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Charles Wright organizes Tacoma Light and Water Co. in June 1884.

HistoryLink.org Essay 5023 : Printer-Friendly Format

In June 1884, Charles B. Wright (1822-1898), president of the Northern Pacific Railroad, organizes the Tacoma Light and Water Co. to provide drinking water and electric lights. The City Council grants the company a franchise to use city streets and alleys for utilities. Retiring NP Superintendent General John Sprague becomes company president and Isaac Smith is named engineer.

Residents of Old Tacoma drew their drinking water from springs or wells they dug themselves. The first commercial deliveries of drinking water in Tacoma came in 1873 from Tom Quan and his mule Long-Ear Nellie. Quan filled barrels of fresh water at a spring near the Commercial Dock and hauled them up the hill to Pacific Avenue where he sold them. In 1877, W. J. “Old Billy” Fife excavated pits on the west side of 9th Street at Broadway, which he connected to a stream. Then he connected the crude cisterns to a system of pipes (hollowed-out logs) to 9th Street and Pacific Avenue. There he sold drinking water by the bucket. Later he connected businesses and residences to the tiny system.  

In 1883, John E. Burns and Philip Metzler built another system. They connected several streams via a tunnel and flume to a 100,000-gallon reservoir. The reservoir fed a system of mains that ran along Pacific Avenue.  

Charles Wright had been instrumental in developing Tacoma and endowing churches and schools. He asked for, and was granted, a franchise by the City Council to build and operate a water supply system. Isaac Smith built wooden flumes from Spanaway Lake and Clover Creek, which filled a reservoir at Hood Street. Other water came from Tacoma Eastern Gulch and Galliher Gulch. In January 1885, the company delivered water to its first customer, Puget Sound Transfer Co., 13th and Pacific. Burns and Metzler’s business succumbed to the competition.

In 1885, the flow from Galliher Creek was used to power a dynamo and electricity was available for consumers.  

In 1893, Wright sold the water and electrical utility systems to the City for $1.75 million.

Murray Morgan, Puget's Sound: A Narrative of Early Tacoma and the Southern Sound (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1979), pp. 313-317.

Travel through time (chronological order):
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Bird's-eye map of Tacoma, 1878
Courtesy UW Special Collections (Neg. UW13691)

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