Circe of Old Town

1898 was a time of changing fortune in Tacoma. The deep depression of 1893, that brought down the mighty Northern Pacific Railroad and rattled the city’s confidence like a volcanic eruption was over. Pure alluvial gold had been found in mythic quantities in the Klondyke- it was like stardust scattered from the heavens. America’s “splendid little war” with Spain was in full glory in the Philippines, hyped by yellow journalism and political dreams of empire. For soldiers of fortune on the Tacoma waterfront every direction seemed portentous and every journey by sea or rail seemed epic.

Sometimes for the novelty and sometimes out of superstition, adventurers and even church going regular folks would find their way to the modest Old Town house of Grandma Staley to have the unforeseen vagaries of their futures revealed. At the turn of the 20th Century, 70 year old Rebecca Staley was alway dressed in long black. She was a clairvoyant and self acknowledged spiritualist who bristled at the label “fortune teller”. There is no counting the number of world traveled sailor’s who walked down the street from the Seamen’s Rest on Carr Street to consult the old woman or the society wives and young would-be brides who wondered and gossiped about her contacts with the spirit world.  While the clarity of her view into the future was legendary, the story of her past was equally spellbinding. People called her the mother of the city.

Rebecca was born on April 18, 1822 in St. Clairsville OhioRebecca Carr.1.1 to abolitionist Quaker  parents. At 18 she married a fellow member of the Society of Friends, Job Carr and together they followed a contrarian lifestyle as activists–against slavery, for women’s suffrage, and in favor of new philosophical ideas like transcendentalism, spiritualism and universal equality. Rebecca and Job brought up four children in a house full of books and ideas, just a few miles from the Ohio River, a busy corridor for escapees traveling the underground railroad. They were contemporaries of American thinkers like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Walt Whitman, Frederick Douglass and Henry David Thoreau.

Rebecca, Job and their two sons Anthony and Howard all put aside the pacifism of their Quaker faith to volunteer in the Union Army during the Civil War. She served as a medical matron in the field hospital of the 26th Indiana Infantry, seeing bloody duty at the Battle of Prairie Grove in Arkansas and the Siege of Vicksburg in the sweltering summer of 1863. On one steamy evening she was led by some inner force into the battlefield dead house to a man she sensed did not belong. The letter of gratitude he later wrote to her became a prized lifelong possession.

All the Carr’s survived the war but Rebecca’s marriage to Job did not. They divorced with

General_Photograph_Collection_KAR01.Old Town
Anthony Carr photograph of Old Town ca.1875

Job heading west to settle a veteran’s claim on Commencement Bay followed by her two sons and daughters Marietta in 1867 and Margaret in the late 1870’s. Rebecca married a second time to Albert Staley and after a time living in Iowa they too headed west settling in San Francisco.

In November 1875 Rebecca may have sensed an ominous premonition. Her 26 year old daughter Marietta and her infant son were aboard the steamship Pacific bound for San Francisco from Tacoma. Overloaded with prospectors from the Fraser River Gold Fields, Chinese contract laborers and a hold full of strong boxes and bunker coal the 876 ton vessel was considered a “gold ship”.

SS Pacific

Just off Cape Flattery in rough seas with rain, the 250 foot long sidewheeler with 275 passengers and crew collided with the 200 foot sailing vessel Orpheus. In the dark hours that followed, the vessel slowly broke apart, the lifeboats floundered and all but two survivors drown in one of the most tragic maritime disasters in Pacific Northwest history.

Rebecca lost her oldest daughter and grandchild and then her husband within a short, profound period in her life. She found comfort in her deep spiritualism and belief in self determination for women. They carried her north and by the early 1880s she was living in Tacoma’s Old Town near her three adult children and former husband Job. A newspaper account of the home she had built at 2515 North 30th Street called it a “picturesque little home empowered in vines and climbing roses, where her flowers and pet house cats and chickens claimed much of her attention.”

