Ramsey op-ed: “Seattle is today the principal city in the state partly because 120 years ago it continued to support its business class, socially and politically.”

The headline on this post is a key sentence from an excellent Seattle Times op-ed by former business columnist and Seattle Times editorial writer Bruce Ramsey. (Yes, it’s a very long – too long – headline, but we wanted to be sure those who just skim these things on the blog readers, we wanted to be sure the message was delivered.)

Ramsey writes,

The Panic of 1893 slammed into the four-year-old state of Washington like a typhoon, sweeping away puffball investments in streetcar lines, hotels and entire new towns..

It was a calamity for the whole state. In pursuit of that story, for three years I dug through old newspapers, archives and court documents from 1893-1897, researching my book, “The Panic of 1893: The Untold Story of Washington State’s First Depression.”

How the region’s two largest cities — really towns then — responded set the fate for each and poses a lesson for modern-day leaders.

He draws a stark contrast between Tacoma and Seattle, one that offers lessons to today’s political, civic and business leaders. At the time of the panic, Tacoma was nearly as large and prosperous as Seattle and enjoyed some key advantages. But,

From my research, I came to the belief that its Populism was much of the reason why Tacoma fell behind Seattle in the 1890s. Populism was an angry, cynical creed — suspicious of bondholders, bankers, business leaders and successful people generally. It was particularly hostile to the immigrant Chinese.

We encourage you to read the short op-ed; it inspired us to buy the book. But, again, this significant takeaway.

The books say Seattle surged ahead of Tacoma because Seattle took advantage of the Gold Rush to the Yukon — which it did. But why did Seattle make the most of the opportunity when Tacoma did not? The atmosphere in Seattle was different. The psychology was different. Seattle was more socially united and focused on the possible. Tacoma was focused on blame. The editor of the Tacoma Ledger newspaper complained again and again of the “croakers” and “calamity howlers” on Pacific Avenue spreading gloom and bitterness toward Tacoma’s bankers and its business class…

He acknowledges that Tacoma has long since shed that legacy. Yet, he writes, the lost ground was not fully regained. Consequently,

Seattle is today the principal city in the state partly because 120 years ago it continued to support its business class, socially and politically. If it strays far enough from that, it risks being sidelined, becalmed, left behind.

History shows that the impulse to bring down the successful may bring down a successful town. In resisting that impulse, the people of Seattle have helped to sustain their city.

The clear question: Will they still?

Santayana famously wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Ramsey’s history lesson is a good reminder for us.