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Civil Rights and Labor History Consortium / University of Washington

Hollywood on the Tideflats:
The Story Behind Tacoma's Hooverville

by Hilary Anderson

In 1887,Tacoma became known as the “City of Destiny,” a title celebrating its 1873 designation as the Northern Pacific Railroad’s western terminus. [1] Despite this auspicious start, the city’s economy proved susceptible to the stock market crash and Great Depression of the 1930’s. The unemployment rate rose to 25% within the United States during this period with thousands of Tacoma and Pierce County inhabitants losing their jobs. Without a steady income, rents went unpaid and families faced eviction. Homelessness spread across the county and hundreds of shantytowns sprang up to shelter men, women and children displaced by the economic upheaval. Named “Hoovervilles,” after President Herbert Hoover, who was widely blamed for the nation’s economic downturn, the settlements served as a last resort for those who had no other place to go.

A 1938 view of Hollywood on the Tideflats, a Hooverville in Tacoma that housed more than 1,000 residents at its peak in the 1930's.(Image courtesy Tacoma Public Library).

Tacoma was home to one such community, a camp of shacks known as "Hollywood on the Tideflats." Reportedly named by the local police, who “were called there frequently" and said "they were told stories fantastic enough to be in a movie script,”[2] Hollywood spread over a 300 foot-wide strip of land “at the east end of the Puyallup River, midway between the Carsten Packing Company plant and the city’s garbage dump.”[3] In many ways a classic “Hooverville,” the camp also had a unique identity, with roots stretching back well before the start of the Depression.

Hollywood began to take shape in the 1920’s, as documented by a 1924 article in the Tacoma Daily Ledger headlined “Hard-Hearted Law Spoils Happy Home of Score of ‘Boes.” According to the story, Detective U.T. Colyar and two fellow police officers decided to destroy the camp after responding to a complaint. They startled the slumbering inhabitants with the yell of “Fire!” and proceeded to burn bedding, destroy cookware, and tear picture frames off trees. “These actions, according to the paper, brought “to an abrupt end what probably has been a home for hundreds of wanderers during the past several months.”[4]

The 1924 incident, however, marked neither the end of the encampment nor of police involvement with camp residents, especially as it pertained to the illegal sale of alcohol - a potentially profitable activity during prohibition. In 1927, for example, the Daily Ledger described a raid, which included the seizure of 15 gallons of moonshine whisky, on the shack of Hollywood resident S.A. Lowery. [5] A few years later, in 1932, the same paper highlighted a dangerous concoction called a “Hollywood on the Tideflats Cocktail” which contained “100 gallons of ethyl alcohol, a half-gallon of gasoline, five gallons of ethyl acetate and five gallons of wood alcohol.”[6] Also in 1932, a raid by police and “dry squad” members resulted in the arrest of 72-year old N.A. Jonco - the so-called “king of Hollywood on the Tideflats.” Charged with selling wood alcohol to a Native American who later died, Jonco faced a stiff sentence under the so-called “Old Pioneer Statute” which made selling an intoxicant to a Native American a felony. In the end, rather than go to prison, the “king of Hollywood” hung himself, as reported in the Daily Ledger article “Suicide Cheats Arrest.”[7]

By 1937, the community had grown to 1,200, doubling from what it was in 1932, “thus giving Tacoma its worst slum district in a period of but a few years." As a result, the Federation of Social Agencies met at the city Y.W.C.A. in March 1937 and appointed a "committee to study the tideflats problem..." The committee reported that 519 residents were receiving some type of aid and that only about 15-20% of school age children were actually attending school. Additionally, they discovered that this “district has the highest murder, suicide and crime rate and that health and moral conditions are distressingly bad. There are no playfields, churches or schools in the area.”[8]

We lack the primary source materials to know very much about the residents of Hollywood or about their patterns of social life. In contrast, Seattle’s Hooverville, which also housed up to a thousand people, has far better documentation owing to the work of journalists and sociologists. Seattle’s community began forming in 1931 and initially, like Hollywood, faced violence, including deliberate burning, at the hands of city authorities. By 1934, however, city officials learned to tolerate the shantytown provided that residents policed themselves. Seattle’s Hooverville did develop a quasi-government with an unofficial mayor and community council.

We can speculate that Tacoma’s Hollywood may have had similar community formations to the Seattle Hooverville. Details on self-policing do not apper in the available newspaper sources and there are no references to a political structure akin to Seattle’s ‘mayor.’ However, the “king of Hollywood” title given to Jonco points to some sort of leadership structure. Parallels between the communities can be assumed due to their similar nature and vicinity within Washington State, but further research is needed to come to any firm conclusions

In July of 1935, Jesse Jackson, the ‘mayor’ of Seattle’s Hooverville issued a statement that began: "It was in October 1931 that I, a lumberjack, long out of employment, found myself of out funds, seeking relief from charitable institutions. The depression had just begun, and no national or state relief system had been set up, so the task of handling the relief of the needy was being attempted in a feeble way by charitable organizations that were not prepared to handle such a gigantic and unexpected problem, and naturally the relief given, through no fault of theirs, was pretty bad."[9] Here Jackson is explaining the circumstances that led to the growth of Seattle’s Hooverville, likely similar to those that caused the expansion of Tacoma’s, down by the tideflats of Commencement Bay.

