Morgan, Murray (1916-2000)

  • By Greg Lange
  • Posted 11/29/2002
  • Essay 5021
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To longtime Puget Sound residents, Tacoma-born Murray Morgan was many things, including journalist, political commentator, theater and arts reviewer, political activist, freelance writer, and college history teacher. More recent arrivals knew him mainly as an author. Morgan considered himself to be, in addition, a history reporter. He was a spellbinding teacher who from 1969 to 1981 taught a Northwest history course at the Tacoma Community College. He was author of South on the Sound: An Illustrated History of Tacoma and Pierce County (with Rosa Morgan), among many other books. Perhaps his best-known book is Skid Road: An Informal Portrait of Seattle. In print almost continually since its publication by Viking Press in 1951, Skid Road is considered by many to be the best history of Seattle. Murray Morgan died on June 22, 2000. 

Writing Came with the Territory

Murray C. Morgan started life in 1916 as the son of 10-year Tacoma residents Henry Victor Morgan and Ada Camille Morgan. His Canadian father, a Unitarian Universalist minister with strong socialist beliefs, preached in Tacoma for first half of the twentieth century. His mother, Ada Camille, was one-quarter Native American and three quarters Huguenot. As a clairvoyant, an accepted avocation at the turn of the century, she used a crystal ball and read tealeaves. Murray described her as a “D.A.R. [Daughters of American Revolution] Republican” (Chet Skreen, 8). This made for some heated dinner table discussions between Murray's two parents.

Murray's interest in writing came from his parents. He said, “Someone was always writing around the house” (At the Field’s End, 288). His father wrote and published a monthly periodical called Master Christian. It had a small circulation, but young Murray helped assemble and mail it to subscribers around the world. From his mother’s hand came children’s plays and (according to Murray) “bad poetry.” Murray soon picked up a pen himself. Very early he wanted to be a journalist and writer. He wrote for his junior high and high school newspapers. Before his 1933 graduation from Tacoma’s Stadium High School, Murray Morgan became a nationally published writer when Scholastic Magazine published his article “How to Second a Boxer.”

In 1933, Morgan moved from Tacoma to Seattle and enrolled in the University of Washington Journalism department. By his 1936-1937 senior year, he became editor of the University of Washington Daily. During spring quarter, the paper reported on the number of student venereal disease cases during the year. The UW administration immediately went into an uproar. Murray said, “There were about three [cases] for the whole year. I don’t recall the exact number now, but there weren’t many. However, campus officials thought parents would be shocked to learn that there had been [any] cases -- and it was something that shouldn’t have been reported” (The Seattle Times, October 5, 1986, p. F4). The administration suspended him for one day. Within a few weeks, nevertheless, he graduated cum laude with a Bachelor's degree in Journalism.

Murray Morgan did not attend the graduation ceremonies. He would later say, “That was the Depression and I’d lined up a job down in Hoquiam on the paper, so the last day of class I took off” (The Weekly). He got a job as a reporter for the Grays Harbor Washingtonian in southwest Washington. He reported on Hoquiam sports and local news for more than a year before returning to Seattle in 1938. In Seattle, he worked as Executive Secretary of the Seattle Municipal League and edited their Seattle Municipal News. It was a job Murray called "a great mistake" and he resigned before long (The Weekly).

Murray and Rosa

During his stay in Seattle he reacquainted himself with Rosa Northcutt, whom he'd first met in Tacoma. They had also worked together at the UW Daily, holding down the only two paying jobs on the paper. (She'd been the morgue librarian.) Murray and Rosa got married at his father's church in Tacoma on March 5, 1939. For their honeymoon, the Morgans took a freighter to Europe and there embarked on a leisurely kayak trip down the Danube River. Murray sent reports of their trip to The News Tribune (Tacoma). One night, while kayaking through Germany and Austria, they met 14 German paddlers and bought them all dinner. The paddlers thanked them for the meal with an “exquisite serenade.” The Germans then requested a song from the Morgans. The only song the newlyweds could think of was the University of Washington Husky fight song “Bow Down to Washington.” According to Murray, in response to their rendition, the Germans “said some polite things and looked pained” (The Weekly).

