In 1908 Tacoma became the North American port of call for the legendary Japanese steamship line OSK (大阪商船株式会社 Osaka Shōsen Kabushiki-gaisha). Since the early 1890’s, the transcontinental railroads either owned or partnered with steamship operations carrying freight and passengers to Alaska, Asia and the seaports of the Pacific Rim. Tacoma was the homeport for the Northern Pacific Steamship Company that began service to Yokohama with the steamers Tacoma and Victoria in 1892. In November 1895 the Japanese Government even established a consulate in Tacoma and it looked for a time like the city was becoming the center of Pacific Northwest trade with Asia.
But competition was tough, the San Francisco based Union Pacific Railroad line and its robber baron owner E H Harriman were ruthless in protecting their maritime interests and Pacific rim politics were getting very complicated. By late in the decade the NP Steamship Company was failing along with the pioneering railroad that was in bankruptcy. Its steamships and inland vessels, along with the Tacoma, were sold or handed over to the U.S. Navy for use as transports during the Spanish American War. A few years later the Tacoma got frozen in the North Pacific ice running from Dutch Harbor Alaska to Shanghai. The circumstances were suspicious since the Russo-Japanese war was going on and the icebound vessel was discovered in Russian waters by a Japanese warship. She was seized along with the contraband cargo as a war prize in 1905 and was finally scrapped in Shanghai during the mid 1920’s.
Japan came out of the conflict with Russia in the fall of 1905 and began to turn its peacetime interests to shipping and Western trade. The powerful OSK steamship line, a conglomerate with hundreds of ships flying their colors, was looking for a fast transcontinental railroad partner for a very specific, extremely valuable freight. They also wanted their own west coast port. The railroad they chose was the newly arrived all electric Milwaukee Road, the freight was raw silk and the port was Tacoma.
The story of how disease killed off most of Europe’s silkworms and Japan emerged as the producer of 60% of the world’s silk at the beginning of the 20th Century is another story. But before the completion of the Panama Canal, Tacoma became a gateway on the maritime silk road between Yokohama and the fabric and fashion markets of New York, Chicago and the east coast. The city also became an important destination for merchants, travelers and fortune seekers drawn by its Fuji like mountain, growing Japanese district (Nihonmachi) and phonetically manageable name.
The OSK line changed the purpose and pace of the Tacoma waterfront. The prosperity it brought the Milwaukee Road helped leverage a share of and name change for the new passenger terminal planned by the Northern Pacific Railroad and by the time it opened in 1911 only the monad logo of Tacoma’s first transcontinental line was visible on the shared depot called Union Station. The Milwaukee Road ballooned their own plans for a loading wharf to include passenger arrival accommodations on the waterfront. The growing traffic in steamship passengers arriving and departing from Tacoma three to five times a week helped fill the rotunda at Union Station and by the end of the first world war most of the station red caps lived in nearby Japantown. OSK became the preferred passenger service from Tacoma to the orient, carrying three classes of passengers to Hong Kong, Yokohama, Australia and the Philippines. Raw silk one way and silk stockings the other.
In 1930 OSK launched a fleet of new faster freight liners that could use the Panama Canal to carry silk directly to the east coast. They stopped calling at Tacoma just as the Depression arrived and leisure travel slowed dramatically. Airplanes were crossing oceans and radios were replacing the need for lucrative mail service. Like the end of the age of sail, the days of the trans-Pacific steamships ended suddenly but not before the destination port of Tacoma appeared on travel maps around the world.
My knowledgeable friend Michael Pelligrini added this interesting tidbit:
They still call here, after a fashion. Up until recently, they were called Mitsui OSK Lines, or MOL. Their ships called at Pier 3. A few months ago, they combined with K-Line and NYK Lines to form the ONE Line – Ocean Network Express. The new ships are bright pink – really hard to miss. They still call at Pier 3.