During its years of existence,Seattle’s Hooverville struggled with many problems. For example, Jackson explained that “the business houses in this part of town were pretty hostile to us. They looked down upon us as a bunch of shiftless fellows, and no doubt wanted to be rid of us,”[10] though he further clarifies that attitudes improved when they [business owners] witnessed the determination of the people forced to live in the Hooverville.

Crime and relations with law enforcement also proved a major concern in both Hoovervilles. On December 27, 1936, the son of a local doctor, Dr. William W. Mattson, disappeared, likely kidnapped and murdered, his body discovered in a field in Snohomish County. The Shantytowns of Washington were scoured in the manhunts that followed. These communities were targets for several reasons including the financial need of the inhabitants. The Seattle Times printed the article “Officers Search ‘Jungles For Clues to Boy’s Slayer,’ “on orders from C.C. Spears, chief of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the Pacific Northwest. City and state police combed “jungles” and slums in a thorough search for the kidnapper-killer of Charles Mattson, according to a story by United Press.[11] Seattle Chief of Police William H. Sears ordered all “suspicious looking characters” brought in for questioning. Tacoma Police Captain Cliff Osborne did the same. His officers in Tacoma “searched habitats of itinerants,” but were not able to find anyone who fit the description. In describing the raid, the Tacoma Times showed the usual disdain for Hollywood’s inhabitants, describing them as “ragged and “unkempt.”[12] The negative outlook on the Hoovervilles could have contributed to the manhunts within them for the Mattson murderer and the associated arrests.

A view of Hollywood on the Tideflats in the late 1930's. The camp housed men, women and children left homeless during the economic upheaval of the great Depression. .(Image courtesy Tacoma Public Library).

In regards to the police involvement with Hollywood, Detective Erik Timothy, Tacoma’s police historian, has stated that “there were occasional ‘sweeps’ of the camps, usually in response to public pressure to do something about the significant crime problems associated with the shantytowns. For the most part, however, the police left the camps and their inhabitants alone.”[13] In Seattle, Hooverville mayor Jackson claimed that “We do not have a great deal of trouble in enforcing regulations laid down here. Most of our people try to do the right thing. Of course we, like all other communities, have our share of undesirables."[14] When residents could not control an incident themselves, the Seattle Police were called and the incident was taken out of the community’s hands. This self-policing had its own methods of punishment, which included kicking a troublemaker out of the area and burning down or dismantling his or her shack. “The most unruly offenders must also suffer a punishment meted out by the residents of Hooverville. We collect a party of Hooverville residents and remove the offender’s shack."[15] The wood and other raw materials could then be used for others’ homes and buildings, and it served as a very effective way to make sure that a criminal had nowhere to go back to.

Donald Francis Roy wrote “Hooverville: A Study of a Community of Homeless Men in Seattle” for his Master’s thesis at the University of Washington in 1935. In it, he expands on this idea of self-policing stating, “[a]lthough city officials have insisted that Hooverville do its own policing, Seattle’s law enforcement organization stands ready to cooperate in any crisis. [16].” Roy goes on to the tell of an incident one spring evening when a resident of the Hooverville, in a drunken stooper, proclaimed loudly and in unseemly phrasing, that he was going to “decapitate certain of his immediate neighbors with an axe.” Citizens banded together to subdue him and then demolished his hut.

As the 1930s turned into the 1940s and the economy improved, tolerance for shacktowns diminished. In 1937, Congress passed the United States Housing Act, which stated that the policy of the federal government was to “assist States and political subdivisions of States to remedy the unsafe housing conditions and acute shortage of decent and safe dwellings for low-income families.”[17]. Three years later on August 16, 1940, the Tacoma City Council created the Tacoma Housing Authority, which had the aim of eliminating slums by creating clean and safe residences for low-income families within the city. [18] In 1940, Tacoma Police Chief Einar Langseth told the Tacoma Times about his plan to clean up Hollywood on the Tideflats “in a continued drive to rid the city of undesirables.” The Chief had a poor opinion of these disadvantaged, homeless inhabitants, saying, “If they’re not good enough for other cities in this state, they’re not good enough for us...Tacoma is not going to be a dumping-ground for the ‘unwanteds’ from other communities. Conditions have been frightful, and would lead in time to knifings and other crimes."[19]

The next year in 1941, Mayor Cain of Tacoma offered a different perspective, stating that “the distressing lack of low rent facilities in Tacoma has been obvious for some time,” and he would not approve the demolition of a certain ‘subdivision’ of Hollywood until a survey had been conducted." [20]He furthered this sentiment saying that “provision must be made for those who are dispossessed."[21] Thus, there appears to have been debate amongst city officials over whether the time had come to get rid the city of the shantytowns. Additionally, in July 1939, “the Union Pacific railroad, which owns part of the property on which that particular ‘Hollywood’ section is situated, gave the city permission to tear down the shacks. After a hearing at that time though, nothing was done."[22]

Authorities in Seattle were also turning against their Hooverville. On May 20, 1941, the Commissioner of Health of Seattle wrote to the city council regarding the destruction of shacks in the encampment and “[a]t that time a committee was appointed consisting of a representative from the Health, Fire, Building and Police Departments, to take what action might be necessary in removing these shacks."[23] A year later, he wrote to the council again stating that since the committee was created, “we have burned or caused to be removed about six hundred of these sub-standard dwelling places."[24] He said that there were still about 75 in need of eradication to prevent reoccupation.

