechanism on the bridge. The clever fail safe linkage was meant to prevent the unimaginable-someone running off the bridge deck when the central vertical lift span was in the raised position. Perhaps because of his confidence in the system, the numb routine of the trip or maybe because of his obscured vision in the fog, the operator, Clyde Staley, rolled onto the flat section of the deck at full speed. Too late he realized the bridge was raising, warning lights were flashing and a pair of gates were coming down. The first impact came when the streetcar slammed into the rear of George Van Alstyne automobile which had just pulled up in front of the first, wooden gate. The force drove both vehicles through the splintered gate and jammed the automobile against the guardrail just short of a second heavy steel gate anchored to the precipitous edge. In a witness statement Van Alstyne said “I saw the streetcar go on by, heard the motorman shout and then saw him jump off the car and run back to the main part of the bridge. The streetcar went on and plunged over the slip.” The wooden streetcar shattered as it broke through the final iron barrier and hurled off the bridge into the water 50 feet below.
The chaotic events that followed are as foolhardy as they are improbable.
Just as the crashing metal sound of the fall was carrying down through the fog to the waterfront, the crew of the steamship Virginia V was arriving from Seattle after a voyage down Colvos Passage on the lesser traveled west side of Vashon Island. Like a pit crew, the men looked at each other and acted without thinking. They threw off the shore lines and had the steam engine running full in seconds. They brought the 125 foot steamer and its lifeboats to the floating wreckage and yells of people in the water in about two minutes, as reported in the Tacoma Ledger the next day. As they jumped into lifeboats and began pulling survivors on board powerful searchlights on shore and on the closing tug Falcon lit up the murky rescue area. Somehow the entire roof of the streetcar was torn off at the top of the fall and most the passengers were thrown free into the waterway below. The boys from the Virginia V went into the icy water to save all but four of the dazed or unconscious victims. When divers raised the tangled trucks and frame they found a fifth victim trapped underneath but the majority of people who took the fifty foot drop survived both the fall and the water.
But for Tacoma, the unthinkable disaster turned into a story of heroes and quick thinking. For the crew of the Virginia V it was also a story of redemption. A few years before, the Virginia IV had pulled away from Municipal Dock on a similar fog shrouded evening and run, inexplicably, into the opposite shore where it sank. The steam engine and tank condensers were salvaged and installed in the newly built Virginia V just three years before the vessel came to the rescue on December 30, 1925.
The Virginia V is still working the waters of Puget Sound. Last of the steamships from the legendary “Mosquito Fleet” and still a risen hero under the Murray Morgan Bridge.
David Balduzi, Alfred Jergenson, Capt. Nels Christensen(rear), L Christensen, Jow Brooks, Claude Williams, Al Torgeson