The onlookers in this image are watching the removal of the streetcar tracks at 9th and Pacific in June 1939. The obvious stillness of the crowd probably reflects a somber, bittersweet understanding that an important part of Tacoma’s history was coming to an end. For a city created by the coming of the railroad, there was a dark fascination and finality in the special lever mounted on a steam shovel that twisted and tore the smooth-worn iron streetcar rails from their stone bed after 65 years of service. Another 65 years passed before iron rails returned to Pacific Avenue but today they miss the intersection at 9th and Pacific, looking down instead from Commerce Street and a perspective that almost matches this photo.
The coming extension of light rail up through the Stadium district along Division and back along Tacoma’s hilltop on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard is a recovery in part. Old K Street was a busy commercial neighborhood that intersected with a major north-south streetcar line and the east-west cable cars that ran down into the bustling city core. The Stadium district also was a key streetcar hub configured before cars and buses and parking problems. In many of Tacoma’s neighborhoods, the streetcar lines brought the first hard paved roads, curbs and rainwater drainage paths. The overhead catenary lines came with streetlights that illuminated corner shops at many of the stops.
As the city expanded, the spiderweb network of streetcar lines shaped its growth and social patterns during the late 19th and early 20th Century. Before automobiles began their infestation Tacoma was a completed city ringed by saltwater shoreline on most sides and incorporated smaller cities like Lakewood and Fife on the rest.
Public works projects don’t draw audiences in most places
but in these photographs of the summer 1939 demolition of the Pacific Avenue streetcar rails there is a spellbound crowd of onlookers in every shot. Tacoma was getting ready to host Washington State’s Golden Jubilee celebrating 50 years of statehood in November. Progress was crashing into history. Buses didn’t have to follow tracks or even stay within the city limits. Cars were affordable for many and commuting to work or the market with just anyone on a public streetcar was becoming a matter of class distinction. Afterall, the modern new suspension bridge over the narrows would not be carrying streetcars.
So all summer long that year crews from Tacoma Power and Railway worked at tearing up the rails followed by road contractors from Coluccio & Frasca who would heal the boulevard with fresh concrete. By autumn there would be no trace. Something meaningful was happening in a city born with the coming of the transcontinental railroad in 1873 and grown on the movement of people on rails. No wonder people watched.
Featured image from Recaptured City by Andy Cox. Historic image from Tacoma Public Library, D8408-11 — at 9th st and Pacific Ave Tacoma, WA.
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