Just as Seattle’s Hooverville was considered a fire hazard, Tacoma’s Safety Commissioner Holmes Eastwood and Fire Chief Emory N. Whitaker expressed the same opinion in August 1941 in regards to Hollywood[25]. After much debate between the mayor, safety commissioner, city council, fire chief, and police chief, a decision was made and on May 20, 1942, theTacoma Fire Department  burned down Hollywood on the Tideflats. In addition to the safety hazards, the city also claimed the camp’s destruction constituted a “wartime security measure for the industries located there."[26]

In May 1942, the Tacoma Fire Department began to burn down the Hollywood settlement. Hundreds of longtime residents were displaced by the camp's destruction. (Image courtesy Tacoma Public Library).

We don’t know the details, but at some point the shacktown reemerged after it was demolished in 1942. There are no newspaper references to Hollywood on the Tideflats for fourteen years, but evidently a small encampment was rebuilt and was well known by the time it was demolished again in July 1956. In March 1956, the Tacoma News Tribune reported that the “population has dwindled from about 150 during World War II to about 60 persons.”[27]

The camp Hollywood on the Tideflats has been largely forgotten. Perhaps now, with the current economic recession, as well as with the 99% Occupation movement, it is possible to appreciate its existence and impact. Much of the public is put off by the homeless and businesses protest the camps of unemployed when they are close by, just as they did in the 1930s. Labeled as “undesirables” and accused of violence and misconduct, Hollywood residents faced poor treatment. But as we watch so many people today struggle with similar challenges, we may decide that many ‘Hooverites’ were just ‘down on their luck’ people who would work hard and honestly if there was work available

Copyright (c) 2012, Hilary Anderson
HSTAA 353 Winter 2012

[1] City of Tacoma, "City of Destiny: The Urban Heart of the South Puget Sound,"

[2] Stover, Karla, Let’s Go Walk About In Tacoma (Baltimore: PublishAmerica. 2010),101.

[3] Stover, 101.

[4] “Hard-Hearted law spoils happy home of score of ‘boes,’" Tacoma Daily Ledger, July 18, 1924.

[5] “Tacoma’s Own ‘Hollywood’ yields booze,” Tacoma Daily Ledger, November 12, 1927.

[6] “Tideflat Cocktail Big Drink,” Tacoma Daily Ledger, April 24, 1932.

[7] “Suicide Cheats Arrest,” Tacoma Daily Ledger. April 22, 1932.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Jesse Jackson, "The Story of Seattle's Hooverville," Calvin F. Schmid, ed., Social Trends in Seattle vol. 14 (October 1944), Seattle: University of Washington Press: 286–293, ref. p. 286.

[10] Jackson, 5.

[11] “Officers Search ‘Jungles’ For Clues to Boy’s Slayer,”Tacoma Times, January 20, 1937.

[12] “Roundup Continues in Kidnaper Hunt,” Tacoma Times, January 1, 1937.

[13] Erik Timothy, Message to Author, October 4, 2011, Email.

[14] Jackson, 8.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Donald Francis Roy, “Hooverville: A Study of A Community of Homeless Men In Seattle,” Unpublished Masters Thesis (Seattle: University of Washington, 1935), 79.

[17] U.S. Code: Title 42, Chapter 8, Subchapter 1437: Declaration of Policy and Public Housing Organization 42 USC 1437.

[18] Tacoma Housing Authority, “A Brief History of the Tacoma Housing Authority,”; David Wilma, "Tacoma City Council organizes Tacoma Housing Authority on August 16, 1940." HistoryLink.Org,

[19] “Police Burn River Shacks: General Clean Up in Jungle Camps,” Tacoma Times April 10, 1940.

[20] “Shantytown Residents Can’t Be Moved At Present,” Tacoma Times. September 9,1941.

[21] Ibid.

[22] “Council will Consider Demolition of Squatters’ Shanties on Flats,” Tacoma Times, August 29, 1941.

[23] "Petition of Health Commissioner Regarding Additional Staff," May 22, 1941. CF 170168. Comptroller Files, 1802-01, Seattle Municipal Archives.

[24] "Request from Commissioner of Health Regarding Destruction of Shacks," April 13, 1942. CF 173660. Comptroller Files, 1802-01, Seattle Municipal Archives. 

[25] “Council Will Consider Demolition of Squatters’ Shanties on Flats,” Tacoma Times, August 29, 1941.

[26] "INSERT article name", Tacoma Times, May 20, 1942.

[27] “Tideflat’s Hollywood Braves Eviction Talk,” Tacoma News Tribune, March 4, 1956.

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