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The Mother of Progress Finds Home

The Mother of Progress Finds Home From Trying Home: The Rise and Fall of an Anarchist Utopia on Puget Sound by Justin Wadland IN FEBRUARY 1896, three men with able hands built a small, wooden boat and ventured into south Puget Sound. Beyond their place of departure in Tacoma and their destination—Von Geldern Cove on the Key Peninsula, or Joe’s Bay as it was known locally for the man who first settled there—few details remain about the boat or the journey itself. Some accounts mention oars, while others describe a sail. All sources agree that the men who fashioned the boat were dreamers in search of the site they’d call Home. If they left from Commencement Bay, the mist on that winter day would have hung low, mingling the fringes of its clouds with the smoke off the steamships and the stacks of the factories on shore. As they pulled away from wharves, warehouses, coal bunkers, and mills, they would have seen a city rising on the hill behind them. The stone and wooden buildings were densely packed, dark and damp in the wetness; through the haze, an occasional hand-painted sign, a cone spire, a steeple, a chimney with its leeward smear of smoke stood in relief against the roofs. From the T-bars topping tall, knotted poles, electric wires extended in a crazy web above the muddy streets. Down below, the tracks of carriage wheels left imprints, their paths often avoiding the deep mires in the middle of the road. Here and there, a horse might be tied to a rail below a storefront canopy. A street car could be glimpsed between the buildings, its passengers huddled against the cold. The men in the boat would have been glad to be leaving it all behind. This rough-hewn frontier city, a city of strangers, where one in five people had lived for less than five years, represented much of what these three men were rejecting. In 1889, Rudyard Kipling had visited this town that would call itself the City of Destiny, and after inhaling the sweet odor of sawdust and listening to the real estate speculators, he commented that Tacoma was, “literally staggering under a boom of the boomiest.”1 For a brief moment, city leaders believed it could rival San Francisco and New York, but the Panic of 1893 had shown that the feverish growth could not continue forever. The economic collapse, brought on by over-speculation in the railroad industry, reduced millionaires to paupers. In Tacoma, a town whose fortune derived directly from the Northern Pacific Railroad, the formerly well-heeled took on boarders in their mansions, worked as janitors in their own buildings, even put

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bullets in their heads to end the misery and disgrace. There had been twenty-one banks in the city at the beginning of the year, but after all of the bank runs, only seven remained. The workers and poor suffered as well. Across the nation, at the height of the depression, between two and three million people, 20 percent of the workforce, were without jobs. The idle and aimless gathered around fires on the outskirts of towns, sharing whatever food they could scrounge. Hundreds of such men massed just outside Tacoma and attempted to follow their leader, a bouncer and occasional prize fighter named Jumbo Cantwell, over the mountains in an attempt to join Coxey’s Army, an ill-fated march on Washington, D.C., to demand federal relief. As Tacoma and the strife and turmoil it represented receded from view, the three men could see on a bluff above the bay one last symbol of hubris: the magnificent edifice of the Tourist Hotel. After the Northern Pacific Railway went bankrupt, it abandoned its support for this hotel, intended to be one of the best on the West Coast. Its partner, the Tacoma Land Company, could only afford to build the walls and roof, so while the spires, towers, and gables on the exterior resembled a French chateau, the interior remained unfinished. By 1896, the windows were boarded up, and the structure was a husk of a building, used to store shingles and other goods. The men traded off the work of rowing. Oliver Verity, just over forty years old at the time, gripped the oars firmly with hands thickened by carpentry work, and his wiry, muscular frame distilled an intense energy into the strokes. His unruly hair stood above a face with sharp features and a thin chin, and he peered beyond the gunwales with a glint in his eye that mixed the restlessness of a pioneer with that of a radical. When George Allen took over, his hands might have seemed smaller and softer by comparison, but this school teacher had more than a few calluses from the hard labor of odd jobs. Also in his forties, Allen wore a moustache and parted his hair on the side, and he liked to talk. No one but the three men knew for sure what they discussed that day, but ten years later, Allen recounted what might have been the thrust of their conversations: “We had heard and read many isms and had tried some of them with varying success. We wished to give each ism a chance to prove its usefulness to humanity.”2 When the brawny blacksmith, Frank Odell, began pulling, the oars were gripped in thick palms that knew the weight of iron and the heat of a furnace. He had a stout face with a thick moustache, and perhaps while the other two spoke of ideas, this practically minded man watched the shore slowly roll past. As they approached Point Defiance, the city and its buildings, smoking mills, and fiery smelters gradually disappeared, and

Profile for University of Puget Sound

Bookends Reader  

Welcome new students! This reader is a collection of readings from and about Puget Sound and that will be at the heart of the Bookends orien...

Bookends Reader  

Welcome new students! This reader is a collection of readings from and about Puget Sound and that will be at the heart of the Bookends orien...