Murray Morgan is back. The region’s favorite historian and an award-winning journalist, Morgan (1916 – 2000) is the author of more than 20 books, three of which have been recently re-issued by the University of Washington Press. For readers unfamiliar with Morgan, he proved colorful, humorous, and great storytelling could be married with accuracy and insight to retell history. He is a writer whose wit and economy of words is celebrated by novelists, journalists, locals and fellow historians alike.
Skid Road: An Informal Portrait of Seattle is the best known of Morgan’s works. It tells the story of Seattle from the arrival of the Denny gang to the 1962 World’s Fair. Along the way, we are introduced to the willful and creative characters that left their mark on the city. We meet Anna Louise Strong, the pro-labor Seattle School Board member who made an enormous impact during the Seattle Strike of 1919 and would go on to chronicle the Russian and Chinese regimes from the inside. And Doc Maynard, early settler and unorthodox entrepreneur who would encourage naming the nascent city for his friend Chief Sealth. And there is a delightful story of the recall of a Seattle mayor due to his unethical and immoral behavior, which included his failure to nix plans for the building of the largest brothel in the world on Beacon Hill.
This is a book you want to read for pleasure as well as for gleaning unforgettable tidbits to impress those out-of-town visitors. Skid Road is by no means a comprehensive history of the city. As Morgan’s daughter Lane, a fine writer in her own right, remarked at a recent publication event, Morgan was a white man writing in the 1950s and the work is limited by that context. Were he alive today, there is little doubt his work would be populated by a more ethnically diverse crew.
Morgan was a native of Tacoma who attended the University of Washington. He cheered the 1936 UW men’s rowing team (the boys in the boat) as they crossed the finish for gold at the infamous Berlin Olympics. He was stationed in the Aleutians during World War II, later practiced journalism in New York and sojourned for a time with his family in Mexico. Well-traveled and adventurous, Murray Morgan and his wife, Rosa, were Northwesterners at heart and lived for decades outside Tacoma at Trout Lake.
Murray and Rosa were occasional visitors to our neighborhood, visiting the Leschi Water Park while they were at the UW, and later stopping by to see their daughter Lane who lived in Leschi from late 1975 to late 1979 near 34th and E. Yesler. As an aside: Lane remembers taking the 27 Yesler bus home from her work at Argus—a notable Seattle weekly before The Weekly—and walking down through the woods below the elementary school, or else riding the Madrona bus that ran along Lake Washington Blvd. (Imagine: a bus that ran along the Lake!). One of the neighbors she enjoyed conversing with was Roger Lippman of SDS and Weathermen fame who was put on trial as a member of the Seattle 7 (see Kit Bakke’s recent book, Protest on Trial.)
The re-issue of Skid Road carries an introduction by Mary Ann Gwinn, the former book editor for the Seattle Times. The two additional Murray Morgan titles that the UW Press has released are Puget’s Sound: A Narrative of Early Tacoma and the Southern Sound with an introduction by Michael Sullivan, and The Last Wilderness: A History of the Olympic Peninsula with an introduction by Tim McNulty.
Check them out from the library or support your local independent bookstore.