Favorite Non-Fiction Books, #77: Puget's Sound
I'm a New Hampshire guy. I think I probably made that abundantly clear from my Granite State of Mind series a couple of years ago profiling the places in New Hampshire that are important to me (and, you know, the rest of the time). Having had the opportunity to spend extended time in Maryland and Washington while Sarah was on active duty certainly did nothing to diminish my affection for my native state. And yet, there were certainly things I appreciated about the other places we lived, most notably the Pacific Northwest. It's unique place, a combination of laid-back tolerance and aggressive social progressivism, exceedingly polite and vaguely wrestling with a bit of an inferiority complex. Here in the northeast corridor we tend to think the world revolves around us, and in many ways it does. Washington governor Jay Inslee is struggling to garner attention in the crowded field for the Democratic presidential nomination in the same way Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson struggles to be considered an elite pro signal caller. Maybe it's the politeness, the discomfort with calling attention to themselves, and maybe it's the three-hour time difference that makes everything seem so remote and late to the game. Everything about the area seems like a bit of an afterthought.
Lots of people out in coastal WA and OR like that just fine. Classified as "Ecotopia" in Garreau's 1981 classic "The Nine Nations of North America", the area is wealthier and happier and more naturally beautiful than much of the rest of the country. It's a tech and mech haven, where Microsoft and Boeing and Nike and Starbucks hang their stylish hats, and where people like to go outside despite the daily drizzles. We found it welcoming, enjoyable, and just a hair too alien for our tastes. We explored the Olympic Peninsula and the Oregon dunes and Mount Rainier with abandon - it really is a lush playground when in season. But I know I couldn't live there.
One of the great experiences I had was the opportunity to work with the Job Carr Cabin Museum for a season portraying early Tacoma settler Job Carr for school field trips. Murray's Morgan's book was a wealth of information I used to learn about Carr, his life, and the place he helped put on the English-speaking map.
Carr was a fellow easterner (from New Jersey) and Civil War veteran who headed along the Oregon Trail in the 1860s to score some free homesteader land along the newly open Puget Sound. He thought that if he could figure out where the Great Northern Pacific Railway terminus would be and stake his claim there, he'd wind up a wealthy guy. So he left his wife (a professional spiritual medium and suffragette) and managed to evade dysentery and swollen rivers on his way north and west. He stayed with some friends on the Puyallup native reservation and scouted the area. In the south, Olympia stood poised to become the "Boston of the West" on Budd Inlet while little Steilacoom was jockeying to identify itself as a new Portland (Maine, not Oregon). To the north, Seattle was still reeling from conflict with the indigenous peoples and didn't appear likely to amount to much. So Carr focused on Commencement Bay in between, and there he founded a city he called Eureka. It would quickly be renamed Tacoma.
Tacoma grew quickly (Carr served as the first mayor and first postmaster). And Carr was right - it would be the terminus of the railroad, though his land claim missed the precise location by a few miles. Whoops. The city was built on sawmills and the lumber industry, and to this day remains part of the local economic scene. The pulp and paper rendering mills contribute to the powerful sulfuric smell often enveloping the city known as the "Tacoma Aroma". There's more than that to the place of course - a world-renowned glass museum, a great minor league ballpark, and of course University of Puget Sound, the elite private liberal arts college that bills itself as the "Harvard of the West" (did I mention the inferiority complex)? I spent a lot of my Northwest days in and around Tacoma, and while I never came to love it, we came to respect one another, like cousins with political differences who agree to talk about sports at Thanksgiving.