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Tuesday, May 21, 2013


                           postcard image loaned by Reed Fitzpatrick
One hundred and ten years ago today, citizens of Tacoma stood around and gawked at a spectacle—the raising of the totem pole whose fate the city now ponders. But the city does so without a full appreciation of the circumstances surrounding that event, thereby ignoring some very significant local history. Sensitivity to native cultures, political correctness, and practicality combine to create a controversy here, because the pole is rotting and no one seems to know what to do with it. But, to my amazement, the most important part of the story is the part getting the least attention, and that is the pole’s relationship to the visit of former President Theodore Roosevelt.

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In 2010, skilled researcher and writer Michele Bryant and I coauthored a book titled “The President They Adored—Washington State Welcomes Theodore Roosevelt in 1903.” (It is out of print but will soon be available again as an e-book.) While working on the book, the fanfare surrounding the president’s tour of 17 cities and towns in Washington, and the extravagant preparations made, astounded us. Coming up with a totem pole taller than Seattle’s 60-foot model was typical of the many, sometimes outlandish, ways jurisdictions vied for the president’s attention. This totem pole, carved on the shores of Vashon Island, did get his attention during a visit that included a parade, a lavish banquet, the laying of the cornerstone of the Masonic Temple, and two 21-gun salutes. But before I get into all that, let’s return to the almost frantic totem pole scene the day before.

By the afternoon of May 21, 1903, the crowd at the base of 10th Street in Tacoma had grown to several thousand. Tense anticipation charged the atmosphere as a crew of twenty men attempted to raise the approximately 100-foot, 15,936-lb. totem pole—claimed to be the largest in the world—to stand in front of the Tacoma Hotel. At any moment it could fall and splinter into pieces. Already, just as the pole began to lift, a hook had broken off and done some damage.
Daily Ledger newspaper clipping from 1903

The Tacoma Daily Leger reported:
“The descending block made a dent in the figure of the bear man at the base of the pole, but nothing but can be readily repaired. Had the pole been a foot higher at the breaking of the gear, it must necessarily have broken in two over the supporting false work about midway of the length. A second start and the strain on the five-sheave tackle was seen to be too great, and hoisting was stopped and the pole backed while the lower block was made fast to a point higher up the pole, giving a greater purchase with less strain.
The inch-and-a-quarter hoisting rope was run taut by twenty men with a smaller five-sheave tackle, making the purchase require for twenty meant to hoist the pole equal to ten bocks. The strain drew the main rope small, but the higher the pole went the less grew the strain until when erect and towering to nearly the height of the Tacoma hotel alongside, it took back-ropes to prevent the pole coming forward of its own weight.”

Daily Ledger newspaper clipping 1903

And that was only the beginning of the excitement that gripped the city for two days. Here are some excerpts from “The President They Adored” concerning Roosevelt’s stop in Tacoma:
~All of Tacoma waited for the resident’s train that afternoon of May 22, 1903, with citizens crowded into all possible vantage points, “… above the housetops, or dipping from every window,” according to the Daily Ledger, a copy of which cost a nickel at that time. Men swung their hats and women and children waved their flags. A twenty-one gun salute fired from Puget Sound as the Commander in Chief stepped from this train.

Soon a procession rolled toward Wright Park with the president in his carriage, sometimes standing, sometimes sitting, talking, laughing, smiling, and showing his teeth. He stepped onto an elevated platform to address a sea of thirty thousand upturned faces.
~From Wright Park, the procession approached the Masonic Temple building site, so the president could lay its cornerstone. The stand was decorated with bunting, and a large American flag stretched over the president’s chair. Hundreds of Mason, wearing their traditional white aprons, watched as Brother Roosevelt stepped from the platform to the stone, picking up the trowel and placing some mortar on its underside, his inexperience causing laughter and words of encouragement. After a short speech and the traditional scattering of corn, wine, and oil—emblems of plenty, joy, and peace—the Tenino sandstone cornerstone was swung into place.
~The masses cheered as the president’s carriage approached the Tacoma Hotel with many following the procession along the guard ropes. The banquet reception boasted Northwest floral beauty at its finest, with decoration of pink roses, Solomon’s seals, asparagus fern, huckleberry, Oregon grape, white lilacs, kinnickkinnick, tall palms, and rhododendrons—the Washington State flower. Outside the hotel, dogwood and Scotch broom framed a large American flag draped over the doorway.

~The totem pole captivated Roosevelt with its distinctive carvings and enormous size. As his carriage passed by, he raised his arm, pointing at the pole’s features from top to bottom and seemed to honor it by removing his hat.
~The president admired all objects of beauty and fine workmanship, including an elaborately embroidered silk cloth that was draped over his carriage. This relic, dating from the 16th century and probably made by nuns as a cover for a catafalque, survived as a 400-year-old heirloom passed down through the family of Mr. Joseph Moore of Tacoma. Even in 1903 it was valued at thirty thousand dollars.

~A salute of twenty-one guns was fired again the next morning as President Roosevelt left Tacoma aboard the luxurious steamer Spokane. It flew the dark blue presidential flag with its golden eagle as they headed north to Bremerton, two hours away.
page from "The President They Adored"

Considering that a century and ten years is a mere blink of an eye in terms of history, how quickly events are forgotten. Whether or not you are a fan of Theodore Roosevelt, his tour through the state would have amounted to an unforgettable day for the tens of thousands of impassioned people who came to see him along the route, often climbing trees, even telephone poles, leaning out windows, covering rooftops, and crowding train stations, just for a look. When he visited Spokane a few days later, as our book describes, “… it was said that never before had so many people assembled in the vast region between the two mountain ranges of the Rockies and the Cascades, and no one there ever expected to see anything like it again.” 
I hope this background information will influence the city to preserve the totem pole, not letting it rot, but finding an indoor location where it can safely be displayed. It represents more than a rivalry with Seattle. It represents a time when Tacoma’s citizens felt a sense of unity, excitement, pride, and joy as history was made before them. We could use a reminder of how that feels.
cartoon from Tacoma's newspaper, The Daily Ledger, in 1903

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Gerry Sperry said...

It deserves to be saved in the Washigton State History Museum as an important piece of public art and momento of state and city history. A new pole by Native American carvers should be commissioned to replace the old, preserving and continuing a great, ongoing legacy of public art.

Thanks for the terrific and informative article about a long standing Tacoma icon. May it continue, in one form or another, to stand long....

Daniel Rahe said...

Great research. Thank you very much for adding this to the conversation.

Candace Brown said...

Thank you, Gerry. I like your idea and appreciate your comment.

Candace Brown said...

Thanks so much, Daniel. I hope it does add to the conversation. But I must give credit to my co-author Michele Bryant for the research on this.

Right now we are both busy revising and adding to the upcoming e-book edition of "The President They Adored" and I keep hoping more information about his visit to Tacoma will be unearthed. For example, we never could find a photo of him in this city in 1903, although he did return in 1911 and was photographed then.

Dayton Knipher said...

In the late 1990's and early 2000 - Tacoma Historic Preservation Officer, Elizabeth Anderson, worked on registering the Totem Pole as a historic landmark I believe. I know she secured the Totem Pole in some way. It would bear looking into through Ruben McKnight - Tacoma's current Historic Preservation Officer - city of Tacoma. I know there was a lot of work done to preserve it back then but am not sure just what. I do know it was accomplished as I was a friend of Elizabeth and she was quite proud of having secured its ongoing role in Tacoma's history.