A Movie in Two Frames, 1891

There are no movies or motion pictures of Tacoma in the early 1890’s but with a little imagination these two glass plate negative photographs, looking north on Pacific Avenue into the city, tell a cinematic story. In all likelihood the photographer set up his large format camera on a spindly tripod at the intersection of Pacific Avenue and South 30th Street and proceeded to make a series of exposures. The framing and general composition of the two images is nearly identical but in the granular detail and small changes there is the real-time movement of the city on a late spring or summer day in 1891.

The silhouettes and spires in the distance reveal clues to the date. The landmark Tacoma Hotel, built in 1883 is perched on its clifftop location on A street between 9th and 10th. Its the box farthest to the right of Pacific Avenue overlooking Commencement Bay. At the head of Pacific Ave the conical roof of the Northern Pacific Railroad headquarters peaks out just before the boulevard drops over the hill down to the half moon railyards and the NP wharf at the end of the transcontinental railroad. Missing is the tower of the Italiate City Hall Building that was finished in 1893. Also missing is the Pierce County Courthouse that was probably under construction but not yet climbing into view with its lofty corner turrets and Richardsonian Romanesque clock tower. They would also be completed in 1893 as would many of the structures in Tacoma brick and stone masonry core along Pacific.

But it’s in the nearer foreground that the two images come to life. The tree stumps, heavy brush and blackberries mark a clear edge to the busy city building going on in the distance. In the first photo there seems to be a cow or two grazing on the grass growing up along the new plank sidewalks. A few wagons and teams share unpaved Pacific Avenue with the wandering livestock and a line of telephone or telegraph poles drop down to the Prairie Line where the railroad and telegraph cross Tacoma main boulevard.

PacAve 1891.en


In the second photo the day seems to be picking up speed. The cattle have been chased off and more wagons fill the ambitiously wide avenue. And surprisingly, two children appear on a tiny wagon in the lower corner peeking out from under sun hats like they know their picture is being taken.

It was a sunny time for the city as sturdy brick buildings replaced a wooden frontier town. Real estate values were soaring, the population was exploding and Pacific Avenue was becoming a thoroughfare lined with banks, merchants and hotels. It was all about to end with the depression of 1893 but in the meantime Tacoma was in full action mode.

Here’s a dive deeper into the city core at exactly the same time.

From the roof of the Northern Pacific Headquarters Building looking south, 1890
Looking North on Pacific Avenue from 13th, 1890


Written by

This site is about the way history, in this case of a city and it's surrounds, is remembered or recorded in stories and small bits of memory. It's also about the way images and stories go together, how they inform and enrich each other and how we as thinking people fill in the content between a narrative and a visual document. So here is my city in time past, the way it looked and the people and events that create its character. For more than 20 years I have taught a 5 credit course on the History of Tacoma at the University of Washington Tacoma. With an average of 30 or 40 students a year, each doing a research paper as their primary focus for the course, I have benefited from many paths of inquiry and many researched and assembled stories. Here are some of them in the retelling along with the treasures of photographs and images in the collections of the Washington State Historical Society, Tacoma Public Library, University of Washington Digital Archives, Washington State Archives at the Office of the Secretary of State, Library of Congress, Washington State University, Alaska State Library, and many other archives, libraries and private collections.


  1. Thank you, so much for all that you do. My Greek grandfather was an immigrant in the late 1910s, or early 1920s. He was sent away on a boat, from Marmara on the coast of Turkey. It was a time of genocide…the Turkish people killing the Greeks.
    He was the oldest son.
    On a boat…from Turkey…alone…through Ellis Island…how he made his way then all the way across the country to settle in Tacoma, I’m not sure. All 3 of his children are still alive. They are late 80s to mid 80s now. My mother will turn 84 in August. I have pictures to share and would love to share them. I also have memorabilia that needs to be photographed and / or hanging in a museum.
    I would welcome a conversation with someone from your organization. E-mail is the best way to reach me.
    Thank you


    1. Hi Janis, I’d love to see the photos and hear the stories that go with them. As far as a permanent home for the family collection I would suggest the Tacoma Public Library (Brian Kamins in the NW Room) or Washington State History Museum(Ed Nolan special collections) Tacoma’s Greek community has a long history but its not well documented. Sounds like you have some treasures.


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