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Murray Morgan’s historic ‘Puget’s Sound’ gets an update

Murray Morgan is best remembered around Seattle as the author of “Skid Road,” the lively history of the city’s early decades that was first published back in the 1950s.

But Morgan wrote plenty of other books, including a handful of additional titles about local history. New editions of some of Morgan’s most popular titles have just been released, including “Puget’s Sound,” his 1979 history of Tacoma and South Puget Sound.

Michael Sullivan was tapped by University of Washington Press to write a new introduction to “Puget’s Sound.” Sullivan is a historian and consultant based in Tacoma, who earlier in 2018 shared with KIRO Radio the mystery of a collection of vintage images created by an unknown photographer a century ago.

Morgan was born in 1916 and grew up in Tacoma. Sullivan came to know him pretty well; they worked together on projects, and Morgan would visit the history class that Sullivan taught for UW Tacoma in the 1990s.

Morgan’s writing

Michael Sullivan says that before Murray Morgan became a great regional historian and author, Murray was already being chased by world history.

“History follows him around,” Sullivan said. “He and his father went to the Olympics and were in the audience with Adolf Hitler when the “Boys in the Boat” won the Olympic Gold Medal. He and [his wife] Rosa went back to Germany and were on the Rhine River when the Germans invaded Poland, and they had this scary escape as young Americans from Budapest. Then, he came back [to the United States] and was doing his Masters Degree at Columbia, and ended up getting a night job at CBS and ran into Edward R. Murrow.”

Along with “Skid Road” and “Puget’s Sound,” there have been plenty of books written about Northwest history over the past 100 plus years. But Sullivan says there’s something about Morgan’s writing that continues to set his books apart from most of the others.

“One of the things that makes Murray’s style of history or his voice seem so contemporary today, is he almost has a cinematic way of looking at the events of the past,” Sullivan said. “He had just a natural sense of fascination with human nature and ethics and the behaviors of people from another time, and had a gift for being able to translate that into modern terms.”

As far as that “cinematic way” goes, Sullivan shared an anecdote about the days back in the 1990s when Morgan would come and speak to Sullivan’s students at UW Tacoma. Sullivan says that the class was held in the Perkins Building in Tacoma, which overlooked the site of a notorious clash between laborers and the National Guard in Tacoma back in the 1930s.

Sullivan says that when Morgan told the story, the students were transfixed.

“Murray just went right down through the building telling layers of stories like you were riding in a historical elevator,” Sullivan said. “And by the time we got down to the ground floor, he started describing the labor struggles that day and the workers coming over the bridge, and the National Guardsmen and all that stuff, with bayonets fixed, confronting [the laborers] right in the middle of the street between the federal building and the newspaper offices.”

And then, says Sullivan, came the surprise ending.

“He ended the story by going, ‘Yeah, I remember my eyes still stinging from that [teargas],’” Sullivan said. “[So] when he got to the end of the story, you realized he had been standing there up the hill as a young kid. He would’ve been 18 or so, and had actually witnessed it himself, so it was quite an amazing thing.”

“Talk about bringing history right into the room,” Sullivan said. “He had that gift.”

Out from Seattle’s shadow

Nearly 20 years after Morgan passed away at age 84, Sullivan believes that the Tacoma-born and UW-educated historian and author’s influence goes far beyond college students or even local history enthusiasts. In fact, Sullivan says, he sees it where he lives and works.

“I look at Tacoma and the way that, [through] historic preservation . . . the city has its character and the buildings,” Sullivan said. “The urban design of the city seems to have a certain ingrained respect for history that, I think, [in] Portland, Seattle [and] other cities . . . it’s being lost in the shuffle a little bit. And I think, in part, [it’s] because of Murray and that sense of history that’s so widely understood in Tacoma.”

“I mean, everybody’s read Murray’s books,” Sullivan said. “[He’s] influencing the character and the shape and the appearance and the culture of Tacoma, even today.”

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