Something was wrong with October.
In 1929 Tacoma, the rain was missing, and the weather that did arrive out of the north and west was clear and icy cold.
The leaves on the deciduous trees were falling off green with frost, and the juncos and winter wrens were already searching the branches of the conifers.
Ordinarily, the city might consider the dry autumn a blessing, but instead it brought a disturbing reality to what was otherwise a source of immense civic pride.
Now, with winter coming on, the puzzling weather was starting to rattle the confidence of a city that had given itself over to the ultra modern miracle of unlimited electricity.
Tacoma was one of the first cities in America to build its own hydroelectric generation system by constructing the ambitious LaGrande Dam on the Nisqually River in 1912.
Then, in 1926, Tacoma City Light switched on the Cushman Dam on the Skokomish River in Mason County and brought a seemingly inexhaustible supply of power more than 40 miles into the city.
The marvel of the Cushman project was not the 1,100-foot-long dam or massive dynamos and generators. It was the engineering feat of spanning transmission lines a mile and a quarter between two towers across the Tacoma Narrows.
At the time it was the longest free-hanging belly span in existence and was entirely over corrosive saltwater.
That electricity was not only cheap but also technically owned by the citizens of Tacoma. That made it almost patriotic to stock up on kitchen appliances, radios, plug-in gadgets and gizmos. In the months after the Cushman electricity started arriving down the transmission lines on 21st Street, more than 5,400 ovens were sold in Tacoma.
The blocks of Tudor-style homes around the Cushman transformer station at 21st and Washington streets were all electric, including furnaces. Blazing street lights just for automobiles began appearing, and downtown, giant electric signs became commonplace.
BUT NO RAIN
Then came the rainless fall of 1929. Between Sept. 1 and Halloween, a period when average rainfall was 7 inches, an upturned bottle cap would not have filled with rainwater.
By December, rainfall had still not reached an inch, Black Tuesday and the onset of the Great Depression had happened, and worst of all, Ira Davidson, commissioner of Public Utilities, had really bad news.
The water levels behind Tacoma’s dams were at frightening lows and falling, rivers and creeks feeding the reservoirs were freezing up, and there was a very real danger of ice being sucked into the turbines, destroying the dams.
The city’s electricity was slashed immediately. Streetlights were turned off, downtown shops and signs were darkened at dusk, industrial users were limited to daylight operation, and the barracks lights at Camp Lewis were shut off at 4 p.m.
When Rhodes Department store unveiled its celebrated corner window Christmas display, the elaborate tree lights and electric trains ran only a few hours each day.
Tacoma was connected to a giant dimmer switch, and it was rapidly closing, just in time for Christmas.
By the middle of December, desperation was setting in as the longest nights of the year approached.
In the morning hours of Dec. 16, something remarkable happened in Tacoma.
In nearly complete silence, a constellation of lights began emerging from the ice fog that covered Commencement Bay.
What appeared next was one of the largest electrically powered movable objects in the world – the USS Lexington, an aircraft carrier nearly three times the length of the field at Stadium Bowl.
The emergency appeals of Tacoma’s mayor had reached the desk of President Herbert Hoover, and, over the objections of many in the federal government, including the secretary of the Navy, the Lexington was dispatched to Commencement Bay.
In what seemed a flight of pure imagination, the gigantic vessel was maneuvered up to Baker Dock by a fleet of tugboats. Its steam-powered turbo generators were connected by heavy cables to transformers moved to the waterfront on flatbed railroad cars. They, in turn, were wired into the city’s electrical network.
Within 24 hours, the 180,000-horsepower electrical engines of the fourth largest ship afloat were surging thousands of kilowatts of electricity into the city’s power grid.
A week before Christmas, the lights of the city came back on.
Dimmed streetlights, downtown neon displays and festive hotel decorations all brightened. The old Tacoma Hotel, passed over by ritzy travelers headed to the new Winthrop Hotel, suddenly filled with the families of the thousand sailors on the Lexington.
The visitors mixed with old Tacoma families who remembered weddings and proms in the grand ballroom and the big fireplaces in the Tudor lobby and Mermaid dining room.
Along Broadway, the marquees and theater lights came up full.
A payday for the officers and crew of the big ship poured more cash into businesses downtown than City Light paid the Navy to fuel the generators on the Lexington.
By Christmas Eve, it was raining steadily and the reservoirs were filling fast.
The Lexington slipped out of Tacoma on Jan. 16 after providing power to the city for 30 days.
She would serve as an emergency hospital in Nicaragua after a disastrous earthquake in 1931, then help in efforts to rescue Amelia Earhart in 1937 before being lost in the Pacific during World War II.
Named the Gray Ghost by Tokyo Rose, the vessel existed for only 15 years.
In the deepening depression, the Tacoma Hotel would be lost in one of the city’s most tragic conflagrations. It would exist for only five more years.
The Cushman transmission lines over the Narrows would embolden bridge builders to construct a suspension bridge over the same waters. Galloping Gertie would exist for five months.
The political persuasion and pure coincidence that made up the backstory of how a warship was used to power a city would fade into obscurity.
But that was all in the future during the winter of 1929, when the Gray Ghost saved Tacoma’s Christmas.Michael Sean Sullivan is a preservationist and adjunct faculty member at the University of Washington Tacoma. He has been lecturing and teaching on the history of Tacoma for more than 20 years.