Tacoma Historical Society museum exhibit looks back 100 years

Photo courtesy of Tacoma Historical Society

The Tacoma Historical Society has just opened a new exhibit in its charming, well-placed museum (919 Pacific Ave., in the heart of Tacoma). The exhibit, called “Tacoma in 1918,” examines the pivotal year that Tacoma experienced a full century ago. Chris Fiala Erlich curated this five-month exhibit.

The show consists mostly of photos and information panels with a handful of artifacts thrown in. The exhibit consists of three parts, the first of which is an examination of everyday life in Tacoma 1918. A second part of the show looks at the formation of the Port of Tacoma, which took place in 1918. Finally, the section “Tacoma and the War” emphasizes Camp Lewis and Tacoma’s shipyards, both of which were beehives of activity as the United States threw itself into the First World War.

In 1918, the smelter along Ruston Way began to function, beginning nearly a century of belching plumes of contaminants out of its towering smoke stack. On a brighter note, the Pantages Theater, Rialto Theater and Tacoma Little Theatre got rolling in bringing performances to town. Tacoma had a thriving Japanese-American community. The exhibit includes a street map showing how few streets were paved at the time. 

The voter approved formation of the Port of Tacoma was an item of major economic importance that occurred in 1918. The formation of a public port broke the transportation monopoly held by the Northern Pacific Railroad. By asserting municipal and countywide independence via the creation of its own port, Tacoma became a regionally important shipping hub, exporting goods from all over the region out to the world and bringing in imports; all of it free from monopoly of railroads. Photos, maps and documents examine this issue in detail.

Photo courtesy of Tacoma Historical Society

In 1918, the world was in the throes of WWI and the United States was ultimately unable to resist the pull of the war. Camp Lewis (now Joint Base Lewis-McChord) was founded at the behest of a group of Tacoma businessmen who donated the land for the U.S. government to use for the making of an Army base. Ever since the establishment of Camp Lewis, local residents have had a share of revenue in the form of maintenance and building contracts and by providing goods and services to the soldiers and airmen stationed at the base. Over time, Fort Lewis and McChord have functioned as cultural circulatory systems with a continual coming and going of people from numerous parts of the United States and its possessions.

This has been for both good and ill. The ill became apparent almost immediately when Camp Lewis was a vector of influenza from the 1918 pandemic, which spread via newly activated military bases.

Some of the artifacts included in the exhibit are WWI era uniforms, vintage sheet music, WWI journals, and relics from some of the ships that were constructed in Tacoma shipyards in order to supply the war effort.

My favorite part of the exhibit is the information and images dealing with the shipyards that sprang up in Tacoma to supply European countries. Three main shipyards built three different types of ships. I was fascinated to discover that The Foundation shipyard was still building wooden sailing schooners in what must have been the swan song of the tall ships. What makes WWI so interesting is the juxtaposition of the old and the new. Old, European monarchies, sent men on horses and horse-drawn wagons into battle. They used wooden sailing ships to bring in supplies. Yet, the troops found themselves pitted against machine guns, industrial-scale artillery and weapons of mass destruction. And wooden ships faced submarines and iron warships.

Seaborn shipyard built wooden steam ships and the Todd shipyard built steel ships.

Funded by a 2018 City of Tacoma Heritage Project Grant, this show is phase one of a larger project, the second phase of which is active community outreach. Historical Society volunteers will be involved in outreach to the community via street fairs, farmers’ markets and festivals.
The Tacoma Historical Society has a variety of events geared to coincide with the “Tacoma in 1918” exhibit, which runs through Dec. 1. See below for details.

Summer Exhibit Programs and Events

Saturday July 7, 1-3 p.m.
WWI Uniforms and Stories
Tacoma Historical Society Museum, 919 Pacific Ave.
Collector Alice Miller will share uniforms, memorabilia and stories of the role of women in WWI, while dressed as a Salvation Army donut lassie.

Sunday, July 15 from 2-4 p.m.
Vintage Music in South Proctor
3902 S. 12th St., corner of Proctor St.
Collector Greg Simmons will share his extensive sheet music collection at his booth in Hidden Treasures Antiques, along a former Steilacoom streetcar line.

Saturday, Aug., 2 p.m.
Calvary Cemetery “Epidemic Losses”
Calvary Cemetery, 5212 70th St. W. (enter from Lakewood Dr.)
Visit sections of Calvary Cemetery created as a result of the 1918 flu epidemic, including the grave of Tacoma’s beloved Father Hylebos.

Visit THS’s booth at these community events:
McKinley Street Fair: Saturday, Aug. 18
Hilltop Street Fair: Saturday, Aug. 25

The Tacoma Historical Society museum is open Wednesday through Saturday, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. The exhibit and museum admission is free.
For information visit www.tacomahistory.org or call (253) 472-3738.

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