Tacoma Narrows Bridge
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In April of 1939 the resident graphologist at the Tacoma Times was busy analyzing the handwriting of a Mr Harry P Cain. Once she completed her painstaking assessment she declared him a man of 'natural ability and dynamic force'—as well she might. Because Harry P Cain became a Tacoma legend. He ran for mayor and was defeated in the primary, only for one of the two remaining candidates to drop dead on stage during a town hall meeting. Enter Mr Cain as a replacement candidate—a no hoper who snatches victory from the clutches of his opponent and eventually goes on to become a US Senator.
And Harry P Cain sort of embodied something about Tacoma—he once described himself as a 'conservative, militant, liberal, moderate, purist, radical and now and again what some call a populist'—non conforming was his natural state of being. So it wasn't entirely surprising that he took a stand as the only mayor west of the Mississippi to publicly oppose the relocation of Japanese Americans during World War II.
In 1939, though, all that drama lay ahead of him. This was the year that the Wizard of Oz told the story of a mythic, fantastical, technocolour search for a home...and it was also the year of Washington State's golden jubliee. The first 50 years of statehood called for a celebration—Harry P Cain was in charge of throwing the party.
And what a party—there were workers at the Continental Bakery dressing up in western garb and jubilee hats posing for photos beside a sign that said 'Picnic Days Are Here Again'; there were hand made jubilee dolls to pin on your jacket—each one depicting a typical pioneer style lady; there was an air show and a water carnival. And there was a staggering climax on July 20, 1939 at Tacoma's Stadium Bowl.
Picture the scene—there's 2,000 people acting out historic events from Washington's fifty years of history—there are searchlights illuminating the night sky—and there's Jubilee Queen Amy Lou Murray on a throne, being carried by a group of young men, each one painted gold. Told you it was staggering. And from her elevated station in midfield the Jubliee Queen had the perfect view of the grand finale—featuring princesses representing all of Washington's 39 counties, 100 women in long evening gowns and an honor guard of men in military uniforms.
This was the party that Harry P Cain threw—the party that was being planned as the Satkos—Paul, Mollie and their eight children—rolled down the western slopes of the Cascades into the Pacific Northwest, the tarps covering their home made RV billowing in the drizzly Northwest autumn.
After an unsuccessful attempt to find work in Seattle, Tacoma offered shelter and a welcome of sorts for the weary travelers—the Satkos quickly fell in with Henry Foss, successor to Thea Foss and head of the family tugboat business on the waterfront. And it's probably through that friendship they were able to set up house on the tide flats—next to the pulp mills along those muddy margins:
Michael Sullivan's a historian and lecturer at University of Washington in Tacoma.
It was sort of the hobo jungle for Tacoma. Where they ended up was the working waterfront right underneath the chinstrap of the city. The neighbors would all have been mostly unemployed seamen, longshoremen, stevedores, sailors who didn't have a ship. And then just a lot of the cast-offs you know. Hard drinking, almost all men, living in shanties on the waterfront. And Paul and the family fell right in—they found a place to put the boat up right on the water so they could begin working on converting it from a motorized land vehicle to a water going ship. They built a shanty next door and they lived right next to the boat right down on the waterfront.
Paul: In the meantime we did run into quite a little difficulty there. In August of 1939, why, one of our children—the youngest one taken sick suddenly—and we couldn't find out what was the matter with him so we resorted to send him to the hospital. In the meantime he died there.
That was Paul Satko talking in 1941 to Amos Berg of the Smithsonian. The baby he spoke about was Jimmy - whose birth had temporarily held up the family's leaving Virginia. Jimmy died from ingesting a salmon bone. In one of those ironies of history, salmon at that time was the food of the poor. This was the second child Paul and Mollie lost—their daughter Susan died from pneumonia many years before. And it's interesting that Paul touches on Jimmy's death so briefly in his taped account of the story. Whether he wasn't given to emotional reflection—or he was just a man of his time—he certainly wasn't one to dwell on things.