As the Morgans neared the end of their trip at the mouth of the Danube, a Romanian official apparently questioned them about what they were doing. Murray attempted to tell him in English, and when that didn’t work, he tried to tell them in German. His German sparked an immediate response from the Romanian. On September 30, 1939, unknown to the kayakers, Germany had invaded Poland and World War II had begun. The Romanians were on the lookout for German spies. Murray was jailed overnight until he was able to satisfy the Romania state police that his honeymoon trip was in fact a honeymoon trip.

Despite this brief incarceration, Murray Morgan had fond memories of the trip down the Danube. Forty years later he was asked, “What do you think of now as the most exciting time of your life?” He first response was, “Floating down the Danube was sort of a tapestry thing” (The Weekly).

Upon their return to Washington state, Murray got hired by the Spokane Daily Chronicle. After working there for a short time, he went back to work for his former employer in Hoquiam. He described his single year as City Editor of the Grays Harbor Washingtonian: “Running a daily newspaper in Hoquiam, a morning newspaper, and being almost the whole staff: I had three people under me, and one was 18 and one was a drunk” (The Weekly).

I Want Trees and I Want Frequent Rain

Although he left for short periods, he always called Western Washington home. He later said about the region, “I miss it if I’m not in it for any length of time; I don’t feel comfortable. I want trees and I want frequent rain” (The Weekly).

Murray Morgan decided to get a Master’s degree in Journalism and in 1941 enrolled at Columbia University in New York City. Back East, jobs, at least journalism jobs, were scarce. He applied all over New York for one and got no response. Then Japan attacked the U.S. Naval Station in the Hawaiian Islands. The media outlets immediately expanded their news services and he got calls from most of them offering him a position.

Murray Morgan took full advantage of the offers. In a 1979 interview he recalled, “I worked at CBS [Radio] and edited the network news shows from midnight to 9 a.m., and then I’d report in at 9:30 at Time, and then I worked at the [New York] Herald Tribune on weekends covering the [Columbia University] campus" (The Weekly). That left no time for college. Rosa solved that by going to his classes and taking notes. Murray would show up to take the tests. It finally all caught up with him: “I finally ran out of sleep to the point where I called in a copyboy at Time and asked if I had paper in the typewriter. I said I could write if there was paper. They took me home in a taxi and I slept for two days, then quit two of the three jobs” (The Weekly).

By 1942, somehow, even with the lack of sleep, he managed to get a Master's degree from Columbia University with honors. He was rewarded with a Pulitzer Fellowship to study the conditions of the press in Mexico. At Lake Patzcuaro, Mexico, Murray and Rosa rented a four-room house with an orchard, which included the services of a cook, all for $10 a month. They had been living there for a few months when Murray Morgan was drafted into the Army.

He joined the Army Signal Corps and was stationed on the Aleutian Islands. There was not much to do on an island in the far north Pacific Ocean. To pass the time, Murray wrote to his wife Rosa living on a Seattle houseboat for any books on the history of the Aleutians. “She wrote back," Murray reminisced in a 1980 interview, "that none had been published. ‘Why don’t you write one?’ she said. And I responded that there was no way to do the research. We didn’t have libraries [in the Aleutians]. Rosa wrote, ‘I’ll do the research down here, send you the material, and you write it’” (At the Fields End, 288). Thus began Murray’s first history book.

Murray completed the manuscript while stationed the Aleutians and sent it to the United States. He received word back that a section was missing. Upon investigation he found out that the Army censors excised a chapter that described a 200-year-old 1748 battle between Russia and the Aleuts. (During World War II, the Soviet Union including Russia was an ally of the United States.) The censors thought that Murray Morgan was being “hostile to a friendly power” (Watson, 12). Fortunately Murray had a carbon copy of the manuscript and reinserted the chapter when he returned to the United States.

In 1947, Dutton published The Bridge to Russia: Those Amazing Aleutians. At the time Murray’s editor at Dutton was Gore Vidal. Murray did not like the title Dutton gave the book. He claimed that his suggestion, Those Goddamn Aleutians, would have increased sales.

