Ferry Museum of Art opens in the Pierce County Courthouse in Tacoma on October 28, 1893.

  • By Amber Brock
  • Posted 11/30/2018
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20680
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On October 28, 1893, citizens from across Pierce County gather on the fourth floor of the new county courthouse in Tacoma to celebrate the opening of the Ferry Museum. The art museum is a collaboration between the Tacoma Academy of Sciences, the Tacoma Art League, and the Washington State Historical Society. It is named after Clinton P. Ferry (1833-1909), who donates his collection of art and historic relics acquired in travels throughout Europe. The Pierce County commissioners provide a large room in the newly opened courthouse free of charge for the museum. In addition to displaying Ferry's collections, the museum will provide the community free art classes once a week.

Duke of Tacoma

The museum was the dream of Clinton P. Ferry, known as the Duke of Tacoma for his leading role in the city. Born in Fort Wayne, Indiana, he had made his way west in the 1850s. He met and married Mary Ann Buckalew (1842-1876) in Portland, Oregon, in 1868. Mary Ann Ferry's stepfather, Matthew Morton McCarver (1807-1875), purchased land from Job Carr (1813-1887) where Tacoma would later develop near Commencement Bay in 1868. Ferry and his wife arrived a few months after McCarver and built a small cabin. McCarver and Ferry are credited with giving the new town the name Tacoma. Of all the places Ferry had lived, it was "in Tacoma, as he dug clams on the beach off Old Woman's Gulch, he felt he had found his city" (Hosmer). Ferry worked for the Tacoma Land Company and became wealthy through real-estate investment.

In 1886, Ferry traveled with his second wife, Cynthia Trafton, to Europe to represent Washington Territory at the Paris Exposition. Following the exposition, he traveled throughout Europe collecting relics and works of art. He then settled in in Geneva, Switzerland, and spent another three years collecting a large number of items including medals, coins, parchments, books, and engravings. He returned to Tacoma in 1893, minus his wife, with a strong desire to make his beloved city "the center of art in the northwest" by having his collection housed in a public museum ("Amid Art Treasures ...").

A Home for the Ferry Collection

Articles of incorporation were filed for the Ferry Museum of Art on June 16, 1893, with William B. Blackwell (1837-1922), Henry Drum (1858-1950), Clinton P. Ferry, James G. Swan (1818-1900), and Samuel Collyer (1847-1930) listed as trustees. The object and purpose of the museum "was to establish and maintain in Tacoma a museum of art; to collect relics of the early history of North America and elsewhere; and particularly of the state of Washington" ("Tacoma Museum of Art"). In addition to a museum, there would be space for an art school for the public. Ferry agreed to donate much of his vast personal art collection to the new museum.

A joint meeting of the Tacoma Academy of Sciences, the Tacoma Art League, the Ferry Museum, and the State Historical Society was held on October 11, 1893, to discuss options for a location for their project. Pierce County had just completed a stunning new four-story courthouse building and offered the group an unoccupied room on the top floor free of charge.

As county officials moved into the new courthouse, the many treasures that Ferry had obtained during his overseas travel and from his close friends, many who were fellow Washington Territory pioneers, moved into a room on the southeast corner of the fourth floor. The Ferry collection included fine models of The Goose Boy and The Dying Gladiator, architectural casts, paintings, copies of fine European pottery, a collection of photographs and etchings, historical books, and an ax donated by Anthony Carr who had used it to erect the first house in Tacoma.

The museum's grand opening was held on Saturday, October 28, 1893, from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Tickets for the event were 25 cents for adults and 10 cents for children. Music was performed by the Puget Sound Orchestra and refreshments were served by the Women's Exchange.

In the opening remarks introducing Clinton Ferry and the new museum, Judge Frank Allyn stated:

"It is my pleasant duty to introduce to you tonight one who in form only requires an introduction -- one of our earliest and most highly esteemed residents, though of late years almost a stranger to us, who, though traveling in other lands, kept Tacoma warmly in his heart. Wherever he wandered, wherever he stayed, gather some choice treasure as a loving gift to his own fair city; thus it is that to-night ... we are now surrounded by the choicest treasure of the art schools of Europe. Here 'Where rolls the Oregon,' here where 'Touched by a light that never fades, a glory all unsung, high upon yon mountain side are God's own pictures hung,' we may now feel ourselves in Italy with Byron and see before us the gladiator lie butchered to make a Roman holiday, or spend an hour in Greece, the cradle of all arts, and as all ages and all lands are debtor to Greece, and to her early spirit of active intellectuality ... so we may hope the northwest country will become the debtor to our city if we guard carefully these we have and the additions promised to the free art school of Tacoma. Can we realize where but a few years ago were only the pathless woods we are now admiring the frieze of the Parthenon and the finest reproductions of the architecture of Holland, France, and Germany as early as 1535 ..." ("Amid Art Treasures ...").

The museum was initially open to the public each Sunday from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. with no admission charge. Clara Ball Jacobs (1854-1906), a graduate of the Cooper Art School in New York, offered to devote the hours of 10 to 12 every Saturday morning to free instruction in drawing. Her first class was held in December 1893 with 27 students participating. This number would grow to full capacity of nearly 100 students by the spring of 1894.

The Ferry Museum remained in the courthouse until 1911, when it moved into the Washington State Historical Society building a few blocks away on Cliff Avenue.


"Tacoma Museum of Art," Tacoma Daily Ledger, June 16, 1893, p. 4; "Tacoma's Art Museum," Ibid., October 25, 1893, p. 2; "Amid Art Treasures: Formal Opening of the Ferry Museum in Its New and Attractive Home," Ibid., October 30 ,1893, p. 4; "Free Art Class Opened," Ibid., December 3, 1893, p. 9; "Col. C. P. Ferry Dies Suddenly at San Diego," Ibid., August 1, 1909, p.1-2; "Ferry's Art Museum," Tacoma Daily News, September 29, 1893, p. 3; "Art at the Museum," Ibid., November 30, 1893, p. 6; Murray Morgan, Puget's Sound: A Narrative of Early Tacoma and the Southern Sound (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1979), 267-268; Page Hosmer, "Pioneer Had Hopes for Beautiful Tacoma," Tacoma News Tribune, February 18, 1951, p. 3.

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