The First Tree

The first time Tacoma placed a Christmas tree in the middle of the busy intersection of 9th and Broadway is a bit of a mystery. Probably the earliest photograph showing a tree in the middle of the street is a Marvin Boland glass plate image now kept in the Tacoma Public Library collection (B23224). There is mention in the Tacoma Ledger of a decorated Christmas tree outside the new Winthrop Hotel in 1927 but no visual evidence of a tree big enough to echo the conifer forest that once covered the hillside. The 30 foot evergreen in Boland’s photo, complete with electric lights, a fenced bed of cut boughs and an illuminated star at the top, was likely the first.

The Boland photograph was made on the late afternoon of December 10, 1930, a chilly but dry Wednesday. The stops for the northbound streetcars to Old Town and 6th Avenue had been moved to a temporary loading zone in the middle of the street under the big ornamented tree. Automobiles were beginning to compete with streetcars but most people still came and went by nickel tokens and trolly schedules. The Winthrop Hotel had its own five story parking garage for auto travelers and guests, complete with a gas station and chauffeur services. But south of 9th street on Broadway, the heart of the city at Christmas time was still animated by packed streetcars carrying shoppers and theatergoers. 

December 10, 1930, Detail from Boland Image TPL

Two blocks south down the street from the tree, Tacoma’s main department stores and pricy specialty shops ringed the other seasonal bookend intersection at 11th and Broadway. Rhodes Department Store, with its extravagant display windows full of snowy model train layouts, the latest winter fashions and an animatronic Santa Claus, was the undisputed centerpiece perched on the Northwest corner. Fischer’s department store was across 11th and the important Daniel Burnham designed Fidelity Building landmarked the northeast corner where it would be replaced by Woolworths after the war. Just up 11th, across the growling cable car tracks that ran up to K Street, the blocks of day stalls, grocers, fish mongers and flower sellers that made up Tacoma’s busy public markets were crowded for the holidays.

Main floor Christmas decorations, Rhodes Department Store ca. 1937

Back at 9th and Broadway, the glamorous theatre and office building created by empresario Alexander Pantages in 1919 had been acquired by the powerful RKO Pictures in the days when movie studios owned the theaters. RKO renamed the old Vaudevillian’s showplace the Orpheum. Sound had come to the movies in 1929 and the Orpheum was featuring the new RCA Photophone sound-on-film technology just as Hollywood was moving into its golden age. Across the street from Tacoma’s most elegant movie palace was the grand old Broadway Theatre (originally built in 1890 as the Tacoma Theatre) with 1800 seats and blazing with a new neon sign. Uphill the Rialto was still running live Vaudeville bills before the feature films and around the corner on Broadway, the Colonial Theatre was giving away christmas plates and china with admission tickets. That winter, Tacoma’s tree was circled by almost 10,000 theater seats and every week during the holiday season ticket sales outnumbered the city’s population of 106,000. 

Christmas time in Tacoma’s theatre district with the first tree and topper star just visible behind the Broadway sign, ca. December 10, 1930

On the December day Boland made his photograph of Tacoma’s electrically lit Christmas tree, the American writer Sinclair Lewis was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature.  The masterpiece anti-war film All’s Quiet on the Western Front was banned in Germany after Nazis led by Joseph Goebbels disrupted the premiere by throwing smoke bombs and attacking members of the Berlin audience. The first full year of the Great Depression was ending and Tacoma, like the rest of the country, was headed into difficult times.

Just a year before, during the frigid winter of 1929, Tacoman’s faced a disaster when the loss of the entire city’s electrical supply was imminent. The story of how Tacoma avoided plunging into a season without lights is one of the most improbable episodes in Northwest history. As the early darkness of that December evening in 1930 arrived somebody plugged in a wire or threw a knife switch that directed power to the downtown’s first electric tree. Surrounded by the neon marquees and chasing lights of the theater district, the Christmas tree in the middle of the street was much more than just a holiday decoration. Everyone who lived in Tacoma knew it.

Marvin Boland’s glass plate photograph of Tacoma’s first electric Christmas tree taken on December 10, 1930. TPL Image B23224

Well observed obscurity…..

Upon close inspection its possible to see that the film showing at the Orpheum that day was Madonna of the Streets starring bad girl Evelyn Brent. In the film she a material girl who marries for big money only to see her new husband die before he can leave it all to her in his will. When the fortune goes to his do good nephew who runs a mission in downtown San Francisco she goes after him and the big bucks. Before the guy discovers her true motive she falls in love with him and his cause. In the big ending she takes a bullet for the down and outers, recovers to marry the hero and they use the fortune to build a better mission. Fin. Perfect film for the holidays and a topical social commentary on conditions in west coast cities in 1930.


  1. My granddaughters are 8th generation on my dad’s side and 7th on my mother’s side of the families to live in Tacoma. What a rich, warm, history of the lives of my family members that left their mark along with great love, loss and courage too carry on.
    I love history….


  2. Re: Theatres. My baby book indicates that I went to my first movie at the Beverly Theatre on 9/12/36. It was “Don’t Gamble with Love.” I was less than a year old! My mother was a huge fan of the movies. I have a small Snow White pin which was given out to people attending the “premier” of the Snow White movie.
    Re: Department stores. The interior of Rhodes shows the steps leading up to the mezzanine where you could buy a delicious chocolate soda. Sometime during the 1940s, a young “starlet” appeared, along with Santa, in Rhodes’ main window on Broadway. Who was she? Any idea?
    BTW, Fredrick & Nelson did not move to the Tacoma Mall with the other stores. I don’t believe Tacoma had an F & N. Please correct me if I’m wrong. And – thank you so much for your wonderful posts.


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