""City of Destiny" on South Puget Sound" Top 5 Page for this destination Tacoma by glabah

Tacoma Travel Guide: 179 reviews and 612 photos

The Origins and Brief History of This Place

I want to tell you about my hometown
It's a dusty old jewel on the South Puget Sound
Well the factories churn and the timber's all cut down
And life goes by slow in Tacoma

- excerpt from "Thrice All American"
by Neko Case

While it was a small piece of history in the region, it started the ball rolling: in 1877, the Northern Pacific Railway completed a line running from Tacoma through Puyallup to Wilkerson. This tapped into coal mines around Wilkerson, and the coal was sold along the west coast as a source of income for that company. A line also reached to Kalama, and served as a connection (through boats on the Columbia River) to Portland, Oregon.

In 1883, the Northern Pacific completed its connection between the Pacific Northwest and the rest of the USA, but it only reached as far as Portland with a connection to the Oregon Railway & Navigation Company near what is now Pasco. However, that connection to the Pacific Coast was not what the Northern Pacific wanted, as it relied on competing companies for its connection to ocean shipping.

Therefore, even before its initial Pacific link was completed, in the 1870s it was decided that Northern Pacific would construct its own link directly to the west, and that the most sensible way to do that was by way of Stampede Pass and into Tacoma, since it already had ocean port access and some railroad operations here. With a direct link from Ocean to the east, without ships having to fight the Columbia River bar or other such hazards, Tacoma appeared to its boosters to be headed to be one the greatest cities of the western USA.

Thus was born the "City of Destiny" and in May of 1888 the first train ran through the summit tunnel, marking the connection of Tacoma with the rest of North America by a complete railroad link.

The People who Built it, they loved it like I do
There was hope in the train yards that something inspired
Once I was on it but it's been painted shut
I found Passon for Life in Tacoma

- excerpt from "Thrice All American"
by Neko Case

In the end, however, it didn't all work out that way.

Tacoma became only one of several cities on Puget Sound to be important ocean ports, and Puget Sound became only one of several regions to be important west coast commercial areas in the USA.

Yet Tacoma did became a very important port and industrial center.

The Change and the Cleanup

In fact, so many industries located here that Tacoma became a rather unfortunate joke in the Pacific Northwest due to the severe industrial character of the community. Usually these jokes rhymed "Aroma" with "Tacoma" to produce some downright mean spirited comments about the city.

People they laught when they hear you're from my town
They say it's a sour and used up old place
I defended its honor, shrugged off the putdowns
You know that you're poor from Tacoma

- excerpt from "Thrice All American"
by Neko Case

Having been born and pretty much raised in the Pacific Northwest in the Portland, Oregon area, I can well remember a number of the horrible things that have been said about Tacoma over the years.

However, during the 1980s there was a huge change in industry in the Pacific Northwest. Many of the lumber industries consolidated in the southeast, where timber grows on flat lands and is therefore cheaper and easier to get, while in the northwest the big trees were becoming harder and harder to find. The huge ASARCO metal smelting plant, which had been operating since 1887, closed in 1985. While the jobs the plant produced are probably missed the horrific contamination problems of the air, ground and water will probably not be missed. The huge DuPont explosives plant south of Tacoma that manufactured explosives for construction projects all over the western part of the USA has also mostly shut down. About the only evidence of the Factory Which Blew Up the West Coast is the fact there is now an entire city named DuPont, Washington on the site.

The buildings are empty like ghettos or ghost towns
It gives me a chill to think what was inside
I can't seem to fathom the dark of my history
I invented my own in Tacoma

- excerpt from "Thrice All American"
by Neko Case

Today, however, there have been some very significant efforts at cleaning up the industrial pollution, and Tacoma no longer is quite the same place as it once was. "The buildings are empty" no longer applies as much as it used to (and neither does the "factories churn" part, for that matter), as vast areas have either been cleared for redevelopment or rebuilt for other uses.

Well, I don't make it home much, I sadly neglect you
But that's how you like it away from the world
God bless California, make way for the Wal-Mart
I hope they don't find you, Tacoma

- excerpt from "Thrice All American"
by Neko Case

Tacoma is still viewed by many as a "secondary" town compared to Seattle, but there are still many good things happening here - and some things have actually been good features of the city for many years, but simply not well publicized.

There is certainly a growing tourist interest in Tacoma these days, and Neko Case notwithstanding, I'm afraid "They" have certainly found Tacoma in the last decade or so.

