Origins, Myth, & Meaning

Cities have origin myths. They are the stories they tell themselves, often without much concern for authenticity or fact. They are usually semi-heroic episodes about military conquest, a founder’s lucky discovery of an unexplored, unclaimed Eden or the arrival of pioneers after a gauntlet of hardships. Statues and plaques are mounted to mark where the city was born, and as time and convenience work their magic, things move around.

Tacoma’s beginnings have no such mythic romance. Our city was born, or perhaps more accurately avoided dying, in the cold winter season of 1873.


Abraham Lincoln, February 9, 1864

In the last year of the Civil War and the last year of his life, Abraham Lincoln signed the charter for an ambitious northern transcontinental railroad and improbably, Commencement Bay was selected as its end point on the Pacific. This decision was made in July of 1873, just as the tracks headed west and then north from the Columbia River were reaching the Tenino area. However, a serious problem loomed. A condition in the land grant charter required that the railroad reach saltwater just before Christmas or millions of acres along the line would be forfeited.

A second more serious problem was that the Northern Pacific railroad, along with the entire nation, was headed toward an economic collapse. The best chance for saving the whole enterprise was to rush the track laying in a straight line across the glacial prairie between the Nisqually River and Commencement Bay, and then begin cashing in on the real estate value of a newly created terminal port city.

By the end of September the financial crash came and the House of Jay Cooke, bond seller for the NP, collapsed. With no money for wages a quarter of the workers quit, armed themselves, and barricaded the track 25 miles from Tacoma. Then it started to rain.

The knife-edge tense situation, which meant certain death for the City of Tacoma, was famously averted when Captain J.C. Ainsworth put up his own money to pay the strikers and the legendary deep woods engineer “Skookum” Smith was put in charge of a last major push to reach the ocean with a steam locomotive.

1873 Tacoma

Tacoma Hillside, 1873

Over the next two months, 750 Chinese laborers graded the line to the crest of Commencement Bay near the south end of today’s Hilltop Neighborhood. At one point they covered 14 miles in 18 days! But now they faced the most complicated and uncertain section of the work- the drop to the sea. Between the engineers, surveyors, timber cutters, and Chinese gang bosses a diagonal 80 foot wide shelf was mapped across the hillside creating a railroad grade down to tidewater. The steepness exactly matched the climbing horsepower of their locomotives and, to save time, they cut the wood ties and fuel from the trees they cleared coming down the hill. Then it started to snow.

* * *

One day that December, a Chinese laborer in a mud-soaked quilted silk jacket standing somewhere near 17th and Pacific today, looked up from his work and noticed through the cedars at the bottom of the grade, the saltwater of Commencement Bay. He was seeing what Abraham Lincoln only dreamed of – the completion of the Northern Pacific transcontinental railroad.

At 3 o’clock in the afternoon on December 16, 1873 an unusual crowd of people bundled in heavy coats, long capes, and trade blankets assembled somewhere along the fresh railroad tracks that crossed a City of Tacoma that was yet to be. They were there to drive a last spike marking the arrival of the transcontinental railroad at the Pacific. Around them were work camps, steam age machinery, canvas tents, and tree stumps that no one expected to last long. At their feet however was a wide swath of cleared level ground marked by iron rails that climbed the hill and set off for the prairie and the continent beyond.

Today, you might take note of the diagonal open space that ramps gently down the hillside through the University of Washington Tacoma campus and under I-705. Never broken, narrowed or built upon, it’s the Prairie Line, the last terminal section of the transcontinental railroad and the very certain place where the City of Tacoma began.

Content courtesy of Michael Sullivan.


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