This difficult, extraordinary photograph is worth a closer look. It captures America’s Great White Fleet on Commencement Bay in late May 1908 with a parade of uniformed marines and sailors in formation on Commerce Street just above City Hall.
Following the Spanish American War and important naval victories in the Philippines, the United States began building a two ocean navy. President Theodore Roosevelt, always one to carry a big stick, had the notion of sending 16 of the country’s new fangled battleships along with escorts and tenders, on a year long world tour. The entire flotilla was painted peacetime white and the expressed purpose of the voyage of circumnavigation was to project American goodwill while at the same time demonstrate the nation’s emergence as a naval power. Coming at the end of Roosevelt’s presidency, the adventure was also timed to reach its conclusion just as he left office and aford him a chance to make several speeches to admiring crowds.
The GWF left the east coast in December 1907 and since the Panama Canal was unfinished sailed around the tip of South American arriving in San Francisco on May 6 1908. From there they steamed north and into Puget Sound on May 23rd visiting Bellingham, Bremerton, Port Townsend, Seattle and finally Tacoma. By early July they were back at San Francisco then on to Hawaii, Australia, the Philippines and importantly Yokohama Japan where the most impressive and diplomatically important pageantry of the whole voyage occured. The GWT sailed on to Ceylon through the Suez Canal and Mediterranean and back to Hampton Roads Virginia in February 1909. The world had seen nothing like it, neither had Tacoma.
1908 was squarely in the center of a boomtime for Tacoma even though Seattle was clearly becoming the larger city and Bremerton was more important from a naval and military standpoint. Tacoma High School had been created from the ruins of the grand Tourist Hotel and the adjacent Stadium was being constructed, a wave of new commercial buildings appeared downtown including the radical new Sandberg Building at 15th and Pacific, the Perkins Building at 12th and A street, Pythian Temple on Broadway. The previous year, 1907 more than 2000 building permits were issued and planning was underway for several new and even more ambitious structures like the Tacoma Building (Weyerhaeuser Headquarters 1910), the 11th Street Bridge (Murray Morgan Bridge), a new Post Office Custom House and Federal Building on A street and the Northern Pacific Passenger Terminal (Union Station). The Tacoma Eastern Railroad was in operation carrying tourists to Mt. Tacoma and the National Park, 18 trains a day ran to Seattle on the Interurban line (80 minute trip), three international passenger lines offered service between Tacoma and Yokohama leaving several times a week and the city’s streetcar network reached all the way to Lakewood, Pt. Defiance and Parkland. Tacoma’s population doubled between the turn of the century and the Great White Fleet’s visit nearing 80,000 in 1908.
For a time, Tacoma’s eyes were directed at the harbor and the Great White Fleet reminded the city of its importance as a seaport and a maritime center. The next year Tacoma would become a terminus for three transcontinental railroads and the busy mosquito fleet would reach its busiest years. But parked in the basement of the Perkins Building would be a motor car with Washington Auto license Number 1 on its bumper. Things were about to change for a city born to steam locomotives and ocean going ships. The automobile had yet to arrive but it was coming.
On May 27, 1908 the Great White Fleet sailed out of Commencement Bay and left Tacoma to the 20th Century just ahead.