Prosch, Thomas (1850-1915)

  • By Paula Becker
  • Posted 1/28/2004
  • Essay 5575
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Thomas Prosch was a key early journalist, historian, and civic booster in Washington state. He was the son of Charles Prosch, who founded the Puget Sound Herald in Steilacoom in 1858. Thomas grew up helping his father with the newspaper, and bought the paper in 1872 when he was 22 years old. He moved it to Tacoma in 1873 and to Seattle in 1875. The Tribune ceased publication in 1878. In 1879, Prosch and Samuel L. Crawford bought the Seattle paper the Intelligencer, and in 1881 with John Leary and George W. Harris established the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. In 1884, Prosch became sole owner. Following the paper's sale in 1886, Thomas Prosch focused his energy on recording and preserving the history of the region and on civic improvement. Thomas Prosch was killed along with his wife and two others in a tragic automobile accident on March 30, 1915.

Newspaperboy to Newspaperman

Thomas Wickham Prosch was born on June 2, 1850, in Brooklyn, New York. At the age of 5 he moved to San Francisco with his parents Charles and Susan Prosch and brothers James and Frederick. In February 1858, the family moved to Steilacoom. Charles Prosch founded a newspaper, the Puget Sound Herald and from the beginning young Thomas helped his father with this family endeavor, setting type from the age of nine.

In 1867, Charles purchased the Pacific Tribune, then published in Olympia. The paper endured despite financial difficulties, but by 1872 had accrued such debt that it was sold at a sheriff’s sale.

Thomas Prosch, now a young man of 22, had accumulated enough money working various trades that he was able to buy the business at this sale. He moved the paper to Tacoma in 1873 and to Seattle in 1875.

In 1877, Prosch married Virginia McCarver. Her parents Morton and Julia Ann McCarver were the founders of Tacoma. Thomas and Virginia Prosch had six children: Julia, Edith, Genevieve, Beatrice, Phoebe, and Arthur.

The Tribune ceased publication in 1878. In 1879 Prosch and Samuel L. Crawford bought the Seattle paper the Intelligencer, and in 1881 with John Leary and George W. Harris established the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. In 1884 he became sole owner. Following the paper’s sale in 1886, Thomas Prosch focused even more of his energy on historical work and civic improvement.

Citizen and Civic Booster

Prosch was appointed Seattle’s Postmaster by President U.S. Grant (1822-1885), a post he held from 1876 to 1878. He served on the Seattle Board of Education from 1891 to 1893. An early and long-standing member of the Seattle Chamber of Commerce, Prosch actively promoted Seattle and played a major role in both the civic and social life of the city. Following the Great Seattle Fire in 1889 he headed up the fire relief efforts, accepting donations of food, goods, and money, and coordinating supply distribution.

As he grew older, Thomas Prosch became increasingly interested in documenting the history of his fledgling city. He walked the town taking photographs, which he assembled into annotated albums. These document Seattle from its earliest days, including the period before the Great Fire. He assembled a dictionary of Chinook trade jargon.

Historian and Writer

He wrote and published several books documenting the role his extended family and other pioneers had played in the history of the Puget Sound region. They include McCarver and Tacoma, The Conkling-Prosch Family, David S. Maynard and Catherine T. Maynard, David E. Blaine and Catherine P. Blaine. He wrote a chronological history of Seattle from 1850-1897, which was still unpublished when he died. The manuscript of this book was typed and the typescript bound as a Works Progress Administration project in the late 1930s. Important accounts of the region’s history are based on Prosch’s work.

Prosch wrote many articles for the Washington Historical Quarterly, including a yearly summation of obituaries of the previous year’s "Pioneer Dead." His work is notable for his inclusion of female pioneers in the written record. In this he stands out from many of the region’s other early historians.

The events Thomas Prosch recorded were his own stories and those of his friends and neighbors. In Seattle’s history he was both participant and documenter. His pioneer fervor was tempered by a journalist’s eye. A good deal of what he first recorded stands as the Puget Sound region’s written historic record.

Thomas Prosch assembled an extensive private library of Northwest history materials. He was a frequent speaker to civic and historical organizations and was often tapped to dedicate a monument or mark an important event with a tale or a toast.

A Tragic Death

On March 30, 1915, Thomas Prosch along with his wife Virginia Prosch and two others were killed in a tragic accident. Prosch, his wife, three friends, and a driver were driving home to Seattle from a meeting of the Washington Historical Society in Tacoma. The automobile failed to negotiate a turn and plunged off the Riverton Draw Bridge into the Duwamish River. Emily Carkeek, the owner of the car, and the driver, Paul Kumai, survived, but Thomas Prosch, Virginia McCarver Prosch (1851-1915), Margaret Lenora Denny (1847-1915), and the artist Harriet Foster Beecher (1854-1915) were trapped in the back seat and lost their lives.

After his death, his daughter Edith pasted Thomas Prosch's own obituary into the scrapbook he'd kept of clippings related to pioneer deaths. Edith produced two more years of obituary summations for the Washington Historical Quarterly.

His friend University of Washington Assistant Librarian Charles W. Smith (1877-1956) reflected a few years after Prosch’s death, “Though his work was cut short in the midst of his greatest activity, he had already accomplished much of high and enduring value. Subsequent historians in the Pacific Northwest will yield grateful recognition to this industrious and painstaking workman” (Smith).


"Death of Four Friends of History," Washington Historical Quarterly, Vol. 4 (1915), p. 136; George M. Hines, "Obituary," The Quarterly of the Oregon Historical Society, Vol. I (March-December 1915), p. 276; Charles W. Smith, "Notes on the Life and Historical Services of Thomas W. Prosch," The Washington Historical Quarterly, Vol. 14, No. 1 (January 1923), p. 30; Clarence B. Bagley, History of Seattle, Washington, Vol. II (Chicago: The S. J. Clark Publishing Company, 1916), 836; Robert L. Ferguson, The Pioneers of Lake View (Bellevue, WA: Thistle Press, 1995), 29; James R. Warren, King County and its Emerald City: Seattle (Sun Valley, CA: American Historical Press, 1997), 154; Sophie Frye Bass, Pigtail Days In Old Seattle (Portland: Binfords & Mort, 1937), 88; Thomas W. Prosch, The Conkling-Prosch Family (Seattle: General Lithography & Printing Company, 1909); Thomas Wickham Prosch Collection, Accession # 42-001, University of Washington Manuscripts/Special Collections/University Archives; Thomas Prosch, "Addresses and Articles" (Seattle: bound manuscripts, 1900-1914), University of Washington Manuscripts/Special Collections/University Archives; Thomas Prosch, Facts and Figures About Washington, The Evergreen State, and Seattle, Its Queen City (Seattle: Lowman & Hanford, 1893); Thomas Prosch, compiler and annotator, continued by Edith Prosch, "Prosch Scrapbook # 4, Pioneer Obituaries 1913-1916," University of Washington Manuscripts/Special Collections/University Archives; Sister Mary Clementia, An Appreciation of Thomas Wickham Prosch, a Washington Pioneer (Seattle: University of Washington Thesis MA, 1930).

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