Tacoma's Wright Park originated in 1886 as a donation of 20 acres by Charles B. Wright, the president of the Tacoma Land Company. The donation was made "upon condition ... that said land shall forever be exclusively used as and appropriated for the uses and purposes of a public park" (City Ordinance 27). Today, Wright Park comprises 27 acres of public land, the equivalent of 10 city blocks, featuring wide lawns, trails, a pond, a playground and splash pad, basketball courts, a collection of statues, a botanical conservatory, and a bowling green. The park also serves as an arboretum with a collection of about 600 trees representing 145 species. Proposed, designed, and built in an era of urbanization in the U.S. in which many parks were created, Wright Park's development was as much about politics, economics, and social change as it was about recreation.
A Park is Born
Wright Park, like many other aspects of Tacoma, exists because of the railroad. In 1873, having selected Tacoma as the terminus for its western line, the Northern Pacific Railroad formed a subsidiary called the Tacoma Land Company to develop and sell land in the city. Its first president, who also happened to be a member of the committee that selected Tacoma as the western terminus, was Charles Barstow Wright (1822-1896). As the land company's first president, Wright was personally invested in Tacoma and played a large role in the city's development.
Wright's interests in Tacoma's development were more than purely altruistic. In bequeathing the land that would become the park that bears his name, Wright stipulated that the city would need to beautify and maintain, over time, the land, and thus improve the surrounding land values. His gift came with specific conditions and a timeline: The initial improvements were to be made within two years to "clear and level said land" and "enclose the same with a substantial ornamental fence." Within three years, they city would "seed land with grass, and set out and plant not less than one hundred and fifty ornamental shade trees." In four years, 150 more trees were to be planted, and the city would need to "keep and maintain the Park in good repair and care for all the trees therein planted and plant other trees in place of all those that may die ..." (City Ordinance 27). The expectation was that the City of Tacoma would foot the bill for the improvements and maintenance. Through City Ordinance 27, passed on July 5, 1886, the city accepted the land gift and the conditions put upon it.
From one perspective, the bequeath of land that would become Wright Park was a generous gift to the city and its current and future residents. From another, the gift was also a land-improvement scheme that would, in a more immediate sense, benefit Wright and the Tacoma Land Company. In the context of other land-use schemes implemented by railroad companies in the eighteenth century, it's not difficult to see how the latter proposition is true. For example, Tacoma artist Abby Williams Hill (1861-1943) worked for both the Great Northern Railway and the Northern Pacific Railroad promoting the West through paintings. According to the Tacoma Art Museum:
"In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the railroads hired artists to create images of western landscapes and Native peoples to use in promotional campaigns encouraging railroad travel to the West for tourism or settlement ... Their colorful, widely circulated ads greatly influenced popular opinion about how its lands and resources should be used, often to the benefit of railroad companies ("Art Meets History").
Design and Development
Meeting the stipulations in Wright's gift proved challenging for a fledging city with limited coffers. Between 1886 and 1890, private citizens had to rescue the city by making monetary and other types of donations in order for the city to meet deadlines and to reach milestones. The land Wright gave to the city needed a lot of work. A story published in the Tacoma Daily Ledger on May 12, 1890, described the land as "awkward and nearly useless," calling it an "unwieldy piece of nature" (McGinnis, 9). The land had already been stripped of its trees by the Tacoma Land Company, which sold these off as timber. The remaining barren fields tended to collect rainwater, which pooled in the low-lying areas, creating bog-like conditions.
Transforming the "awkward and nearly useless" land to a flagship park would fall to Edward Schwagerl, a landscape architect trained in both Europe and the United States. Schwagerl had designed landscapes in the Midwest and put his experience to use in Tacoma designing Wright Park and Point Defiance Park. The park land's tendency to collect water gave designers the idea to build a lake feature. By the time Schwagerl left to design parks in Seattle, Wright Park's defining lake, then called Bird Lake, had been installed.
It was during this time that the city took steps to establish and appoint a board of park commissioners who would advise and assist the city in managing four existing parks -- Ferry, Puget, Point Defiance, and Lincoln, along with the acreage that would soon become Wright Park. The new parks board ratified Schwagerl's development plans in the spring of 1890, but it was another Tacoma resident, Ebenezer Roberts, a horticulturist who'd proven his capacity on the then-private Wapato Lake estate, who executed Schwagerl's vision. Roberts took over the development of Wright Park when Schwagerl left for Seattle two years later.
In these early years, Wright Park shows up in pictures and postcards as an expanse of lawn, crisscrossed by a few trails and dotted here and there with shrubs and young trees. Its distinguishing features were Bird Lake and a bridge spanning it, a statue named Fisherman's Daughter -- one of several statues donated by Clinton P. Ferry (1836-1909) (the two maiden statues facing Division Street and the two lions facing 6th Avenue were added in the 1890s). The park also offered a few footpaths. On its edges, a neighborhood was taking form. Several multistory homes and buildings bordered the park, and a few houses butted up against it. In 1905, the city purchased houses at the corner of 6th Avenue and South I Street, and the land beneath them was annexed as part of the park.
More features and amenities came at the turn of the century. By 1900, Wright Park featured rustic benches and a bandstand. In 1908, the W. W. Seymour Botanical Conservatory opened. William Seymour, president of the city's Board of Park Commissioners from 1909 to 1911, donated the funds for the conservatory, which housed "exotic" plants such as orchids, palms, birds-of-paradise, and citrus trees ("W. W. Seymour Conservatory"). Most conservatories of the era were privately held, and few allowed the public to view their collections. Wright Park was an exception; its conservatory was open to the public. In this way, Tacoma joined other industrialized U.S. cities that were opening conservatories, likely a reflection of Victorian-era ideals that sought to edify lower social classes through exposure to art and other things deemed to hold aesthetic value.