There may not have been a more perfect place for a predictor of the future than Tacoma at the end of the 19th Century. The city was entangled in a series of wild swings in financial well being, frantic city building and economic collapse. It was a dizzying time of windfall riches and suddenly lost fortunes.  In the early 1880s, Portland interests took control of the Northern Pacific Railroad and Tacoma’s optimism about being the Pacific Ocean terminus of a transcontinental line slumped. Then the NP fell back into the control of Charles Wright and Philadelphia investors who championed the Commencement Bay terminus. They brought the rail line over and then under the Cascades directly into Tacoma triggering a breathtaking boomtime in the late 1880s. See; Underworld

By 1890 Tacoma’s wooden city days were being erased by monumental brick buildings, paved streets and electric streetcars. Theatres, hotels and a towering Romanesque Courthouse marked an important city rising while along the shoreline steam powered sawmills, busy boatyards and freight warehouses jostled for waterfront room and moorage space. Seamen, stevadors, millworkers, travelers and merchants filled the city with a floating population of adventurers, opportunists and wanderers. Under the thick clouds of smoke and steam that hung perpetually over Old Town, Rebecca’s parlor became a locally famous place of mystery and lure-like an oracle’s cave in Greek mythology. There in the gaslight, in her black dress she became renowned as Mother Staley, seeress.

There’s no way to know what Mother Staley saw coming in early 1893 but that year Tacoma suffered a terrible turn of fortune. Almost from her front porch, she could see the ambitious building of a castle on a rocky promontory half way between Old Town and downtown. It was the work of one of Tacoma’s great villains, Henry Villard and it’s hard to imagine her not feeling a certain foreboding about the project. The massive turreted structure,  to be called the Tourist Hotel, was the last of several high Victorian monuments built during Tacoma’s most explosive growth spurt. It was intended to rival the already famous Tacoma Hotel  and steal some thunder from the newly finished Romanesque Pierce County Courthouse above Tacoma Avenue and the lavish Italianate City Hall Building at the head of Pacific Avenue. She may well have seen the Hogwarts look alike as a bridge too far and in May 1893 it proved to be just that.

The worldwide economic collapse hit the far west of the United States particularly hard as the finances of new frontier states buckled,

Tourist Hotel becoming Tacoma High School about 1903

railroads, timber, mining and farming enterprises saw markets disappear and capital withdraw into Eastern bank vaults. In Tacoma, the Northern Pacific railroad fell into another existential crisis, 14 of city’s 23 downtown banks failed in the first year of the depression, churches and charities were exhausted and the population plummeted. The brand new architecture that lined the boulevards went empty and the buildings under construction stood still and absent of workers. The Tourist castle symbolized it all, a newborn ruins. Mother Staley had seen it coming.

In the difficult years that followed Mother Staley’s special reputation continued to grow. Tacoma recovered and rushed into the 20th Century as Old Town and the story of the Carr’s kept its own distinct  narrative in the hollow named Shubahlup.  Rebecca had seen here former husband Job pass during the summer of 1887 during the boomtime. Her son Howard, so badly wounded and damaged during the Civil War, died in 1891 leaving Grandma six grandchildren and a beautifully written record of his adventures.

Her oldest son Anthony, who was a seer himself, through a Obit story.women.encamera lens, created some of the earliest known photographs of Tacoma and the south sound, lived into the 1920’s. And Margaret, her youngest daughter lived with her mother until Rebecca’s death on December 9, 1908 at the age of 77.

On the same page as her warm, affectionate obituary on December 10, 1908 another headline story was published. It reported the news that operation of Tacoma’s municipal government would be handed over to “Women’s Rule” for the day. Though largely ceremonial, the abdication of government offices was a clear premonition of things to come. As if one of her most fervent predictions, within a year Tacoma completely rewrote its city charter and adopted full women’s suffrage. The mother of Tacoma would not have been surprised.





Special thanks to the Job Carr Cabin Museum, Mary Bowlby and the Journal of Frances Howard Carr: 1861-1888







  1. I really enjoyed reading this. It gave me a little taste of what taking your class was like. Thank you.


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