125 Years Young: A milestone for Tacoma’s legal newspaper

Earlier this week, I visited Tacoma Public Library’s Northwest Room to learn what its archives might hold related to our newspaper. My reason for the visit was simple: the Tacoma Daily Index turns 125 years old today. When I arrived, archivist and librarian Jeanie Fisher directed me toward one of the wide, beige filing cabinets that filled the room, and opened a drawer that contained microfilmed reels of our newspaper dating back to 1933.

Then she paused.

“You know, we might have something in the basement archives,” Fisher told me. She momentarily disappeared downstairs before returning with a large box marked ‘Tacoma Daily Index, Nov. 1, 1916 – May 16, 1917.” I found an empty table, set the box down, and lifted the lid to reveal a faded, yet pristine, stack of back issues dating back nearly a century.

A box stored in the archives at Tacoma Public Library's Northwest Room contains issues of the Tacoma Daily Index that date back to 1916. (PHOTO BY TODD MATTHEWS)

A box stored in the archives at Tacoma Public Library’s Northwest Room contains issues of the Tacoma Daily Index that date back to 1916. (PHOTO BY TODD MATTHEWS)

For some time now, I have been aware the Tacoma Daily Index has a long history in this city. But these frail, mustard-colored newspapers were physical proof. I flipped through the broadsheet pages and found the Index to be a much different newspaper 100 years ago. Sure, there were still legal notices, new business listings, and calls for bids. But there weren’t photographs or feature articles like there are today.

The most interesting difference was the paid advertisements for downtown businesses that no longer exist. Scotch Tailors at the corner of 12th and Pacific offered custom-made suits for fifteen dollars. Tacoma’s “leading dentists” could fix your teeth at the corner of 9th and Broadway. You could purchase an L. C. Smith “silent” typewriter from a Perkins Building storefront (tagline: “Clatter and confusion are enemies of thought!”). How about a sandwich for lunch at Carlyle’s Cafeteria near 9th and Pacific? And the “brush man” at Lacko-Polish near 7th and Broadway could polish your automobile, piano, furniture, and floors. The Index even had its own display ads. One somewhat embarrassing example—”Advertisements in the Index reach the man who does things.” Another advertisement—”Don’t be one of those who annoy business friends by constantly borrowing their copy. Buy it yourself. Tacoma Daily Index. $1.00 a month.”

Our newspaper was first published on May 1, 1890, as a single-sheet under the name of the Daily Mortgage and Lien Record. The name then changed to the Daily Court and Commercial Index before finally settling permanently on the Tacoma Daily Index.

When the newspaper opened its doors 125 years ago, it did so inside the five-story, stone-and-brick California Building, located at 1110-1116 Pacific Avenue. The building was home to Merrick Brothers clothing and shoe store; St. John’s Pharmacy; I. J. Sharick jewelers; and Fidelity Rent & Collection Company. A photographer and “crayon artist” named Arthur French had a live/work space there, too. Sadly, the building was demolished in 1931 and later replaced by a parking garage.

According to the City of Tacoma’s Register of Historic Places, our newspaper is older than Old City Hall (b. 1893), the Totem Pole in Fireman’s Park (b. 1903), Alber’s Mill (b. 1904), Stadium High School (b. 1891, 1906), Pythian Temple (b. 1906), Union Station (1907-1911), the former Federal Building / current Post Office Building downtown (b. 1908-1910), Tacoma Armory (b. 1909), Murray Morgan Bridge (b. 1911-1913), Point Defiance Streetcar Station (b. 1914), Pantages Theater (b. 1916-1918), Rialto Theater (b. 1918), Blue Mouse Theatre (b. 1923), Fireboat No. 1 (b. 1929), Bob’s Java Jive (b. 1929), and Frisko Freeze (b. 1950). Similarly, our newspaper was created the same year that George Francis Train arrived in Tacoma after sailing around the world in 67 days. The Index also went to press the same year Wright Park opened to the public.

The newspaper passed through the hands of only a handful of owners. Victor J. Hedberg and his business partner, J. D. Ogden, bought the paper in 1931 when then-owner H. H. Johnson, who owned the paper for 17 years, passed away. Before that, R. B. Whitaker, the paper’s original publisher, owned the Index for 24 years. But no one owned the paper longer than Marshall B. Skidmore, who ran the publication for 37 years before selling it to Sound Publishing (currently the owner of Seattle Weekly, The Daily Herald of Everett, The Daily World of Aberdeen, and other community newspapers) and retiring in 1997. Skidmore passed away in 2007 at the age of 83 (see “Tacoma’s Record Keeper,” Tacoma Daily Index, Aug. 23, 2007). His widow, Frances, passed away in 2012 at the age of 89 (see “Frances Skidmore, 89; family owned Tacoma Daily Index,” Tacoma Daily Index, Sept. 19, 2012).

Former Tacoma City Councilmember Tom Stenger was a teenager in 1974 when he was hired by Marshall to work afternoons folding and labeling the newspapers before dropping the bundles off at the post office. Stenger earned five dollars per day and worked at the Index during his junior and senior years at Stadium High School.

Al Nemec was 24 years old when Marshall hired him in 1973. Nemec still works at the newspaper.

Over its lifetime, our small legal newspaper has been a major source of information for Tacoma and Pierce County residents, attorneys, and business leaders looking to keep up on matters related to legal notices, new business announcements, property sales, and news about city, county, and state government.

On a personal note, I was hired as the Tacoma Daily Index‘s editor, reporter, and photographer in September of 2004. The position allowed me the opportunity to earn a journalism award in 2007 (see “State award for Index‘s historic preservation coverage,” Tacoma Daily Index, May 9, 2007) and publish an anthology of my work last year (see “A Reporter At Large: New anthology highlights a decade of Tacoma journalism,” Tacoma Daily Index, Oct. 1, 2014). It has been a very rewarding tenure at the newspaper.

Back at the Northwest Room, I spent nearly an hour thumbing through the century-old pages and pausing to photograph interesting advertisements or business listings. When I was done, I closed the box, returned to the front desk, and thanked Fisher for her help.

On this important anniversary, our staff looks forward to contributing to the Tacoma Daily Index‘s continued longevity.

To read more articles about the history of the Tacoma Daily Index, click on the following links:

Todd Matthews is editor of the Tacoma Daily Index, an award-winning journalist, and author of A Reporter At Large and Wah Mee. His journalism is collected online at wahmee.com.