Notes of Early Days of Tacoma
Tacoma Harbor, Washington
Click image to enlarge.
Original photo from the archives of the
Saltwater People Historical Society©
"It comes to my mind that perhaps it would be of interest to Tacoma of today to know something of the past.
It was my good fortune to have lived in Tacoma since 1891, living for many years on a float home at 11th and Dock Street.
At that time we found enough pasture to feed a cow, but what comes to my mind now is that the cow really was 'in clover' directly after the Spanish-American war. It is hard to realize that we did not have the trucks, jeeps, and automobiles of today, but then the transportation and movement of material were by mule, and some hundreds of mules were shipped from Tacoma to Manila for use by the American army.
Accordingly, it was necessary to accumulate these mules and have them ready for shipment, and in so doing they were "warehoused" on the sand track between the Eureka Dock and 11th Street, which area became one huge, wonderful oat field.
It had been my daily task to take the cow to various places where she could eat grass, but after the oat field came into being our cow was 'living in clover.'
One sad event, however, was that this good cow and eaten too many 'green oats,' became bloated and died.
Thus a waterfront man learned something about feeding animals!
Again going back in memory, Pacific Avenue, of course, was the main street in town and originally was covered with wooden planks. A great improvement came along in that the planks were replaced with creosoted wooden blocks. I might say also that 11th Street hill was 'paved' with wooden planks set at an angle, and the drainage of the rain was taken care of by wooden troughs on either side of the street.
It appears to me that we had at least double the amount of rainfall during this period than we have at the present time!
It was my good fortune to attend Central School at South 11th and G Stree, and believe me, it was a great day when we could slide down the hill in these drain troughs to my home on the waterfront at 11th and Dock Street.
Tacoma at that time was the real shipping center of Puget Sound, and particularly of the wheat that came from Eastern Washington that was shipped in here on the Northern Pacific Railroad.
Loading wheat ships
Tacoma was really the 'lumber capital' of the west coast, and we had lumber mills from the Smelter all along the north waterfront to the head of the bay, and even up Hylebos Creek.
In those days we had the 10-hour workday, which really was a rugged existence, particularly with wages of only $1.00 per hour.
When you realize that the average workman went to work at 7 o'clock in the morning and worked until 6:00 p.m., you can appreciate that one did not have much time at home––and this was a 6-day workweek. He had the automobile, but 'traveled' by streetcar at a 5 cent fare, including transfer.
I remember when I went to high school I lived at 25th & Cheyenne, and it was 6 blocks from my home to the streetcar by just an ordinary dirt road. I remember well taking the streetcar to 26th & Proctor, which cost 10 cents, and walking the distance to visit my girlfriend.
During this time to try to make life a little more interesting, my father bought a horse and carriage, and one memorable event was picking up my girlfriend and driving to the Puyallup Fair by this horse and carriage over a dirt road.
I might say that I do not think anything has changed as far as the fair is concerned, but certainly, there is a change by the now good roads and automobiles!
In the early days of Tacoma, many Japanese men came to work in the fields in the Puyallup Valley, and also in the mills. When they had become established it was only natural that they would send for a Japanese wife, and the brides arrived in Tacoma on OSK steamships at the Milwaukee Dock. There were no roads to the Milwaukee Terminal at that time, and the only transportation to these vessels was by our small launches.
I well remember upon arrival of an OSK steamship I would take these Japanese men to the ship where they would go up on the deck and proceed to find their 'bride' in the line-up.
The Japanese brides would be lined up on one side, fore and aft, with a picture of the man they were to marry carried around their neck. The men would walk up the line, also with a picture of the girl they would claim for their bride in their hand. When they found the right one, off they would go––the bride following close behind her husband. There usually would be between 10 and 15 Japanese brides on each of these ships.
This system of immigration was prevalent for a number of years, but eventually, the laws of the United States did not allow this procedure, and the law was effected to eliminate this type of immigration.
However, I must say that of the many Japanese who came to this country by this manner became admirable citizens. Their morals and respect for our government was beyond reproach.
One of my very good friends and associates in grammar school was a Japanese, Henry Matsumoto, and we remained good friends for many years.
Like all history, there is an 'inevitable chain of change.' The Panama Canal was built, and the many wheat ships that came to Tacoma in ballast were replaced by steamships.
One of the great hazards in the early days of shipping was making it around Cape Horn in winter during the bad weather. However, I was very surprised during my early Naval Reserve days when we went around Cape Horn in December 1931. I had looked forward to seeing some really bad weather, but it was dead calm and did not get light until 9:30 a.m. and there was a 'thin' skin of ice on the saltwater. If I remember correctly, I had a 'rate' of Third Class Quartermaster at that time.
The transportation from downtown Tacoma to the 'top of the hill' was by cable car. This started at 11th & Pacific, went to Kay Street, and then down 13th. The powerhouse in which the cable was activated by a huge drum was a thing of fascination to me, and I well remember watching this cable go into the cable house, then back out again––the mechanics of which was not clear to me until many years later!
Incidentally, the cost of riding this cable car was 5 cents, and the conductor would collect the money, put it in his pocket and register same by pulling a line that activated the registration of the money by ringing a bell. Students had a special ticket which cost 2-1/2 cents.
I remember very distinctly walking down 11th Street to Central School, and one day in 1898 I was astounded to hear all the mills blowing their whistle. I was really rather frightened and didn't know what happened, so I ran all the way home and asked my mother. She told me that the Spanish-American War was declared.
Later the 8-hour day came and really was a 'revolution' not only to industry but also to the working man who had not much time to himself in having to work a 10-hour day. One ordinarily had to walk to a streetcar, then take the streetcar to downtown Tacoma, and then walk from there to his place of employment on the waterfront.
Accordingly, considering the time involved in going to and from work, it really would end up being a 12-hour day.
Wages at that time were only about 25 cents an hour, and accordingly, it was a custom to augment the income by taking advantage of having a 'home garden' where one raised their own vegetables. I remember best the potatoes, strawberries, and of course, the raising of chickens.
We were very fortunate to have a square block of property on 25th & Cheyenne, and so had ample room and good soil to produce much of our food, especially fruit (apples, pears, and cherries.) During my younger years, we also had a cow that had to be taken somewhere along the waterfront out to pasture, before school, and home again after school. However, I never did milk a cow! That was a task my folks would take care of, or possibly one of the hired help would assist at times.
I do remember the 'cooling' of the milk by setting it in a pan of cold water. Of course, practically no one had electricity.
One of the great desires of the early immigrants who had come from all over Europe as well as China and Japan were that they felt the necessity of an education for their children. In my case, my father walked one Norwegian mile to school and home again, and a Norwegian mile is equivalent to 7 of our miles. So a student had
much time to think about that which he had learned in school that day while walking home.
Accordingly, the immigrants, who were the majority of the population in our state at that time were very adamant that their children should receive an education, and accordingly, they felt that walking was no problem because of the school that was made available to all.
I went to the old Central School on 11th & G, and 'carried' my lunch. This usually consisted of left-over pancakes that had been prepared for our crew, spread with ample butter and jam. In reality, this was a good lunch, and I have often felt I should like to return home someday and ask for this particular lunch!"
Typed is his customary green ink and signed by Henry Foss, May 1975.
Verbatim for Saltwater People Historical Society.