Maybe the most compelling proof that Tacoma is a seaport city is the fact that seafarers and their vessels have been landing here for thousands of years. Because boats leave no trail and well told stories create no material document its easy to overlook a distant maritime past that is foundational to Tacoma’s history.
This spellbinding photograph from about 1880 shows the end of the Prairie Line-the Northern Pacific Dock where the transcontinental railroad reached its Pacific conclusion at Commencement Bay in 1873. The legendary Blackwell Hotel is silhouetted on the wharf and a standing train of boxcars are parked along the last few yards of tracks ready to load onto the steamers and sailing ship in the distance.
But the story in this photograph is in the foreground where a small flotilla of immense carved red cedar canoes are moored against the shoreline. These are exquisitely engineered ocean going vessels, some more than 50 feet in length and capable of carrying a ton of cargo along with paddlers and passengers. Carved from single centuries old cedar trees, the hand carved and shaped crafts were almost mystical in their endurance and handling. Before the arrival of European and Asian explorers and colonizers off our shores these were the largest transport vessels afloat and their crews could routinely travel a hundred of miles in a single day.
By the 1880’s the Northern tribes paddled
from Southeast Alaska and Haida Quai to Tacoma during the summer to work the hop fields and trade for goods. Its probable that the canoes and people in this photograph are part of that seasonal migration. The opened umbrellas being used for sun shades are amusing markers of the cultural exchange.
The Tacoma waterfront was a crowded place for the big canoes during hop harvest season and there is a valuable collection of early photographs that capture the time and place. In them are the everyday details of a seafaring people that moved through the natural world with ease and invention. The 1880’s were a time when the potlatch was outlawed by governmental authorities in the U.S. and Canada but the hop harvest provided a chance for social gatherings and perhaps cover for the traditional potlatch ceremonies. The Puyallup people were and continue to be part of the great Northwest canoe culture, based at one of the region’s most important protected harbors and recognized for their welcoming hospitality to mariners. As today they were resourceful in finding work-arounds and the seasonal canoe gatherings were a thinly veiled way of preserving the potlatch tradition.
The 1914 film made at Haida Quai by Seattle photographer Edwards Curtis is a famous example of cultural appropriation but this clip does record the power and grandeur of the great canoes carved along the Northwest Coast.