One of those features of Tacoma that has been a wonderful place for years is Point Defiance Park, which is one of the larger and better urban city parks in the Pacific Northwest region, as it has been for many years, and includes a zoo, some hiking trails in essentially native forest, several gardens, and a logging history display. This is also the home of the Fort Nisqually Living History Museum, and a few other activities. It is possible to rent boats and fishing equipment from the park's Boathouse. Right next door to the boathouse is the Anthony's Restaurant at Point Defiance, which is designed to give those eating there wonderful views in as many directions as possible.

Transformation and the Attractions Today

Efforts to transform Tacoma, which were active all through the 1990s, got a huge boost in 2002 when the Museum of Glass was completed, along with the Bridge of Glass between the museum and Tacoma's downtown area.

Over the past 10 years or more, there has been some effort at planning recreational space in Tacoma's former industrial areas along the waterfront. Today, a short Thea Foss Waterway walkway exists, and a much longer Ruston Way Walkway runs a considerable distance along Commencement Bay, connecting a number of smaller parks. As this is written, efforts are ongoing to construct a Chinese Reconciliation Park as the next link further south, and as time goes on most likely this walkway will connect downtown Tacoma all the way to Point Defiance Park. Unfortunately, today the walkway connects little known places, but one of Tacoma's better hotels (the Silver Cloud) is right on the walkway guests there can use the walkway to enjoy views of the surrounding scenery.

There are a few special notes about getting around in Tacoma: SoundTransit (a regional transit agency with services ranging over the entire Puget Sound area) has built the Tacoma Dome Station, which includes a huge park and ride multi-level parking structure. Included in the Transit Services here are Tacoma Link, which is a short light rail / tram line running north into the downtown area. This service is free of charge, and it may be worth considering using it rather than trying to find a place to park your car in downtown Tacoma. Local bus service is provided by Pierce Transit, with most services centered around downtown Tacoma. Bus routes come close to most interesting features of Tacoma, but do not serve many areas of Point Defiance Park (only the southeast corner of the park is served) and at the closest are a block away from the Ruston Way Walkway. See my Public Transit in/to Tacoma Tip for some more basic information.

Notes on getting to Tacoma: there is nothing special about driving to this city, except that you may want to use the Tacoma Dome Station to park your car rather than go into downtown Tacoma. The Amtrak station is served by long distance trains going to Seattle or Los Angeles, and Cascades regional trains going south to Eugene, Oregon and north as far as Vancouver BC. For now, however, the Amtrak station is several blocks east of the Tacoma Dome station, and signs leading to it are not exceptionally good. SoundTransit operates regional commuter bus service out of the Tacoma Dome station connecting Tacoma to Seattle and other local urban centers. During peak travel times, SoundTransit also operates the Sounder commuter train service several times a day between Tacoma and Seattle. See my Public Transit in/to Tacoma Tip for some more basic information.

While it is a slow method, and can not be done if you want to take your car with you (you can take your bike), there is one method of getting to Tacoma from Seattle that is a bit more scenic than the routes along Interstate 5 taken by the bus or trains. This is a Seattle -> Vashon Island -> Point Defiance route involving two ferries and a connecting bus. This is described in my Point Defiance Ferry tip.

Pros and Cons
  • Pros:Rapidly gentrifying urban center with a history in heavy industry, not quite as large an urban center as Seattle.
  • Cons:Some areas hard to get to using public transit, not quite as large an urban center as Seattle and therefore certain attractions not as plentiful here.
  • In a nutshell:There's some good stuff here that shouldn't be missed.
  • Last visit to Tacoma: Apr 2010
  • Intro Updated Sep 28, 2011
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Reviews (86)

Comments (4)

  • TheTravelSlut's Profile Photo
    Sep 28, 2010 at 12:30 PM

    What a great story and unique find! :-)

  • riorich55's Profile Photo
    Sep 26, 2010 at 2:18 PM

    Great Tip on the Bridge

  • balhannah's Profile Photo
    Jun 17, 2010 at 7:31 PM

    Glen, This is such an excellent page! Just read your additions, and I know I would love the gardens, the tall Trees, and the walkways alongside the waters edge. What a nice place!

  • atufft's Profile Photo
    Jun 12, 2010 at 10:53 PM

    I'm an owner of Chihully glass art, and have seen numerous exhibits of his--so I've got to visit this museum. Excellent transportation tips too...


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