Early Tacoma Police
Tacoma’s 1st Police Force
The Law was formalized in Tacoma on May 6, 1869, when a precinct was established with H.N. Steele appointed Inspector, and Job Carr and A.C. Lowell, judges. The County Sherriff, based out of then-County Seat Steilacoom, was the official police force for Tacoma. Hunt’s History of Tacoma mentions “Sherriff Davisson” during those early frontier years.
Locally, Tacoma City's citizens appointed Leonard Diller as their first Marshal. Eight men held this office during eleven terms of office that ended in early 1884, including Howard Carr (Job's youngest son), who served three separate terms as Marshal. Job was also Marshal for four months in 1880.
Howard Carr, Tacoma's first marshall
Law enforcement was needed, in part, because of the presence of numerous saloons in Old Town. As Herbert Hunt states, “The bar was [a birthright] of nearly every hotel, large or small, in that day” (Hunt, 129). Supporters of temperance called it “Demon liquor.” Drinking liquor could lead to belligerence, and often violence. Some saloons allowed patrons to fight for drinks. “This was a sort of free-for-all bout, usually refereed with some regard for the rules of the game, and took place in a saloon. One after another, men who had faith in their fists entered the improvised ring, and went at it hammer and tongs. Sometimes one man would whip all of those who offered themselves. The man who made the poorest showing had to treat all hands. Now and then one of these fights wound up seriously…” (Hunt, 130).
Two such incidents are reported in the Tacoma Daily Ledger in spring 1883. In both cases, the arresting officer was Howard Carr. In April, the Ledger tells of “A Vicious Assault” when James Dunn, a crewman off the ironically-named steamer Welcome was beaten, shot and left for dead. The account states “shortly after the shooting a warrant was swore (sic) out by Marshall Carr for the arrest of the parties” who had been identified as Alex Ryberg, a sailor, and Gus Olsen, a Tacoma-area butcher. Later that week, there is a report that the two perpetrators were found and arrested in Seattle and returned to Tacoma to go before a judge.
In May, the Ledger tells the story of William Johnson, a longshoreman who lived and worked in Tacoma, who was seriously injured in an attack. Found beaten and suffering from knife wounds, he said he had been attacked while in his bed. Marshal Carr “stated that no arrests had been made, because it was not known who committed the deed. He was under the impression that Johnson had received his wounds in a drunken row and that up to that hour he had not deigned to seek the solace of his own cabin” (TDL, 5/12/1883). A day later, it was reported that Marshal Carr arrested Peter Hall in the case. Hall could not make the $500 bail and was being held in jail pending trial. In conclusion, Carr’s instincts were right. Johnson admitted that he had been drinking and was attacked in the street.
It is said that Old Tacoma had two jails. In truth, it was one jail and a barn… On particularly busy nights, the two-cell jail could not hold all those whose lack of self-control ended in arrest. “The first jail was built around 1871, in the alley between the 2900 blocks of McCarver and Starr Streets in Old Town. It was a small, wooden two-cell structure built of 2 x 4 planks that were laid flat and spiked together. A small police station was built at North 12th and “G” Streets, and was later moved, along with the jail, to the Old Town Wharf at the foot of Starr Street. In the 1890’s both of these buildings were moved onto the bluff at North 30th and Starr Streets and remained in use until 1913” (Timothy, 13). The barn was located on Carr Street, and served as a holding cell when needed.
Old Town Tacoma, the jail is the building in the top left of the photo.
“Today’s City of Tacoma evolved from two separate cities, and the Tacoma Police Department traces its beginnings to the original lawmen of these two cities” (Timothy, 12). The position of “Marshal” was used by both Tacomas until the two cities merged in 1884. At that time, Old Town – established as the First Ward – was still considered a rough part of town. In the 1890’s, with ships still crowding the lumber docks and sailors on shore leave patronizing the saloons, “the police walked two and two, one hand firmly grasping a long hickory club and the other… gripped the butt of a ’41. To separate meant disaster… ” (Timothy, 26). In 1905, Fischer found refuge from the “boisterous red-light district in Tacoma …” at Seaman’s Rest, a mission outreach run by two women who joined forces with St. Peter’s and other congregations to turn the tide against this unseemly reputation (Fisher, 59).
By 1910, First Presbyterian (1873), St. Patrick’s Church (1892) and many other congregations had been established and worked to strengthen Tacoma’s moral fiber while the local police force became better-equipped to secure the safety of the city’s inhabitants. The Croation-Slavonian Benevolent Society was established in 1901, providing much-needed services to newly-arrived immigrants. Saw mills and shipbuilding facilities employed many residents, and 30th Street had more shops and fewer saloons. Old Town was less rough around the edges and gradually becoming one of Tacoma’s most-desired residential districts.
Old Town Tacoma, 1888
Carr, Job. Dictated account, 1885.
Fischer, A. Otto. “Foc’sle Days: A Story of my Youth,” Charles Scribner & Sons, NY, 1947.
Hunt, Herbert. History of Tacoma Washington. Tacoma, Washington. Tacoma Historical Society Press, 2005.
Keliher, The Rt. Rev. John. “A History of Old St. Peter’s Church, Tacoma”.
Ripley, Thomas Emerson. Green Timber. Palo Alto, California. American West Publishing Company, 1968.
Tacoma Daily Ledger, April 1883.
Timothy, Det. Erik. "More Than A Century of Service," Tacoma Police Department, 2008.