No other local historian has educated more Puget Sounders about where they live than Murray Cromwell Morgan.
History buffs of all ages continue to discover the lore, legends and personalities that formed the area through Morgan’s writings, even almost two decades after his death. That’s thanks to the Tacoma Public Library’s collection of his essays and articles. His most notable books, “Skid Row” and “Puget’s Sound” are also standard reading for anyone looking for information about the whos, whys and whens of the region.
Born in 1916 to a Unitarian minister father and a playwright mother, Morgan graduated from Stadium High School in 1933. He then shuttled to the University of Washington, where he served as the editor of the college newspaper. He was even suspended for a day after school officials became enraged when he wrote an article about sexually transmitted diseases on campus, which was a taboo subject in the pre-war era.
Graduating from UW in 1937, Morgan worked a few years at newspapers before going on to Columbia University for a graduate degree in communications. Thus started his journalism career that included stints at Time, New York Herald-Tribune and CBS Radio. He later became a history instructor at University of Puget Sound and then Tacoma Community College, as well as volunteered his talents as a frequent lecturer to all who invited him to speak.
Throughout his career, he never stopped researching and writing about local history, first with “The Bridge to Russia: Those Amazing Aleutians” in 1947. His editor was none other than Gore Vidal. Then came “Dixie Raider,” the story of a Confederate ship sent to the Pacific Northwest to harass Union forces during the Civil War. His most famous work, “Skid Road” was published in 1951. It remains the longest running book about the Pacific Northwest and it is still in print today – 66 years after it was written. His later books included everything from “Puget’s Sound,” “The Last Wilderness” and “Century 21: The Story of the Seattle World’s Fair, 1962.”
Alongside his 23 book titles, Morgan wrote historical essays for local, regional and national publications. These are largely collected in a digital archive titled “Murray’s People” as a project of Tacoma Public Library’s Northwest Room. But locals might recognize his name even without knowing who he was or his role in the local history he recorded. Many Tacomans see a landmark that bears his name.
Morgan died in 2000, three years after the 11th Street bridge that connects downtown with the tideflats was renamed in his honor. He had worked as a bridge tender on the lift-span bridge in the 1950s and even wrote much of “Skid Road” during his long night shifts alone in the tender room.
The Tacoma Historical Society also honors a history-minded person or group with its Murray Morgan Award. Morgan received the first award in his name back in 1992. Local historian Michael Sullivan received the award earlier this year and is carrying Morgan’s tradition of recording and presenting local histories.