Towards the end of World War II, Murray transferred to the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. to do decoding. There was not much for him to decipher, so with his free time he and Rosa, who joined him, started researching the Civil War exploits of a Confederate sailing ship in the Pacific. This joint effort turned into the book Dixie Raider. Most of Murray's books were "joint projects" with Rosa. He described her as a first-rate researcher, and a wonderful editor and critic. He said, "She has an ear for the exact word" (News Tribune, March 29, 1981, Magazine Section, 9).

Working with the Tide

By the summer of 1946, the Morgans returned to Puget Sound and rented a house on Maury Island. The house stood two miles from the nearest neighbor and had no telephone. Murray stated his daily routine: “I work with the tide in Puget Sound. When it’s high I write; when it’s low I hook driftwood to keep the house warm. All we’ve got for heat is a fireplace” (Times, March 30, 1947, p. 18). The Morgans lived there for about a year, long enough to see the very first book he wrote published, a mystery he wrote in the Aleutians titled Day of the Dead.

During the year on Maury Island, Morgan, completed his second fiction book titled The Viewless Winds. Murray delighted in recounting what a Dutton editor had told him about this book's sales. The book sold exactly 242 copies. In the 100-year history of the publishing house, no book had sold fewer copies than The Viewless Winds “including poetry books” (Tacoma Public Library, The Murray Morgan Prize).

Murray Morgan's books did not keep his bread buttered. He explained that it was “those magazines that paid a lot of bills” (Skeen, 9). He wrote so many articles, that as early as 1947 he had lost count. He wrote articles like “Mexico’s Explosive Muralists” for Holiday and “Seward’s Annual Folly” for Esquire. Dozens of magazines, from Cosmopolitan to The Nation to the Saturday Evening Post kept the Morgans eating.

But slowly this source of income dried up. Murray called himself the “Typhoid Mary of journalism.” In 1978, he said, “I’d guess I have written for at least 50 different magazines in the past 35 years and half of them folded. I did a two-parter for one magazine and it went belly up between issues" (Skreen, 9).

By fall 1947, the Morgans moved into a former Trout Lake dance pavilion located in King County between Puyallup and Auburn. It remained Murray’s home for the rest of his life. There Murray and Rosa raised their daughter Lane, born in 1949, and lived in the company of a number of cats and dogs. They enjoyed the natural surroundings near Trout Lake. Murray stated, “I have a passion for trilliums. … We have some very early trilliums under a stand of vine maples and I always go out and greet ‘em every spring” (The Weekly, 24). The family called it Druid's grove.

The Courage of His Convictions

They likely moved over to the "mainland" because of the availability of jobs to supplement Murray’s writing. The Tacoma Times hired him as copyeditor, a job he held until 1949 when the newspaper shut down. Then, he moonlighted, literally, as a Tacoma bridgetender, working the graveyard shift. (Washington later changed the name of the Tacoma bridge on which he worked to the Murray Morgan Bridge.)

In addition, the College (later University) of Puget Sound hired him to teach two courses. Until about 1952, he taught professional writing and journalism, and consulted for the student paper. Murray Morgan’s strong feelings concerning freedom of the press led to a rift with the college administration. In 1973, Emmett Watson, who wrote for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, gave the following account:

“[O]ne of his students wrote a well-researched story, which, in effect, objected to a rise in the price for coffee at the school cafeteria. School officials tried to kill the story and Murray showed up in the president’s office, hoping to explain that independent inquiry is what he was trying to teach, and that a free press, if it meant anything, was for everybody.

"The reply was a cloud of obfuscation. It wasn’t too important, was it, the price of coffee, and why upset things, and certainly, while independence was important, other factors had to be considered. And so forth. Murray listened patiently throughout this lengthy rationale. When it was finished there was a moment’s silence, before Murray spoke.

"'I quit,' he said" (Watson, 12).

In November 1951, on the 100th anniversary of the Denny party landing at Alki Point in West Seattle, bookstores started selling Morgan’s Skid Road: An Informal Portrait of Seattle. The idea for the book came from Viking editor Malcolm Cowley (1898-1989). Murray served as a tour guide for Cowley, who was visiting Seattle. The Viking editor, impressed with Murray’s stories of the city’s past, encouraged him to write a book about it. Skid Road became Murray Morgan’s most successful book. Sales estimates of hardback and paperback copies through 1999 approach one-quarter million.

