Seattle Now & Then: The Tacoma Public Library

(click to enlarge photos)

THEN: Tacoma’s Public Library, was the 85th Carnegie library built in the United States, but the first in Washington State. Here the tower of the Pierce County Court House backs the library on the right and the old wood frame Central School appears on the left. (Courtesy Tacoma Public Library)
NOW: Jean used his long pole to approach but not reach the upper floor or rooftop prospect of the unnamed historical photographer. The building was locked and vacant. Both views look thru the intersection of Tacoma Ave. S., in the right, and S. 12th Street, on the left.

Jean and I still agree with the “City of Destiny’s” now century-old promotion, “You’ll Like Tacoma.” We do. Much of its restored downtown deserves devotional study. We visited Tacoma on the recent Sunday when flags were at half-mast for the tenth anniversary of the 9-11 attacks. That day was also one of the hottest (almost) of the summer, and it felt like the Tacoma business district was held in a long moment of stately silence.

We drove to Tacoma to visit the oldest Carnegie Library in the state, and now also the home of the Murray and Rosa Morgan Room. The library was dedicated on June 4, 1903 – the Morgan Room on 9/11. A grand staircase of White Vermont Marble climbs to the room on the second floor and beneath the dome that surmounts the roof in the “then” photo – or did. The dome was damaged in the 1949 earthquake and removed. The Morgan Room is wonderfully appointed with the Morgan’s research library and literary estate (research papers, manuscripts, recordings, correspondence and newspaper columns.)

In Seattle, Murray Morgan is best remembered for his never out of print history, Skid Road. Murray wrote this Seattle classic while tending Tacoma’s 11th Avenue bridge, which was later admiringly renamed the Murray Morgan Bridge. During our September visit we found the lift bridge wrapped in white plastic for the work of restoration. (The two towers held a shape that looked uncannily as if it were perhaps hiding London’s Tower Bridge.)

The Murray Morgan Bridge - wrapped

I first “read” Murray Morgan long before I met him. In 1980 Murray asked that I help prepare the pictorial history of Seattle he was then preparing with his daughter Lane. Thru a life of writing it was the kind of help that the librarian Rosa Morgan was best at, especially for the couple’s set of books about Tacoma and the South Sound. The Morgan’s friendship was cherished, and sharing in the repartee at their table was always a delight. When his students and admirers asked Murray for help he would sometimes reply that he needed to first “go to the attic.” Now his attic – the heritage it held – is on the shelves of his and Rosa’s namesake room at the Tacoma Public Library. Although both are now passed, they will continue to help.


I’ll toss in a few photos from the event itself – the first taken at the dedication of the Morgan Room. Paul, perhaps you can insert the ‘Then’ photo to accompany it.

Certainly, Jean.  First the ‘then’ for your interior “now” view below it.   I will note the book end standing out at the top of your photograph.  The reader may know that Jean had to removed a shelf of books in order to get the right position for the now, taking it from the next isle in the room’s stacks.    Following your collection, I’ll attach a feature I did of the bridge for Pacific in 1994 and another of the Tacoma City Hall, that was published in The Times in 1995.

The Murray and Rosa Morgan room is in the background, extended from the main dome room on the second floor of the old Carnegie library. Courtesy, Tacoma Public Library
Lane Morgan (center) with Dorpat (far right profile). And there is also Mary Randlett between Paul and the pillar and looking at the camera.
Lane Morgan receiving commemorative plaque from librarian Brian Kamens.
Murray and Paul
Paul and Brian admire Morgan artifacts

And now a few from our book, Washington Then & Now:


Waterfront THEN
Waterfront NOW, also shot from the Northern Pacific building

The Northern Pacific Railroad decided in 1873 to head for Tacoma rather than Seattle in part because the former had Commencement Bay, a harbor the railroad considered more promising.  The railroad also liked it that there were only considerably fewer citizens in Tacoma – about 200.  Consequently the waterfront a mile south of what became Old Tacoma was free for the railroad’s confident speculations with a New Tacoma.  Like the scene on the facing page Thomas Rutter also recorded this view in 1888 from the site of the new railroad headquarters, but in the opposite direction.  In the distance is the Northern Pacific wharf below today’s Stadium Way and also very near Old Tacoma.  Early proposals to build a road between them were blocked by the railroad.

Above and below, the Northern Pacific headquarters when nearly new.


"You'll like Tacoma"
Tacoma: better than kissing your sister!

Probably the most popular and repeated view of Tacoma is this one through  “The Gateway to the City of Destiny.”  On the left is “The Mountain” and on the right City Hall.  While Mt. Rainer — AKA Mt. Tacoma — is more often hidden than revealed it is still obligatory in any cityscape meant to catch the character of Tacoma.  Consequently, the mountain is often retouched and enlarged as it is in the postcard bottom-right.  Tacoma City Hall, however, does not require any fixes.  Built in 1893 with walls eight feet thick at the base the Italianate bell tower is slightly tapered to accentuate its height.  The NPRR headquarters is directly across Pacific Ave. from the tower.  This black-and-white photograph is by Tacoman Paul Richards and by Tacoma Public Librarian Bob Schuler’s assessment probably dates from 1910.