Paul: A week later Joe he fell off—the sixteen year old boy—he fell off a ladder. He was helping me putty up some of the cracks and he fell off the ladder and broke his leg. So we had a little difficulty there. That kind of halted the work for a little while.
Joe's daughter Cathy and Joe's son Herb have slightly differing accounts of this accident—but they both agree on one thing—Paul had a hand in it.
Cathy: Well he was standing on a ladder and he literally kicked the ladder out from under him. And both of his legs were broken. And what's amazing though—
DB: Both of Joe's legs were broken?
Yes in that fall—because I guess he just lost his temper and kicked the ladder out.
And here's Herb's account:
I know he was getting to be a teenager. I understand there was some head-butting going on and at one point Joe was either knocked or fell, depending on what account you're believing, off the scaffolding. I understand there was some head butting going on. off the scaffolding and broke his arm.
So three different versions of the same event—from Paul and his two grandchildren. And it's hard to know for sure what really happened—what we can say for sure is that Paul was a hard taskmaster—he was hard on his kids and on himself. And it can't have been easy for any of them living in a shack on the waterfront that was so rat infested—that the city torched it once the family had left town.
Yet whatever was going on within the family when the crowds and the newspapers weren't around, as the spring of 1939 turned to summer the excitement of the state jubilee continued to build. And the Satko's story seemed to amplify it somehow:
Michael: You know the community took up the whole business of wanting to encourage them on their journey and Paul reciprocated. When they finally put a coat of paint on the boat which was, you know, the golden color of the jubilee.
DB: What kind of attention were they getting town?
Well they were getting donations of planks and wood you know to be able to build it. There were teachers that were bringing school groups out to look at the boat. There were people on the waterfront who would come down and lend a hand with a chore of the day. You know people donated food and clothing for the kids—outfitters lent them stuff he needed—the kinds of equipment they'd need on their journey. It went from skepticism by November of 1939 to—they're going to do this and we're going to help them.
The first attempt to get the boat in the water ended up with it stuck amidst a tangle of logs and broken scaffolding on the shore—but a tugboat owned by Satko's friend Henry Foss towed it out into clear water. And for the rest of the winter Paul road tested the Ark around the coastline near Tacoma in preparation for the journey north.
Today—the waterway where the sea-going version of the Ark was born is lined with condominiums on one side and marinas on the other. It's just south of what's now known as the Murray Morgan Bridge. In newspaper photos taken at the time, viewed from the front the Ark of Juneau looks square sided, boxy and extremely narrow—it's only 8 foot wide remember. The wheelhouse roof looks as high above the deck as the keel is underneath it. A breath of wind could tip it over, you'd think. But like the graphologist assessing Harry P Cain's character from his handwriting, if you were inclined to read something about PAUL SATKO'S character from the boat he built you'd say he was unorthodox, stubborn, no frills—and definitely one of a kind.
You'd also say HE was a man of natural ability and dynamic force—Tacoma was ready for the Satkos and Paul was just the man to take advantage of that—he'd feign embarrassment about the newspaper interviews and newsreels and the photographs, but somehow in nearly every picture he's front and center. Wearing a captain's hat that was given to him as gift, surrounded by family, broad chested and evidently proud. And at his side, Mollie his wife.
So on Sunday April 21st, 1940 the Ark of Juneau set sail for Alaska. Three days later the Ark of Juneau was gently at rest on a sandbank to the west of Magnolia in Seattle. Tacoma, it turns out, wasn't the only city to have been watching the family's progress. But if Tacomans like Harry P Cain saw something of themselves in the Satko's pioneer spirit—their enterprise and self reliance—the authorities in Seattle just saw recklessness, fecklessness and stupidity.
To some wise seafaring souls in the city to the north, Paul Satko's family needed saving—not from the weather and not from the Magnolia sandbank—but from Paul Satko himself.