Tacoma’s Wild and Hilarious Journalist

About 1952, Murray entered radio. At the time, before television was well established, radio was the dominant medium and powerfully affected public opinion. In the early 1950s, doing business with the City of Tacoma typically involved graft and payoffs. There was a lot to report and comment on. Murray Morgan teamed up with Jim Faber and every morning on KMO and then on KTAC Radio, they did just that. As a news journalist who worked at the same station put it, "They furnished a wild and hilarious radio journalism ..." (Knightlinger). They played taped discussions between heads of Tacoma’s crime rings and City officials. They named names, exposed corruption. Motivated at least in part by the Morgan-Faber investigative reporting, city hall cleaned up its act.

In 1956, Murray Morgan went solo on KTNT with a news commentary show called “Our Town, Our World.” For the next 15 years, Morgan commented on local news every morning at 7:30. To keep his listeners informed, when in town, he attended nearly every Tacoma City Council meeting. For those few that he missed, Rosa Morgan usually covered for him. In 1970, his reports of the shenanigans in city hall led to a recall of a majority of the Tacoma City Council. Even though he expressed opinions that bankers probably did not share, Federal Savings & Loan Association sponsored “Our Town, Our World” for the entire run.

In 1957, he traveled to 22 countries to research the history and state of the United Nations World Health Organization. He wrote most of Doctors to the World in Geneva.

In 1963, Murray started writing a regular column in the Argus, a Seattle weekly periodical. He wrote theater and cultural reviews for more than 15 years.

In 1964, Murray Morgan was diagnosed with cancer and given a one in 20 chance of living a year. But then, a radical operation cured him.

A Spellbinder

From 1969 to 1981, Murray Morgan taught a Northwest history course at the Tacoma Community College, about which he expressed great satisfaction. He described himself as a "one course historian." As he put it, "I taught a good course on Northwest history, but if they had asked me to teach a course on the history of the American Revolution, I wouldn't have been qualified ..." (At the Field's End, 294). His students gained a lifelong interest and appreciation of history. In response to a News Tribune request for memories of Murray C. Morgan, former student Pamelia Olson said, "His classes were filled with great stories of explorers -- wheelers, stealers and the common people." Kelly Kledzik recalled, "His lectures were like a story about old friends. He was a fantastic teacher." Jay Reifel of Tacoma reminisced:

“I was spellbound for nine weeks, two times a week, as he told his stories about early explorers in the Puget Sound Region. At the conclusion of that course, the class spontaneously gave him a standing ovation. It was memorable – and still is 25 years later” (The News Tribune, June 24, 2000).

He also taught for brief periods at Highline Community College, Pacific Lutheran University, and Fort Steilacoom Community College.

We Salute You

And he continued to write. In all Murray Morgan wrote 21 books. In 1989, to honor the centennial anniversary of statehood, an historical atlas of Washington was issued. Washington: A Centennial Atlas covered all aspects of the state’s history. The cultural section of the atlas included a map titled “Murray Morgan’s Washington.” The only author's map in the atlas (the only author's map in any atlas?) bore the words: “Murray, for your many splendid works, we salute you!”

Murray Morgan died on June 22, 2000.

Following is a chronological list of his books.

