Tacoma: History

Slow Rise of Lumber Industry; Arrival of Settlers

The first people to live in the Puyallup Valley on the shore of Commencement Bay were the Nisqually and Puyallup Native American tribes. Captain George Vancouver was the first person of European descent to explore the area when, in 1792, he sailed his ship up Puget Sound and named Mt. Rainier for Peter Rainier, an officer in the British Navy. Commencement Bay was charted and named in 1841 by a member of the Charles Wilkes Expedition. Permanent European settlement was achieved in the region in 1852 when a Swedish immigrant, Nicholas De Lin, built a sawmill at the junction of two creeks and soon conducted a thriving lumber business.

Settlers fled the area in 1855 after hearing rumors of native hostilities; they returned when the Commencement Bay tribe was relocated to a nearby reservation, leaving the area free for other settlers. General Morton Matthew McCarver, who named the settlement Tacoma, was responsible for promoting extensive development by buying tracts of land and bringing in other settlers.

When the Hanson & Ackerman Mill was built in 1869 by a group of San Francisco investors, Tacoma became established in the lumber industry. The mill started a boom, as laborers, artisans, and shopkeepers arrived with their families to settle in Tacoma; with a population of two hundred people, the town soon boasted mail service, electric lights, and a telegraph. In 1873 Tacoma was selected as the terminus for the Northern Pacific Railroad; construction was stopped 20 miles short of Tacoma, however, when an economic crash forced the railroad's investors to pull out of the project. The government recalled the workers, who insisted upon being paid thousands of dollars in back wages before they completed the line.

Railroad Assists Industrial Development

The railroad increased Tacoma's industrial development. Coal mines were opened and Tacoma became the major coaling station on the Pacific Coast. The lumber industry expanded while new industries included a flour mill, a salmon cannery, and machine shops. The town continued to grow, and with a population of 4,400 residents, Tacoma was incorporated in 1884. During the following year a group of residents, who blamed Chinese workers for an employment recession that came with the completion of the railroad, formed the Law and Order League and forcibly deported the Chinese. The insurgents were tried in court but were later acquitted.

Transcontinental rail service to Tacoma was completed in 1887, bringing further development; the completion of the Stamford Pass Tunnel and the establishment of the Northern Pacific Railroad general offices in Tacoma gave an even greater boost to the lumber and coal industries. Record numbers of settlers arrived and the town flourished. Since Tacoma's economy was closely tied to the railroad industry, however, more than half of the city's banks closed when the Reading Railroad went bankrupt. The economy recovered to some degree with the creation of the Weyerhaeuser Timber Company in 1900. During World War I the shipping industry boomed, and the city profited from its proximity to Camp Lewis (later renamed Fort Lewis). Commencement Bay was declared an official U.S. Port of Entry in 1918.

Although the Great Depression of the 1930s brought hard times to Tacoma, World War II stimulated industrial growth and prosperity because of the city's location near Fort Lewis and McChord U.S. Air Force Base. Since then Tacoma has maintained its economic stability. During the 1950s Tacoma underwent extensive city planning. Voters adopted a progressive council-manager form of government, and massive renovation of the city's infrastructure was implemented. As the new century gets underway and the city's population increases, Tacoma continues to attract new industries while balancing environmental and quality-of-life concerns.

Historical Information: Washington State History Museum, 1911 Pacific Avenue, Tacoma, WA 98402; telephone (253)272-3500; email web@wshs.wa.gov