Soon-to-be-famous British author Rudyard Kipling visits Tacoma in the summer of 1889.

  • By Jim Kershner
  • Posted 12/07/2018
  • Essay 20687
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In the summer of 1889, soon-to-be-famous British author Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) visits Tacoma. He writes extensively about the still-raw pioneer city, including references to a horse-drawn streetcar running along a muddy avenue and a steam-powered tram jumping its track. His description of 1889 Tacoma, "smitten by a boom," is by turns vivid, condescending, and comic: "The rude boarded pavements of the main streets rumbled under the heels of hundreds of furious men all actively engaged in hunting drinks and eligible corner-lots. They sought the drinks first" (Kipling, 43, 44). Not long after his Tacoma sojourn, Kipling will return to London and become a literary star with the publication of Gunga Din in 1890, The Light That Failed in 1891, and The Jungle Book in 1894. Kipling never gives an exact date for his Tacoma visit, but because he mentions that Seattle's Great Fire of June 6, 1889, occurred "a few weeks ago" (Kipling, 44), it is probably in late June, or possibly July, 1889.

In 1889 Rudyard Kipling, then 23, was making his way halfway around the world from India to London, via San Francisco. From California, he made a side trip up the West Coast to Portland, Oregon; Tacoma and Seattle, Washington, and Victoria and Vancouver, British Columbia. Kipling chronicled the trip and sent his travel dispatches back to the Civil and Military Gazette, a newspaper in British-ruled India, for which he was a correspondent. In 1913, at the height of Kipling's literary fame, these old dispatches and letters were collected and published in From Sea to Sea and Other Sketches: Letters of Travel.

"A Boom of the Boomiest"

Here is an excerpt from Kipling's writing about Tacoma. The person called "California," to whom he alludes, is a friend from that state who was his travel companion on his Tacoma sojourn. They arrived in Tacoma via train from Portland.

"Tacoma was literally staggering under a boom of the boomiest. I do not quite remember what her natural resources were supposed to be, though every second man shrieked a selection in my ear. They included coal and iron, carrots, potatoes, lumber, shipping, and a crop of thin newspapers all telling Portland that her days were numbered. California and I struck the place at twilight. The rude boarded pavements of the main streets rumbled under the heels of hundreds of furious men all actively engaged in hunting drinks and eligible corner-lots. They sought the drinks first. The street itself alternated five-storey business blocks of the later and more abominable forms of architecture with board shanties. Overhead the drunken telegraph, telephone, and electric-light wires tangled on the tottering posts whose butts were half-whittled through by the knife of the loafer. Down the muddy, grimy, unmetalled thoroughfare ran a horse-car line -- the metals three inches above road level. Beyond this street rose many hills, and the town was thrown like a broken set of dominoes over all. A steam tramway -- it left the track the only time I used it -- was nosing about the hills, but the most prominent features of the landscape were the foundations in brick and stone of a gigantic opera house and the blackened stumps of the pines. California sized up the town with one comprehensive glance. 'Big boom,' said he; and a few instants later: 'About time to step off, I think,' meaning thereby that the boom had risen to its limit, and it would be expedient not to meddle with it. We passed down ungraded streets that ended abruptly in a fifteen-foot drop and a nest of brambles; along pavements that beginning in pine-plank ended in the living tree; by hotels with Turkish mosque trinketry on their shameless tops, and the pine stamps [sic] at their very doors; by a female seminary, tall, gaunt and red, which a native of the town bade us marvel at, and we marvelled; by houses built in imitation of the ones on Nob Hill, San Francisco, -- after the Dutch fashion; by other houses plenteously befouled with jig-saw work, and others flaring with the castlemented, battlemented bosh of the wooden Gothic school.

"'You can tell just about when those fellers had their houses built,' quoth California. 'That one yonder wanted to be Italian, and his architect built him what he wanted. The new houses with the low straddle roofs and windows pitched in sideways and red brick walls are Dutch. That's the latest idea. I can read the history of the town.' I had no occasion so to read. The natives were only too glad and too proud to tell me. The hotel walls bore a flaming panorama of Tacoma in which by the eye of faith I saw a faint resemblance to the real town. The hotel stationery advertised that Tacoma bore on its face all the advantages of the highest civilisation, and the newspapers sang the same tune in a louder key. The real-estate agents were selling house-lots on unmade streets miles away for thousands of dollars. On the streets -- the rude, crude streets, where the unshaded electric light was fighting with the gentle northern twilight -- men were babbling of money, town lots, and again money -- how Alf or Ed had done such and such a thing that had brought him so much money; and round the corner in a creaking boarded hall the red-jerseyed Salvationists were calling upon mankind to renounce all and follow their noisy God. The men dropped in by twos and threes, listened silently for a while, and as silently went their way, the cymbals clashing after them in vain. I think it was the raw, new smell of fresh sawdust everywhere pervading the air that threw upon me a desolating homesickness. It brought back in a moment all remembrances of that terrible first night at school when the establishment has been newly whitewashed, and a soft smell of escaping gas mingles with the odour of trunks and wet overcoats. I was a little boy, and the school was very new. A vagabond among collarless vagabonds, I loafed up the street, looking into the fronts of little shops where they sold slop shirts at fancy prices, which shops I saw later described in the papers as 'great.' California had gone off to investigate on his own account, and presently returned, laughing noiselessly. 'They are all mad here,' he said, 'all mad. A man nearly pulled a gun on me because I didn't agree with him that Tacoma was going to whip San Francisco on the strength of carrots and potatoes. I asked him to tell me what the town produced, and I couldn't get anything out of him except those two darned vegetables. Say, what do you think.'

"I responded firmly, 'I'm going into British territory a little while -- to draw breath'" (Kipling, 44-46).

Kipling then embarked on a steamer to Victoria and Vancouver. On the way he stopped in Seattle, which resembled a "horrible black smudge" as a result of the Great Fire that had burned it a "few weeks ago" (Kipling, 47).

The horse-car line that Kipling mentions was the Tacoma Street Railway on Pacific Avenue. The unreliable tramway was on the C Street line. Both had been in operation for about a year. The horse and the steam methods of propulsion were abandoned in favor of electricity less than a year after Kipling's visit. The "female seminary" was the Annie Wright Seminary.


Rudyard Kipling, From Sea to Sea and Other Sketches: Letters of Travel, Vol. 2 (New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1913), 43-47, copy available at Project Gutenberg website accessed December 6, 2018 (; Jim Kershner and the HistoryLink Staff, Transit: The Story of Public Transportation in the Puget Sound Region (Seattle: HistoryLink/Documentary Media, forthcoming 2019).

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