Hard Core

Here’s a wonderful look at the waning days of wooden Tacoma, the first city that was built from the forests it replaced. The brick and stone Tacoma that we see fragments of today is just starting to emerge here in the late summer of 1889 when Washington was still a territory and powerful forces were working on bringing the State Capitol to Commencement Bay. Statehood arrived but not the Capitol for Tacoma.

Late Summer 1889

Zooming into this rare photo overlooking the intersection of 9th and Pacific (probably taken from the upper floor in the Tacoma Hotel) several details give away the date. Maybe the second oldest building in the photo is Theodore Hosmer’s wood frame house which was constructed in 1875 and still stands in the photo on its original site facing St Helens (It would be moved to face 9th in 1905 and still stands today). It is peeking out from behind the Bostwick Building which must have just been finished and was a hybrid structure of brick and timber. Its also still with us.

Across 9th on Broadway, the Tacoma Opera House is under construction with framing under way on the main roof and no sign of the conical turret roof on the corner. Across Broadway, where the Pantages would be built in 1919, the Gross Brother Department store is going up. The monumental Tacoma Theater would become the main event downtown when it opened in Spring of 1890 but in this view the Fife Hotel,

Fife Hotel, Looking up 9th ca.1888

there on the Northwest corner of 9th and Pacific, is the big deal. The Fife Block was finished in 1888 and is the largest multi storied masonry structure visible. It was demoed in 1925 to build a parking garage for the new Winthop Hotel. Across 9th on the Southwest corner is the Wright Building, named after Tacoma’s most important champion and completed in 1874. It was Tacoma’s first brick building predating even the Tacoma Hotel.

But what is really remarkable about this featured photo is the sense of pending change and growing optimism in the city being built. The little cluster of frame buildings in the foreground seems like the last stand of a frontier town where the sheriff keeps and eye on the saloon on Saturday night and cowboys tie their horses up to hitching posts. In the misty distance is the low profile of wood plank houses and single story frame buildings. All that was vanishing. In just a few months streetcar rails would replace the unpaved mud streets. The gaslights would be replaced with incandescent streetlights, electric signs and telephone lines. Stone quarries and brickyards were already loading the small parts of a big city on flatcars headed toward Tacoma.

Summer 1890, Looking down 9th with the Tacoma Hotel and bay in the distance

Less than two years pass within the time these three photographs were made. In those few months the solid core of the city took shape and Tacoma went from being a territorial boom town to a major city in the State of Washington.

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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