In the fall of 1920, T.B. Walker, a woodcutter, was perusing the back lot at the Tacoma Junk Company on South C Street across from the prohibition crippled Columbia Brewery. He came across an old horse drawn coach that was decidedly obsolete at the beginning of the motor age. The handcrafted stage, with its faded paint, fogged glass windows and missing harness had a sense of faded glory, a bit of swagger and importance that was worn but not lost. He bought the tired buggy for $15 and moved it to his wood lot in North Puyallup. It became his tiny house. He fitted it with a toasty little wood stove complete with stovepipe. He also equipped the portable shelter with a kitchen and and kept the padded brocade cushions on one side for a couch-all the conveniences of home. It bordered on backwoods luxury.
There’s no way to know if Mr. Walker knew the whole story behind the coach but the faded words across the top just below the luggage rack were an obvious clue. In January 1921, the photographer Marvin Boland showed up and asked Walker to pose at the door knowing full well the coach’s colorful backstory.
In 1898, the grand Tacoma Hotel commissioned the finest horse drawn bus that could be made for the lavish cost of $1200. In the days of Klondike kings and traveling celebrities like Mark Twain the Tacoma Hotel coach was a showpiece with its matched team of horses, uniformed driver and sidekick porter.
The landmark hotel had made a point from its opening in 1886, of having a carriage just outside the main doors to transport its guests to and from the Northern Pacific Railway station at 17th and Pacific Avenue, the spectacular Tacoma Theater on Broadway and the many business and excursion destinations around the harbor. As the city grew, the Tacoma Hotel added a new wing on the south with massive turrets and a veranda on the east side. By 1898 the gothic fortress filling most of the block between 9th and 10th along A Street, a site filled today by the former Frank Russell Building. It is in fact very rare to find a photograph of the imposing hotel from the pre-automobile era without a coach and standing horse team at its entrance.
From 1898 until the First World War, the fancy bus was the height of transportation elegance and a familiar wheeled conveyance for prestigious guests at the Tacoma Hotel. But vehicular status was shifting from horse drawn carriages and streetcars to private gasoline automobiles. In 1918 the hotel added a covered entrance specifically to serve motorcars and motorcoaches. The elegant coach matched horse team was sold to the junkers and livery stables.
Then, in the summer of 1920, a little girl named Eleanor Hunt caught a glimpse of the old carriage in the junkyard just as her mom was working with a committee at the Tacoma Public Library to hold a storytelling festival at Wright Park. She thought it looked like Cinderella’s Coach and quicker than a princess can wave a wand it became a centerpiece for the event. Someone had the idea to invite kids to dress up like storybook characters and ride to the festival in the coach. And one of Eleanor’s schoolmates, Sarah Boland, even had her father take a picture of the ride on July 28,1920. The coach was not forgotten in Tacoma and 5000 people showed up in the park to hear stories, listen to recollections of days gone by and sit one last time in the fine but faded old Tacoma Hotel coach.
That fall, back in the junkyard, the woodcutter found the old coach and took it to his little section of forest. That’s where’s Sarah’s father tracked it down for a second photograph and maybe where the story of the Tacoma Hotel’s coach caught up with the glamourous ride the one last time.
The Tacoma Hotel did not outlast the old coach by many years. Here’s the story of its spectacular last act.