Setting aside for a moment its cultural and artistic merits, the most interesting thing about
Tacoma’s totem pole may be its almost magical ability to survive disaster. In 1903, when the pole was carved and strategically placed between the grand Tacoma Hotel veranda and the view to the mountain, it became instantly connected with the misadventure to rename the mountain. After the creation of Mt. Rainier National Park in 1899, a spirited campaign was directed at using the native-American place name for the mountain and the totem pole symbolized that effort. In May 1917 the Justice-to-the-Mountain Committee, Teddy Roosevelt, John Muir, totem pole sponsor Chester Thorne, most of Tacoma’s citizens and even God (according to the John H. Williams book published in 1910) appealed to the U.S. Board of Geographic names but sadly the name change was denied.
A second push in 1924 came closer but in January 1926 the U.S. Congress “ reRainiered” the mountain leaving Tacoma’s iconic totem pole a bit battered and forlorn but still standing. A couple years later the pole became a movie star in W.S. Van Dyke’s silent film “Eyes of the Totem” but talking movies coincided with its ill timed release and the picture was a lost hope at the box office bringing down Tacoma’s first and last motion picture studio.
But the totem pole was still standing in October of 1935 when the
monumental Tacoma Hotel burned in Tacoma’s most dramatic conflagration. It was charred but not toppled by the fire and there after became a sort of mascot for the Tacoma Fire Department. It was relocated precariously along the bluff several times by non-engineers and painted every few years with the help of TFD ladder trucks. Here’s a freshening under way in May, 1955 which the pole survived. The totem pole was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976 as a contributing resource in the Old City Hall Historic District and narrowly escaped misfortune again when I-705 was constructed underneath it in the 1980’s. Indeed a magical survivor.
By Andy Cox, Recaptured City
TPL Richards Studio Image Series D90574-1 (Unique 24078)