Gas was always second fiddle in Tacoma, a sort of low tech has been that filled a small niche in a city that was all about electricity, big utilities and public power. Even before the rails of the Prairie Line were laid to Tacoma in the winter of 1873, the Northern Pacific Railroad had strung a telegraph line to a telegrapher’s key at the new NP wharf on Commencement Bay. Electrical wires, telephone poles and even incandescent lights were woven into the first streetscapes of Tacoma and they have never left.
Here’s a curious street portrait of what may be the entire Tacoma Gas Light Company in 1908 complete with management executive, installation and repair crew, field equipment, street advertising and trusty mule team. Hard to image how out of date these guys are in the year before Union Station was built, electric streetcars were running all over town and most of the big merchants on Pacific and Broadway were blinding city dwellers with illuminated signs. In the fashionable homes and businesses, electric lights and even appliances were the standard and by 1912(just four years after this photo) the massive LaGrand hydro electric dam project was operational on the Nisqually River delivering public owned power to homes and industries in Tacoma. In this photo, the gas being sold was still being processed from coal as it would be until the 1950’s. The city was digital and these guys were pre-analog.
Gas was still catching up in the 1920’s supplying mostly fuel for cook stoves and some furnaces but by then fuel oil was in second place as an energy source and Tacoma Power was finishing the massive Cushman hydro plant in Mason County and bringing almost unlimited electricity to the growing west side of the city.
The engineering marvel of bringing transmission lines across the Narrows in a single span between towers on each side was a high flying circus act in 1925 when they outreached the longest belly span of wires anywhere in the world and did it over corrosive salt water. While the towers and transmission cables stood for almost 90 years and effort to reuse the idea for a nearby automobile bridge in 1940 did not go well.
But the Gas Company held on during the 1920’s as industrial customers kept up demand, restaurants and home kitchens insisted on it for cooking and water heating and the city continued to regulate and tax it as a private utility service. But the gas company was always a competitor with citizen owned hydro power in Tacoma, always a bit shady and self interested in the minds of Tacomans who owned their own electricity and got really big dams and generators in exchange for paying the light bill.