By 1930, the park hosted nearly 350 varieties of trees, mostly from throughout North America and Europe. Species from Asia and South America were later added, including Japanese Flowering Cherries and Japanese Dogwoods, bringing the park's collection to nearly 600 trees. Wright Park thus doubles as an arboretum. Its collection includes several "champion" trees as determined by the American Forest Association; these are the biggest trees of their species measured by trunk girth, height, or crown spread. Other trees of significance include a red oak planted to commemorate President Theodore Roosevelt's visit to Tacoma in 1903; a grey birch planted in 1929 honoring Tacoma mothers; and a giant Sequoia planted in 1930 in honor of the U.S. Constitution's 150th anniversary. As trees fall or are felled, they are replaced with younger trees, often in an attempt to preserve the original tree plan for the park, which can be surmised by noting where the original trees stand or stood. Many of the park's oldest trees are more than 100 years old. A newly remodeled W. W. Seymour Conservatory was scheduled to open to the public in 2022. The playground and splashpad were also slated for improvements.
By 1934, the park offered many more amenities, including a regulation lawn-bowling green, horseshow lanes, shuffleboard, a wading pool, and a baseball field. The park also saw improvements brought on through the Federal Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the form of a maintenance building, restrooms, and a senior center. Many of these buildings have been improved or replaced over the years.
Wright Park also holds a statue collection. Clinton P. Ferry and S. A. Wheelwright both appealed to the parks board to ensure that the park would include statuary. Ferry's goal was to have Tacoma emulate European traditions that he'd observed and came to appreciate during his travels. Ferry did more than advocate for statuary, however -- he also purchased and had delivered nine statues for the new park, including the two maidens that greet visitors at the Division Street entrance, and the two lions that guard the 6th Avenue entrance. These arrived in 1891. Only six of the nine were installed due to damage sustained during shipment.
Later, statues and other commemorative pieces were added, including an 1899 statue honoring Narcissa Whitman; a 1900 bronze cannon from Morro Castle in Havana, Cuba; the bust of Henrik Ibsen, installed in 1913; a bench honoring Mr. and Mrs. Percy Creath Smith, installed by the Tacoma Garden Club in 1936; and an 1892 stone survey marker installed by the U.S. Coast Guard and Geodetic Survey marking its location at halfway to the North Pole. Two bronze statues by Larry Anderson came later -- The Leaf, showing an elderly man and a small child holding a leaf, was installed in 1976, and Trilogy, depicting three children running together, was installed in 1978.
Wright Park has hosted art installation from some of the area's most renowned artists, including glass installations by Dale Chihuly in 2001 and 2008, and a painted prayer flag installation by Teruko Nimura in 2020.
A Neighborhood Park, a Park for the City
Charles Wright's sense that a park would be a worthy investment in early Tacoma was proven right within a few years of his land donation. A neighborhood began to take shape near the land within four years of Wright's donation. The announcement alone was enough to make the areas near the would-be park desirable, and homes as well as business sprouted all around the park; by 1890, the city directory advertised the area as "the most healthful part of the city" (McGinnis, 51). The park also attracted other institutional anchors, including churches, hospitals, and schools. These added further social, cultural, and architectural value to the neighborhood, creating an urban vitality and sense of community that defines much of Tacoma today.
In its design, Wright Park also served as a convenient route for people looking to get to and from downtown. Its multiple throughways and entry points supported multiple modalities, especially for those travelling on foot or bicycle, though horse-drawn carriages and streetcars travelled to and from the park. Until 1927, Yakima Avenue ran down the middle of the park and allowed for private vehicle traffic. Newspaper stories indicate that cars and drivers who sped through the park were a nuisance -- raising dust clouds and creating unsafe conditions for park users -- which likely resulted in the decision to ban cars from the park. In the place of a roadway, Wright Park gained a playground and sport courts.
Wright Park stands as a testament to the historical and long-term positive roles parks play in cities. The 27 acres that would become Wright Park were an investment, in the sense that the gift was meant to raise property values in other areas of the city that would benefit its donor. But the gift was also an investment in the city that Tacoma would and has become. The park has offered the escape from the city that people sought from urban parks in the 1800s. Later, when parks were seen as sites for structured leisure activity, Wright Park offered that, too. Now, as cities have started to appreciate the cooling effects that large concentrations of trees can have, Wright Park serves as a model for urban sustainability.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Wright Park reminded Tacomans of the importance of public parks for public health by allowing people ample space to roam and be outside when being in close quarters posed a threat. Similarly, Wright Park has played a role in the ongoing struggle for justice and civil rights in Tacoma by allowing groups and communities to come together for rallies and marches. The park hosted numerous rallies during the turbulent months of June and July 2020. Amidst the ongoing pandemic, hundreds gathered to protest policy brutality and the killings of George Floyd, Manny Ellis, Briona Taylor, and other Black people in the U.S.; to show support and solidarity for migrants during a period of anti-immigrant discourse and policies; and to show support for members of the LGBTQ community. One rally, held on June 8, attracted 800 people, many of whom marched through downtown Tacoma, stopping at various points to perform "die-ins" in which people would lie face down on the street to protest the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. A June 30 rally gathered hundreds and was supported by several Tacoma organizations and community groups, including YWCA, Centro Latino, Rainbow Center, and Tacoma Community House. Rallies at Wright Park were attended by a cross-section of Tacomans, including families and children.
Wright Park continues to delight and serve the residents of Tacoma. Countless known and unknown persons contributed to its success, from city council and park board members to the people who cleared the land, dug the lake feature, built amenities, planted trees and shrubs, and set walking paths, to civic boosters and private residents who donated money and time to satisfy Charles Wright's demanding vision.