When I see old mill pilings along the Tacoma waterfront, near Old Town (where the city's downtown stood before officials of the Northern Pacific Railroad decided it should move farther up the bay, and where the homes of Chinese immigrants stood on pilings before the Chinese were driven from Tacoma — and from other communities all along the Pacific Coast — in 1885), I think of a story that my old landlord, Wayne Bruner, once told. It's the kind of story that reminds me Labor Day could be about more than a three-day weekend.
When we first rented our house from Wayne Bruner in 1973, it was a dirt-cheap month-to-month rental that gave us the use of almost 20 acres but also gave us a home with broken windows covered by duct tape, a canning cellar that flooded seasonally, and blackberry vines growing up into the second-story eaves. Mr. Bruner was in his 60s, a very large, blunt man with huge hands who welded in a Tacoma shipyard. He liked to come out and pick blackberries in the late summer. He liked being able to say that he had never crossed a picket line.
The property we rented had been in his family for three generations. His grandfather, a doctor who had allegedly once been chief of surgery at a hospital in Lake Forest Park, near Chicago, had quit medicine, moved to Vashon Island, Wash., in 1907, planted the apple and pear trees we found growing there, built an elegant barn, and added substantially to the two-story cabin that already stood on the land. (His barn collapsed under the heavy snow of late 1995. His oak ceiling still adorns our second living room, which he added to the house in 1920.) After he died, the property passed to his daughter and son-in-law, Wayne Bruner's parents, who had been living on a stump ranch near Anacortes, Wash. Bruner was then in his teens. He found his first job working on the old steamboat dock at Cove, a half-mile downhill walk from the house.
A lot of goods still arrived at Vashon Island by steamboat — flour was milled in a building on the Cove dock — and Bruner worked loading and unloading the boats.
The steamboats of the old "mosquito fleet" tied the communities around Puget Sound together from the 1860s until World War II. Old pilings standing in the shallows of bays and coves — perches for herons and cormorants — all around the perimeter of Puget Sound, serve as reminders.
Modern residents, if they think of the old steamboat fleet at all, tend to think that its heyday was the period between World War I and World War II. Actually, the period between the world wars was the twilight of the mosquito fleet. Automobile travel took hold during World War I, communities started paving roads, and blunt-nosed ferries started hauling cars across the Sound. Trucks hauled supplies to coastal communities. Steamboats grew increasingly irrelevant.
But they kept running. Wayne Bruner loaded and unloaded them down at Cove. Then he worked on the last of the Puget Sound steamers, the Virginia V. (The minister's teenaged daughter he was secretly courting sometimes addressed letters to him there care of the "greaseball.") He held a number of classic blue-collar jobs around the Sound.
Bruner even worked at the Tacoma copper smelter, whose giant smokestack once towered over the Tacoma waterfront and whose arsenic-laden slag still forms the breakwater of the nearby Tacoma Yacht Club. (On Jan. 17, 1993 — nearly eight years after the smelter shut down — at 35 minutes past noon, while a crowd estimated by the Tacoma police at 70,000 people watched from boats and sidewalks and back yards and parked cars, the 562-foot-tall smokestack was imploded, blasted into a huge pile of 2.5 million bricks.) As late as the 1970s, people riding the ferry between Tacoma and Vashon Island at night could see the smelter dump rail car loads of molten slag directly into the cold salt water of Commencement Bay, sending up great showers of sparks and steam.
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