“Yowza, at some point in the past, this city was giving Seattle a run for its money,” I thought to myself on a recent visit to Tacoma, a city I’ve been to, or through, a zillion times, but have never experienced as a tourist.
This impression arose after perusing the historic industrial district that has been renovated into the University of Washington, Tacoma. All you have to do is look at the 90 foot rotunda (pictured to the left) of the historic Union Station (originally a railroad station, now a Federal courthouse) to realize that this was a very important city on the West coast at the end of the 19th century.
After wandering around the city, I felt the need to do some historical digging when I returned to my hotel room. During said perusal, I learned that Tacoma was the envy of Seattle and Portland in 1873, when it won the race to become the western terminus of the Northern Pacific Railroad (NP), which was chartered by Congress in 1864, and broke ground in Minnesota in 1870.
It wouldn’t be until the summer of 1888 though, before the NP’s lines were uninterrupted from the shores of Lake Superior to the Puget Sound, all thanks to the completion of the Stampede Tunnel through the Cascades.
The latter half of the 19th and early 20th century were times of intense political jockeying in Portland and Seattle, with both cities laboring to ensure that they were not left out in the race to be connected to the railroad. For Portland, this was especially problematic due to the plethora of nearby rivers. In 1883, a gigantic rail ferry was put into service, over 300 feet long and 42 feet wide, that could carry the trains across the Columbia River and connect the rail lines here with the service to the north. The ferry was the second largest in the world and had three parallel tracks that could carry all types of train cars, including engines. Rail service between Oregon and the Puget Sound continued in this manner until a permanent bridge was erected across the wild Columbia. The NP Columbia River Bridge, like the Stampede Tunnel, was finished in the summer of 1888.
The gorgeous train depot in Tacoma, Union Station, opened its doors in 1911 and was designed by Reed and Stem, the architects of Grand Central Station. In my opinion, it is far grander than either Portland’s or Seattle’s train stations.
More happy discoveries about Tacoma:
- There is some real drama borne from the mix of older and newer architectural form.
- They have a 1.6 mile streetcar/light rail system that is free and runs commuters from transportation hubs and parking to downtown.
- Their historic buildings throughout the central core are being upgraded and renovated, making for some pretty compelling places.