Tacoma’s west side, along the Narrows, is a sort of dreamland where grand ideas and big projects have sometimes been born and sometimes gone to die.
The gravity route of the Northern Pacific followed the shore after the Nelson Bennett tunnel under Point Defiance was finished in 1914 and mainline passenger and freight traffic was directed off the steep Prairie Line. For more than a century southbound travelers leaving Union Station burst out of the tunnel and were treated to the passing view of the Tacoma narrows as they headed toward Steilacoom and points beyond.
The railroad intruded on a small colony of
seasonal homes and shacks floating or built on pilings at Salmon Beach but the hobos, hermits, beachcombers and bootleggers who didn’t pay rent or own the property were in no position to complain. Amazingly, there among the shanties was the original floating home of Thea and Andrew Foss, which the family towed there from the mouth of Foss Waterway.
In the mid 1920’s, Tacoma power took a long leap in building the Cushman Hydroelectric Dam project in Mason County and then building dynamic towers on each side of the narrows to support the longest “belly span” of transmission cables in the world (the previous longest were inland and reached about 3/4 of a mile between fixed masts while the Narrows crossing reached almost a mile and a quarter over corrosive salt water). It was probably the remarkable engineering success of the transmission line crossing project that lured the Depression era Public Works Administration into building the first Tacoma Narrows Bridge and we know what happened there in November 1940.
Curiously one of the obstacles to building the short lived bridge that became known as Galloping Gerty was the State contract with the legendary Skansie Brothers shipbuilders. They operated an automobile ferry between Titlow and Gig Harbor (Pt. Fosdick Landing) and had the unique experience of having their contract bought out and terminated on July 1, 1940 and then reinstated without competitive bidding just four months later on November 8th. They made money on both ends of the deal.
Before the car ferry went into operation at the bottom of Sixth Avenue in the 1920’s, Aaron Titow bought the lagoon area near the beach in 1903 and constructed a Chalet style resort he named the Hesperides (named after the nymphs of the evening and golden light of sunset in Greek mythology). The romantic architecture and dramatic place setting was a prophetic sneak preview of what was to come at Titlow.
Seemingly out of the blue, a rotund dreamer and impresario named H.C. Weaver launched the fantastic notion of starting a motion picture industry in Tacoma. He focused his cinematic dream on a vacant five acre tract of property just above Titlow Beach and by late 1924 he had constructed the second(or third) largest movie making sound stage in America. The massive structure was 100 by 180 feet in size with a clear span interior that reached 50 feet in height. Weaver and others began imagining a whole movie making community as the studio completed it first feature film and even began to build movie sets and film location shots in the area.
In 1925 the big idea of Hollywood-By-The-Sea hit the newspapers, real estate promotion circuit and imaginations of both locals and distant speculators. The extravaganza began to unfold during the heady days of the late 1920’s as actors and filmmakers came to Titlow along with tourists visiting the hotel and probably more than a few partiers who found adult entertainment down in the hollow during prohibition.
Weaver productions made three films that went into national and worldwide distribution, two of them directed by W. S. VanDyke who would go on to fame in the other Hollywood and be nominated for an Academy Award for directing The Thin Man.
While the grand scheme of cloning Hollywood never was realized a few bungalow courts and small businesses with big signs did pop up. The auto ferry attracted motor tours, roadside amusements and gas stations and the novelty of a movie studio attracted curious sightseers and even autograph collectors. The big movie stars came and went through Union Station and stayed at the new Winthrop Hotel downtown but there was a real buzz about Titlow Beach and the colony of movie magic makers on the far west side.
At the end of the 1920’s, sound came to movies and along with the Depression most silent film studios closed. Weaver Productions was among them and for a time the giant sound stage survived only as a dance hall. But then, on a warm late August night in 1932, it was destroyed in a towering fire that could be seen from Steilacoom, McNeil Island and the Key Peninsula. The other fragments of a second Hollywood held on and today, if you look closely, some are still there.
In 2015, the second and perhaps best of the films made by Weaver Studios was rediscovered and in it are glimpses of the landscape and dreamscape that movies made on Tacoma’s western shore. Like the film itself, they are fragments of a Hollywood that never completely happened.
On the other hand it can’t be said that it completely never happened.