New book by middle school students details Tacoma’s greatest disasters

Only four months after opening to the public, the first Narrows Bridge collapsed after strong winds caused the decking to break apart on Nov. 7, 1940. The bridge, which was the world’s third-largest suspension bridge, had been known to undulate with the wind since it opened, gaining it the nickname “Galloping Gertie.”
Only four months after opening to the public, the first Narrows Bridge collapsed after strong winds caused the decking to break apart on Nov. 7, 1940. The bridge, which was the world’s third-largest suspension bridge, had been known to undulate with the wind since it opened, gaining it the nickname “Galloping Gertie.” Northwest Room, Tacoma Public Library

A new history book about Tacoma is a disaster.

More specifically, it’s about the disasters that have befallen Tacoma. And the defeats. And other less-than-proud moments in the city’s history.

And it came from the minds of Tacoma’s middle schoolers.

“I know that kids love an earthquake, a fire, a plane crash, a ship sinking,” said Deb Freedman, a Tacoma Historical Society board member who spear-headed the project.

The idea, she said, was: “How can we take something that’s kind of sensational in our history and use it as a way to get kids hooked?”

The result — “Rising Up from Tacoma’s Twenty-One Disasters and Defeats” — tells the stories of some of the city’s major downfalls. The Historical Society put out the 50-page book.

Among the high points of the low points — an attempt to fly non-stop across the Pacific Ocean that literally never got of the ground, the sinking of a cargo ship that took 16 lives in 1899 and the demise 75 years ago this fall of the first Tacoma Narrows Bridge.

The book’s publication is a follow-up to a 2010 title, “Tacoma’s Twenty-One Tales Every Student Should Be Able to Tell.”

Funded by a grant from the Puyallup Tribe of Indians, 1,500 copies of “Rising Up” have been distributed free to Tacoma elementary schools, both public and private, for use as a curriculum supplement.

The book began as a project for 20 students at Seabury Middle School in autumn 2012.

Teacher Tamara Ritchie approached Freedman, a former Tacoma Public Library employee, looking for a community service project for her students.

That’s when the disastrous ideas was born.

The Seabury students picked topics spanning more than 140 years of Tacoma’s history and completed the initial research in the Northwest room of the Tacoma Public Library.

“They got deep and learned little nuggets of Tacoma history they wouldn’t have ordinarily been able to get,” said Seabury teacher Caitlin Webb.

For instance, around-the-world traveler George Francis Train: “He liked to sit and talk with squirrels and he was kind of a germaphobe,” Webb said.

Topics ranged from the naming of Mount Rainier to Ivan the gorilla.

Ritchie, Webb and fellow teacher Paul Gonzenbach “worked very hard with them to make sure we had one fire, one plane crash, one ship sinking,” Freedman said.

“They took out the murders and most of the kidnappings to do something suitable for third- and fourth-graders,” she said.

The book doesn’t try to sanitize Tacoma’s less than proud moments. And that’s why adult guidance is suggested, Freedman said.

“The topics can be challenging,” she said. “We talk about the Chinese expulsion and Japanese internment. We talk about a kidnapping of a child. Those are issues that I don’t want a child to read just a couple of paragraphs and walk away from.”

Webb said the stories in the book illustrate how a city can bounce back from disasters and defeats.

“Even though you are studying things that might be perceived as negative you get to see the resiliency of people and the positive that comes out of it. Often that includes the community coming together after a disaster. And we learn history so we don’t repeat our mistakes,” Webb said.

Each section tells the history of the disaster but also includes what was learned and how Tacoma recovered.

“That’s why it’s titled ‘Rising Up’,” Freedman said.

The project was a natural fit for middle schoolers, Webb said.

“They are that point in their life where they are figuring out who they are, where they come from and who they want to be. Putting that focus on their immediate surroundings brings them back to themselves.”

Katelyn Cooper, now a 16-year-old sophomore at Auburn Mountainview High School, was one of the students who worked on the project.

She researched the July 4, 1900, streetcar accident that killed 44 people.

“I had never heard about it before the project,” Cooper said. “It was surprising to learn that something so major and crazy — a trolley crash where so many people lost their lives — had happened in Tacoma.”

She said the project broadened her knowledge and appreciation of the city.

“I know Tacoma has been around for a while but I didn’t know the stories and what Tacoma was like,” she said.

Given all that has befallen her hometown, she said, “It was interesting to see how this city was able to bounce back.”

Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541




Here are the events detailed in “Rising Up from Tacoma’s Twenty-One Disasters and Defeats”

▪ Minnetonka, 1873: A locomotive tipped over during the completion of the Northern Pacific Railroad.

▪ Chinese expulsion, 1885: Chinese laborers were forcibly evicted from the city.

▪ George Francis Train, 1890: After making a trip around the world in 80 days but receiving little credit for it, he tried to make the journey in 60 days, leaving from Tacoma. He missed by seven days.

▪ Jack the Bear, 1892: The mascot for the Tacoma Hotel escaped from his pen and was shot by a police officer.

▪ El Primero, 1911: Tacoma banker and builder of Thornewood Castle, Chester Thorne, lost the luxury yacht in a card game. It still sails Puget Sound today.

▪ Spanish flu, 1918: Tacoma was slow to respond to this severe form of influenza that killed the young and healthy.

▪ Mount Tacoma, 1917: Just when Mount Rainier’s Indian name was to be restored Seattle put a stop to it.

▪ Weyerhaeuser kidnapping, 1935: The great-grandson of the timber company’s founder was kidnapped for $200,000 ransom. George Weyerhaeuser, 9, was released unharmed. Four people were sentenced for the crime.

▪ Tacoma Hotel, 1935: Built in 1884, the opulent downtown hotel burned to the ground.

▪ Japanese internment, 1942: Japanese Americans were kept as prisoners in remotely located detention camps.

▪ Earthquake, 1949: Lowell Elementary School student Marvin Klegman was killed in the quake.

▪ Stadium Bowl, 1981: It took four years to rebuild the playing field and seating areas after flooding heavily damaged them.

▪ Asarco smelter, 1993: After a 75-year run of sending airborne arsenic throughout the South Sound the smelter’s 500-foot-tall chimney was imploded.

▪ Municipal Dock, 2001: The Nisqually earthquake gave a death blow to the former wheat storage facility along Tacoma’s waterfront. It was torn down in 2002.

▪ Tacoma Sabercats, 2002: Tacoma’s most recent professional ice hockey team lasted four seasons.

▪ Ivan the gorilla, 2012: Raised as an attraction at the B&I shopping center on South Tacoma Way, Ivan was sent to Zoo Atlanta in 1994 to live out the remainder of his life. He died in 2012 at age 50.

“Rising Up from Tacoma’s Twenty-One Disasters and Defeats”

Tacoma Historical Society Press.

50 pages, $6.99.

Available at Tacoma Historical Society, University of Washington Tacoma Bookstore (1754 Pacific Ave. Tacoma) and Pacific Northwest Shop (2702 N. Proctor St. Tacoma).

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