Tacoma -- Thumbnail History

  • By David Wilma and Walt Crowley
  • Posted 1/17/2003
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 5055
See Additional Media

Tacoma epitomizes the cultural, economic, social, and technological development of the Puget Sound region and the entire state of Washington. Situated above Commencement Bay on scenic bluffs that were home to the Puyallup Tribe and other native peoples for millennia, the county seat of Pierce County possesses a natural harbor that was admired by the sound's earliest Euro-American explorers. Tacoma won the prize of the era in 1873 when the Northern Pacific Railroad selected it as its western terminus. Tacomans have since established their community as a regional center for Pacific Rim shipping, forest products, high technology, and the arts. Ranked in the 2000 census as Washington's third-largest city, Tacoma in the early years of the twenty-frist century embarked on an urban renaissance, with the construction of light rail transit, new museums and cultural centers, and a state-of-the-art telecommunications network.

On Commencement Bay 

The Puyallup River flows from the slopes of Mount Rainier and enters Puget Sound in a broad delta at the head of a bay. The Puyallup tribe had several settlements on the delta and they called the area Squa-szucks. Lieutenant Charles Wilkes (1798-1877) of the U.S. Navy named the inlet Commencement Bay in 1841 because that is where he started his survey of Puget Sound.

The first Euro-American habitation on Commencement Bay was by Swede Nicholas Delin (1817-1882). He built a water-powered sawmill in 1852 where a creek entered the head of the bay. A small community grew up around the operation, but the settlers evacuated during the Indian War of 1855-56 and they did not return. In 1864, Union Army veteran Job Carr (1813-1887)spotted a small lagoon that the Puyallups called Shu-bah-lip where the bluffs dropped down to the water. He renamed it Eureka and hoped to build a city there.

It took the arrival in 1868 of developer ("boomer" in the lexicon of the time) Morton McCarver (1807-1875) to start things rolling. Carr sold most of his claim to McCarver, who platted "Tacoma City." Phillip Ritz (1827-1889), a Northern Pacific subcontractor (and later the founder of Ritzville in Adams County), suggested the name "Tacoma" but by the time McCarver got around to filing his plat Anthony Carr, (1841-1923), Job's son, had filed a townsite plat for "Tacoma" on land that he owned, so McCarver added "City" to his plat name. Ritz and/or Carr had borrowed an indigenous name for the snow-capped volcano to the southeast that explorer George Vancouver called Rainier. Although not the originator of the name, it was McCarver who started a campaign to attract settlers and the Northern Pacific Railroad to Tacoma.

Here Comes the Train 

In 1873, McCarver's efforts bore fruit and the Northern Pacific Railroad chose Commencement Bay as the western terminus of the transcontinental line it was building from Minnesota to Puget Sound. In Washington, the rails then ran only from Kalama on the Columbia River and the NP had a surprise for McCarver and his investors. The company built its depot on a spot two miles south of Tacoma City and dubbed it New Tacoma.

In November 1875, the territorial legislature passed a law incorporating McCarver's Tacoma City (which had already been incorporated once before, by the Pierce County commissioners a year and a half earlier). Although the legislation named the municipality the City of Tacoma, the settlement was now commonly referred to as Old Tacoma to distinguish it from the NP's New Tacoma. In 1880, Pierce County residents voted to move the county seat, which had been in Steilacoom since the county was formed in 1852, to New Tacoma. The next year, the legislature incorporated New Tacoma, leaving two similarly named but independent city governments operating on Commencement Bay.

The transcontinental link came through in 1883, and by the following January the separate municipalities of (Old) Tacoma (population 400) and New Tacoma (population 4,000) had, by another act of the legislature, been consolidated as "Tacoma." With a transcontinental rail connection and Washington achieving statehood in 1889, the future was Tacoma's oyster.The population grew from 1,098 in 1880 to 36,006 in 1890. The Northern Pacific built a fine headquarters building on Pacific Avenue and wharves on the tideflats connected the railroad with trade to the orient. Streetcar lines reached out from downtown to new neighborhoods. Lumber, coal, wheat, and immigrants flowed through the city. Rudyard Kipling visited in 1889 and described Tacoma, "literally staggering under a boom of the boomiest" (Gallacci, 49).

The boom busted during the Panic of 1893, but by 1901 warehouses and grain terminals lined the waterway (later named after Thea Foss) dredged by the NP for a distance of two miles. Tacoma was easily the "Lumber Capital of the World" (Gallacci, 89). George Francis Train came up with "City of Destiny" to promote the city and he penned, "Seattle! Seattle! Death Rattle, Death Rattle; Tacoma! Tacoma! Aroma, Aroma" (Gallacci, 52).

In 1904, the Northern Pacific's lock on rail service and wharf space in Tacoma was broken with a Supreme Court decision breaking up trusts and monopolies, and with the sale of Puyallup Reservation lands in the delta. The Great Northern Railway, the Union Pacific Railroad, and the Milwaukee Road all built transcontinental connections to Commencement Bay. The Northern Pacific joined its competition to build Union Station with the Union Pacific in 1912.

Tacoma experienced a conflicted relationship with the Northern Pacific and its subsidiary, the Tacoma Land Company. On the one hand, the railroad and its officers controlled land sales and development, particularly along the waterfront. The water system started by Northern Pacific president Charles B. Wright was so bad that Tacoma bought it, along with Wright's electric utility. Westerners generally distrusted the Eastern interests. On the other hand, the railroad promoted Tacoma's future and developed the waterfront. Tacoma grew because of the railroad. The Tacoma Land Company set aside land for parks and mandated city management of the properties.