Three hand-colorings of the same postcard, which was recorded from the same perspective as the featured view above and all of them also featuring the obligator Mt. Rainier, or rather Mt. Tacoma, the still preferred name for the some that remain of what were once the many.

ST. PETERS in old Tacoma

In 1873 when the first few Anglicans of Tacoma learned along with the Lutherans, Baptists, Catholics, etc. (the list is long) that the Northern Pacific Railroad had picked their little mill town on Commencement Bay for its Puget Sound terminal they built the town’s first church in three weeks.  In this construction they got obvious help from nature when they topped all but 40 feet from a Douglas Fir standing at hand and installed at the top of the stump a bronze bell donated by the Sunday School of another St. Peter’s in Philadelphia.  It was certainly the “oldest bell tower in America.”  While the small sanctuary survives, with some changes, the original rustic tower does not.  Toppled by a windstorm in 1934, St. Peter’s was given a new and this time Western redcedar stump to replace it by yet another saint, the Saint Paul and Tacoma Lumber Company.

Anything to add, Paul?

First that bridge story I mentioned above.

The original 11th bridge. (Courtesy Fairlook Antiques)

The 11th AVE. BRIDGE now renamed the MURRAY MORGAN BRIDGE

(First appeared in Pacific, Christmas Day, 1994)

With a topography somewhat less marked by many hills, ridges and waterways than Seattle’s, Tacoma requires fewer bridges of size. Two of these are city icons: the world-famous suspension span that crosses the Tacoma Narrows and the landmark 11th Avenue bridge, which connects the City of Destiny’s business district with its . . . well, its destiny, which is the industrial district on its reclaimed tidelands at the mouth of the Puyallup River.

There have been two Tacoma Narrows bridges (“Galloping Gertie” and its replacement) and two City Waterway bridges. This historical photograph is a rare record of the first of the latter. It dates from the late 1890s and looks from the Tacoma Hotel (or near it) to the “Boot”: a sabot-shaped island of silt, sand, gravel and muck upon which the St. Paul and Tacoma Lumber Mill was set in the late 1880s. It was the mill that persuaded the citizens of Tacoma to borrow the money to build the bridge. By the time it was accepting lumber wagons at the swing-span’s’ eastern terminus, the “Boot” had been joined with the mainland by diverting the Puyallup River’s west channel into its east and transforming the former into the city waterway shown here.

The swing bridge lasted barely 20 years, although its timber approach – more than 1,000 feet long – from the tidelands was used initially for the eastern ramp to the new lift bridge. The replacement was dedicated Feb. 15, 1913. Its pilings were driven 160 feet to bedrock, and when lifted, it was 135 feet above high tide.

Construction work on the new lift bridge while still using the swing bridge with a temporary crookedness.

(The rest of this was written before the landmark bridge was both saved from demolition and renamed for Tacoma’s “favorite son,” the history Murray Morgan.  And now, as evidenced with Jean’s recent photograph of the Murray Morgan Bridge, it is being restored.)

This Tacoma symbol, now scheduled for demolition, has a well-wrought link to Seattle. Author Murray Morgan completed “Skid Road,” the Seattle history book, while working as the night bridge tender there in 1949-’50 – and not once in that time did he have to raise the bridge.  (Although I recall Murray telling me that this was so – that in all the time he worked on the bridge writing Skid Road, he never had to lift it – now I have been told at the dedication of the Murray Morgan Room by one of the day’s speakers that on Murray’s last day at the job he did indeed raise the bridge – but also flubbed it.   It was his last day because he was fired for his mistake.  It is a delightful story, whether true or not.  I am inclined to believe it, for it makes the renaming of the bridge for the “dean of Northwest historians” even more poignant and ironic.)

The bridge in profile.
A few Tacoma landmarks as seen from the 11th Ave. Bridge. Far right the Tacoma City Hall tower is cut down the middle. Next to it another tower, that for the fire station, breaks the horizon. At the center is the distinguished Tacoma Hotel, and below it the city's Municipal Dock, terminus for the Puget Sound "Mosquito Fleet." That's the speedy steamer Flyer, which took so many runs between Seattle and Tacoma in its long life that it was estimated that it could have steamed to the moon and back if given the water.
The hotel from the bridge and etched before the Municipal Dock intruded.


Tacoma Clerk's letterhead.

Click this next one TWICE = please

Note the penciled date for when the feature appeared in Pacific. I have through the now two months short of thirty years writing the weekly feature always made a point of keeping a clipping for each story and writing the date on it too. The clippings have been helpful, for sure.


And finally for some Tacoma things completely different.

What became of it, for that matter, what became of the Kalakala and the Harmony Girls Orchestra?

In conclusion, another look at the mighty Pierce County Court House.




3 thoughts on “Seattle Now & Then: The Tacoma Public Library”

      1. The shot of the original 11th St bridge is quite unique in that it seems to have been taken shortly after its opening in 1895. I am putting together a piece for the Northern Pacific Railway Historical Association and would like to obtain a higher resolution of that image if at all possible. Fairlook Mike says I doesn’t know if he still has it, but that you and Paul most likely have it.

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