PLT Postcard_web get involved


Get Involved!

Your Prairie Line Trail

We are interested in hearing about what Tacoma’s Prairie Line Trail means to you, and what your Prairie Line Trail looks like! The Prairie Line Trail Interpretation Project team will be hosting a community meeting at the Washington State History Museum on Thursday, July 21st from 5:30-7:00pm, where we will have a brief presentation (and free refreshments!) and then open the floor for discussions and ideas.

But we’d like to hear from you starting now! If you have a few spare moments, please share your thoughts in this short survey here.

Prairie Line Trail Historic Interpretation Project Begins

June 15, 2016

Gwen Schuler, Media and Communications,, (253) 591-5152
Stacy Ellifritt, Media and Communications,, (253) 591-2005

Prairie Line Trail Historic Interpretation Project Begins

Over the next year, the City of Tacoma will create a historic interpretive plan for the City’s segments of the Prairie Line Trail and install several interpretive features along the corridor. As part of the ongoing Prairie Line Trail effort, the City was recently awarded a $400,000 Washington State 2015-2017 Heritage Capital Projects Fund grant to fund this project.

The project will draw on historic resources and community input to develop an interpretive strategy recognizing the significance and diverse history of the corridor. In addition, the effort will include early implementation of that strategy through the design and installation of five to seven interpretive features. The intent is to make the corridor’s history accessible and engaging to a broad audience through innovative interpretive strategies including public art, electronic media and onsite signage or markers.

“We’re very excited to have the opportunity to tell this important part of Tacoma’s history in a creative and inclusive way,” said Historic Preservation Coordinator Lauren Hoogkamer.

As the project gets underway, the community will be invited to give feedback through public meetings, and a call for artists will be released to help interpret the historical themes. The City will also convene a stakeholder group to provide guidance and input.

A community meeting will be held on Thursday, July 21, from 5:30 – 7 p.m. at the Washington State History Museum (1911 Pacific Ave.) during the Third Thursday Art Walk. The public is invited to come meet the project team, share what the Prairie Line Trail means to them and participate in discussions about the project.

For more information, visit, or contact Associate Planner Elliott Barnett at or (253) 591-5389.


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.