  • Day of the Dead written under pen name Cromwell Murray (Philadelphia: David McKay Co., 1946)
  • Bridge to Russia: Those Amazing Aleutians(New York: Dutton, 1947) Reissued as Islands of the Smokey Sea: the Story of Alaska’s Aleutian Chain (Fairbanks: Alaska Prospectors Publishing, 1981)
  • Thunder Down Under (Australia: n.p., ca. 1947). Mystery written with Howard Dutton. This may be a variant title of Day of the Dead.
  • Dixie Raider: The Saga of the C. S. S. Shenandoah(New York: E. P. Dutton, 1948). Reissued as Confederate Raider in the North Pacific: The Saga of the C. S. S. Shenandoah, 1864-65 (Pullman: Washington State University Press, 1995)
  • The Viewless Winds (New York: Dutton, 1949)
  • The Columbia: Powerhouse of the West (Seattle: Superior Publishing Company, 1949)
  • Skid Road: An Informal Portrait of Seattle (New York: Viking Press, 1951)
  • The Dam (New York: Viking Press, 1954)
  • The Last Wilderness (New York: Viking Press, 1955)
  • Doctors to the World (New York: Viking Press, 1958)
  • The Northwest Corner, The Pacific Northwest: Its Past and Present (New York: Viking Press, 1962)
  • Century 21: The Story of the Seattle’s World’s Fair, 1962 (Seattle: Acme Press, 1963)
  • One Man’s Gold Rush: A Klondike Album Photographs by E. A. Hegg (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1967)
  • The Hospital Women Built for Children (Oakland: Children’s Hospital Medical Center, 1967)
  • Puget’s Sound: A Narrative of Early Tacoma and the Southern Sound (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1979)
  • Seattle: A Pictorial History with Lane Morgan and Paul Dorpat (Virginia Beach, VA: Donning Company, 1982)
  • The Mill on the Boot: The Story of the St. Paul & Tacoma Lumber Company (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1982)
  • The Pike Place Market: People, Politics and Produce with Alice Shorett (Seattle: Pacific Search Press, 1982)
  • South on the Sound: An Illustrated History of Tacoma and Pierce County with Rosa Morgan (Woodlands Hills, CA: Windsor Publications, 1984)
  • Over Washington Photography by Harald Sund & Georg Gerster. Edited by Beverly Barnes and Lesley Dow (Seattle & Kent, WA: Weldon Owen/KCTS, 1989)
  • Friend of the Family: 100 Years with Washington Mutual (Seattle: Washington Mutual Financial Group, 1989)
  • Chihuly Baskets with Linda Norden (Seattle: Portland Press, 1994)
  • The Range of Glaciers: The Exploration and Survey of Northern Cascade Range with Fred W. Becky and Fred Beehey (Portland, OR: Oregon Historical Society, 2000)


Ted Knightlinger, "An Insider Recalls the Golden Age of Tacoma Radio," The Tacoma News Tribune, p. 15; “Morgan Is Busy Author When the Tide’s Right,” The Seattle Times March 30, 1947, Pacific Parade Magazine, 18; Ibid., October 26, 1947, Pacific Parade Magazine, 22; Don Duncan, “The Northwest’s Irreverent Historian,” Ibid., August 27, 1967, Charmed Land Magazine, 4; Chet Skreen, “Murray Morgan: Pacific Northwest’s Home Grown Historian,” Ibid., August 20, 1978, Magazine Section, 8-10; Don Duncan, “Teacher Finds Self Honored Then Out,” Ibid., p. 1, 1981, p. B-2; Don Tewkesbury, “Skid Road Author Still Loves His Independence,” Ibid., October 5, 1986, p. F-4; Emmett Watson, “An Individual Named Murray Morgan,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 18, 1973, Arts Section, 12-13; Don Tewkesbury, “Whatever Happened to Murray Morgan?” Ibid., June 3, 1979, p. 3; Nicholas O’Connell, At the Field’s End: Interviews with Twenty Pacific Northwest Writers (Seattle: Madrona Publishers, 1987), 285-295; “Morgan, Murray Cromwell,” Who’s Who Among Pacific Northwest Authors ed. by in Hazel E. Mills (n.p.: Pacific Northwest Library Association, 1957); Sulky Hutton, “Murray Morgan: the Gentle Historian,” The Weekly, November 7, 1979, p. 22-24; Murray Morgan, “The Night I Tried to Raise Tacoma’s Unbudgable Bridge,” Seattle Magazine, June 1965, p. 14-16; Tacoma Public Library, Northwest Room, “The Murray Morgan Prize,” (; “Murray Morgan,” in Contemporary Authors on CD (Detroit: The Gale Group, 1999); James W. Scott, Washington: A Centennial Atlas, (Bellingham: Center for Pacific Northwest Studies, Western Washington University, 1989), 147.
Note: This essay was corrected on August 23, 2010, and revised slightly on December 20, 2015.

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