History of Tacoma for Newcomers

In November 2016, I sat down with Marguerite Martin in Doug Mackey’s studio to talk about Tacoma’s history for her MovetoTacoma podcast. In an hour or so we walked through the city’s backstory, its haydays and disasters and the grand dames, cheap crooks and ignored heroes of our place in the world. Marguerite had a collection of treasured narratives about Tacoma and a few well worn myths that were fascinating to discuss and dispel. Her show notes follow as well as links to the podcasts. If the misfortune of taking my Tacoma History class at UWT befell you some time in the past here’s a chance to hear again some of my favorite episodes and profiles. Sorry.

Show Notes-Part 1

  • The saving of Union Station. The bulldozers were lined up to destroy this old station. The saving of the station started a beginning awareness of the amazing historical buildings we have in Tacoma.
  • What is the story of Tacoma? “History is something that never happened written by someone who wasn’t there.” – Michael Sullivan says. But there is still a rich story and an amazing cast of characters in Tacoma’s history.
  • How important is Rainier to Tacoma’s history? As recently as 500 years ago, Mount Rainier blew, likely causing a lahar and affecting the Puget Sound dramatically. We live under the shadow of a volcano and the oral stories of the people who lived here before non-native settlers remind us of its power.
  • Want to know a Tacoma secret? Stand on the Tacoma waterfront on the winter solstice (on a clear day, if you can get it) and the sun will appear to rise from the top of Mount Rainier. Sometimes high clouds will even cause its shadow to be projected onto the sky.
  • What drove Tacoma’s settlement? European settlers started arriving looking for the Northwest Passage, gold, and lumber. Job Carr eventually came during the Civil War and settled here. After the Civil War ended, the transcontinental railroad came as well—though it was a mad dash at the end—bringing even more settlers.
  • If Tacoma was the terminus of the transcontinental railroad… why is Seattle bigger than we are? In the 1880s, Tacoma and Seattle were the same size. But then a gold rush in Alaska promised wealth and Seattle was better prepared to capitalize on the fervor. Even Seattle’s fire helped them because they were able to rebuild with a whole new design and streetscape.
  • The character of Tacoma’s original buildings. Hand-built wood-framed buildings from Tacoma’s early structures were built to last. Michael Sullivan says that the buildings built from 1900 to 1920 were exceptionally well-built and the things that need fixing are usually the repairs made in later years.

Show Notes-Part 2

  • A transit disaster starts the new century. On the fourth of July, an inexperienced transit operator driving an overcrowded streetcar can’t stop the streetcar. 54 people were killed in the worst streetcar disaster in America.
  • A series of smart moves. In the early twentieth century… the School District bought the Tacoma Hotel and renovated it into a high school and then the bowl in 1910. Union Station was built in 1909. The land for JBLM was purchased by Tacoma and Pierce County to give to the army. And Tacoma starts to become a modern city.
  • Women’s suffrage now! Tacoma had women voters before the State of Washington and the Nineteenth Amendment.
  • Where was Japantown? In the 1920s, Downtown Tacoma, south of 15th Street to 19th was “Japantown.” On a per capita basis, Tacoma had the highest Japanese population at the time, even more than Seattle and San Francisco. The markets, the hotels, and the entire community collapsed after the internment of the Japanese after Pearl Harbor.
  • Chinese Reconciliation Park The “ting” on the waterfront is a step toward remembering and confronting one of Tacoma’s darker moments in its history, the expulsion of the Chinese in 1885.







Title: Kenworth Motor Truck Company, Speedy Scott, March 26, 1925
Catalog Id: 1957.64.B12176
Call Number: 1957.64.B12176
Creator: Marvin D. Boland
Creation Date: ca. 1925
Description: Black and white, close oblique angle cellulose nitrate negative image of a Scott’s Speedy Service truck, made by the Kenworth Motor Truck Company, on a Tacoma, Pierce County, WA street, ca. 1925. Text on the truck: Piano Moving, Packing, Moving, Long Distance Hauling, Storage, Square Deal Service with Speed, 212-20 Puyallup Ave. Industrial buildings and a lumber yard are in the background.

Washington State Historical Society

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This site is about the way history, in this case of a city and it's surrounds, is remembered or recorded in stories and small bits of memory. It's also about the way images and stories go together, how they inform and enrich each other and how we as thinking people fill in the content between a narrative and a visual document. So here is my city in time past, the way it looked and the people and events that create its character. For more than 20 years I have taught a 5 credit course on the History of Tacoma at the University of Washington Tacoma. With an average of 30 or 40 students a year, each doing a research paper as their primary focus for the course, I have benefited from many paths of inquiry and many researched and assembled stories. Here are some of them in the retelling along with the treasures of photographs and images in the collections of the Washington State Historical Society, Tacoma Public Library, University of Washington Digital Archives, Washington State Archives at the Office of the Secretary of State, Library of Congress, Washington State University, Alaska State Library, and many other archives, libraries and private collections.

1 comment

  1. Far from a misfortune, taking your class, the last before you moved on to your other projects, it was a privilege. I’m now a volunteer docent at the Museum of Flight and my favorite time period is post World War I through about 1930. I’ll enjoy these and will figure out a way to incorporate the Tacoma-Tokyo Lockheed Vega story into my tours.


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