The city boomed in the 1900s and 1910s. Zoning codes and a "Make Tacoma Clean" (Gallacci, 56) program kept saloons out of residential neighborhoods. The city built a water system on the Green River and a hydroelectric system on the Nisqually River. Mayor Angelo Fawcett convinced the Northern Pacific to give up some of its real estate for a Municipal Dock, which was then connected to downtown by the 11th Street Bridge. Using federal laws, real estate speculators took almost three fourths of the Puyallup Reservation for industrial development.

In 1917, World War I brought an industrial boom as the region's lumber fed shipyards on the tideflats and new residents moved to town. The U.S. Army built Camp Lewis on 70,000 acres of land on the Nisqually plain purchased by Tacoma voters. In November 1918, voters created the Port of Tacoma, which began improving waterways and facilities.


Following World War I agriculture slumped and the price for timber dropped to half. The 1920s did not roar as loudly in Tacoma as throughout the rest of the country, but the city managed to improve the water system and build more hydroelectric plants. The Great Depression that began in 1929 pummeled the area's economy further. New Deal recovery programs and military spending helped. Camp Lewis expanded and became Fort Lewis. The Tacoma Municipal Airport became McChord Field. Public Works Administration monies built the Tacoma Narrows Bridge (which collapsed in a wind storm four months after it opened).

Things turned around in Tacoma in 1940 with the defense buildup for World War II. Shipyards grew again, this time building with steel. War workers and soldiers and sailors crowded into the city. Women took over jobs once held only by men. African Americans were recruited in the Deep South to come to Tacoma to work in the war plants. Japanese American residents were ordered by the Army to evacuate the West Coast in 1942.

The African American population in Tacoma increased from 650 in 1940 to 3,205 at Victory. Some blacks took up residence in the homes of the interned Japanese American who, for the most part, did not return to Tacoma after the war. After the war, urban renewal destroyed those blocks associated with the Japanese community.

Since the coming of the railroad, Tacoma and Seattle were locked in fierce competition for economic dominance. One of the most contentious issues was the name of the mountain that dominated Commencement Bay. Capt. George Vancouver named it Rainier after an Admiral, but local natives called it Tacoma or Tahoma, a term describing a snow-capped mountain. A U.S. Senator from Seattle got the U.S. Coast Survey to put Rainier on the map. Tacoma's legislators and business leaders tried mightily for decades to reverse the decision and even got a bill out of the U.S. Senate in 1924 only to see it die in the House. One of Seattle's objections to the change was the cost. The large number of commercial enterprises named Rainier would have to redo their signs and trademarks.

The air age provided an opportunity for interurban cooperation. Tacoma built Mueller-Harkins Field on a racetrack in the early 1920s. Pierce County built an airport in 1928 north of Fort Lewis as a new Tacoma Municipal Airport, but the Army took it over for McChord Field in 1938. Tacoma agreed to join Seattle in building a new airport between the two cities at Bow Lake, on the condition that the name reflect both sponsors. The result was Sea-Tac, which opened in 1944.

Tacoma's sense of tranquility was shattered in November 1951 when a state legislative committee held hearings on organized crime and vice. The picture that evolved was one of widespread vice and official corruption. Tacoma had used a commission-style government since 1910. Separate officials were elected to control utilities, public works, and public safety. Although some strong commissioners were able to build the water and power system, the arrangement led to ineptitude and dishonesty. The business boom and growth during World War II revealed the structure to be obsolete. In 1952, voters approved a mayor/city-manager system in which the elected city council determined policy and the city manager implemented it. Tacoma went from "Seattle's Dirty Back Yard" (Morgan, 122) to one of the Municipal League's All American Cities.


During World War II, Tacoma joined a federal pilot project for postwar urban planning. In 1944, voters approved new schools, sewer and street improvements, port development, a civic auditorium, and recreational facilities. After the war, urban renewal transformed downtown with parking garages and terraced walls. But suburbanization and the automobile put downtown businesses into competition with once rural communities like Fife and Gig Harbor and with shopping malls. The Tacoma Narrows Bridge (1950) and Interstate 5 (1965) shifted local transportation from rails and ferries to highways.

When urban renewal threatened the Old City Hall and the Northern Pacific Headquarters, a historic preservation movement grew up. Tacoma recaptured the elegance of the past by saving and renovating the old buildings. Union Station was resurrected as the U.S. Courthouse. Old City Hall became an office building. Old music halls became the core of a theater district. The Tacoma branch of the University of Washington started in an old newspaper building in 1990 and later occupied its own campus. The wooden Tacoma Dome (1983) became a popular music venue as well as hosting wrestling and rodeos. The Museum of Glass (2002) opened on industrial land along the Thea Foss Waterway. The new art museum (2003) and a new convention center (2004) attracted more visitors. Port of Tacoma facilities on the Commencement Bay tideflats were connected to downtown by way of a dramatic cable-stayed bridge.

The Port of Tacoma became an important link to Alaska and to Asia in the 1970s during the construction of the Trans Alaska Pipeline and with the shift to containerization. The tideflats offered the space needed to construct buildings that would be shipped to the pipeline and oil fields. Container terminals required real estate to store and move the big boxes and Tacoma had the capacity to take advantage of the new technology.


Caroline Denyer Gallacci, The City of Destiny and the South Sound: An Illustrated History of Tacoma and Pierce County (Carlsbad, CA: Heritage Media Corp., 2001); Murray Morgan and Rosa Morgan, South On The Sound: An Illustrated History of Tacoma and Pierce County (Woodland Hills, CA: Windsor Publications, 1983); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Territorial legislature incorporates Tacoma on November 12, 1875" (by John Caldbick), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed May 4, 2015).
Note: This essay was corrected on June 25, 2006, and corrected and expanded on May 4, 2015.

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both HistoryLink.org and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for HistoryLink.org Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You