Deadly Puzzle Solver

The stillness of this photograph and the casual expressions on the bridge conceal the extreme risks being taken by the men standing on the floating log jam. Its 1910 and the flood waters of Gail’s Creek at Wilkeson are jamming a tangle of snagwood and logs up tight against the railroad bridge. There’s a stiff current foaming under everything and a main cross beam under the tracks is already wracked by the angry hydraulic forces at play. In the moment after this photo was made, the rescue rope would lose its slack, the puzzle solver’s fists would tighten around the cant hook and the hard, treacherous work of breaking up the jam would begin.

This photo was printed on a postcard and there are no names, specific date or details about how this day ended. But in its time, the chilling situation was understood by North-westerners who lived near water that could rise unexpectedly and tear away whole bridges and towns. They knew most log jams were broken up with dynamite but when one lodged in close to a valuable structure like  railroad bridge, the work had to be done by hand.They knew at a glance that this was one of those situations.  And they knew what it was to fight a roaring flood with hand tools and how quickly a sudden slip could pull a person under. In a sense, the dramatic tension in this image is hidden by the calmness of the camera and our unfamiliarity with the simple terrors of daily life 100 years ago.

Wilkeson flood

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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.

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