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1880 ~ 1890:

A Decade of Change for Tacoma City

by Mary Bowlby

Originally publish in the Eureka Times, 2017 Fall issue

Photo courtesy WSHS

The decade began with a mixture of promise and doom. With a burgeoning New Tacoma just over the ridge, the rumble of progress could be heard in every steam blast of a train arriving. They came carrying more goods and more people, but most of it stayed in New Tacoma. Still, Tacoma City (now Old Town) didn’t just fade away. Many changes that took place in the decade of the 1880s kept the frontier town relevant and changed it for the better. This laid the groundwork upon which was built a self-sufficient community with strong bonds that lasted through the generations.

In 1880, the population of Tacoma (combining Tacoma City and New Tacoma) was 1,008. It was still a “stump town,” but it was changing fast. Tacoma City boasted the area’s largest employer - the Hansen & Ackerson Mill - with ample wharfage for the lumber schooners that regularly called in Tacoma. There was a Post Office and Old St. Peter’s Church. The Steele Hotel had a fine reputation throughout Puget Sound, and Mosquito Fleet steamboats made regular stops at McCarver’s Wharf (now Old Town Dock). Streets were well-packed dirt in the summer, thick, slippery mud in winter.

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Improved Healthcare

Tacoma was, however, lacking a medical facility; disease and dangerous work environments were a real threat. The solution came with the arrival of Bishop John A. Paddock - newly appointed to the nascent Diocese of Olympia for the Episcopal Church. The Bishop’s wife, Fannie, was not with him. Sadly, she had died toward the end of their journey across the country.

Before her death, though, Fannie raised $3,500 to establish a hospital in Tacoma. The Fannie C. Paddock Memorial Hospital was created by transforming a group of five buildings on Starr Street in Tacoma City. The Hospital successfully treated life-threatening injuries and reduced the occurrence of infectious disease. Eventually, an entirely new facility was built at 312 S J St, across from Wright’s Park. There is a marker on Starr Street, indicating the location of the first hospital.

Two Tacomas Become One

In 1883-84, Tacoma City (incorporated, 1875) and New Tacoma (incorporated, 1878) merged to become one “Tacoma.” The merger brought many changes to the community that Job Carr had called “Eureka” when he first settled here.

First, the neighborhood’s name changed to the “1st Ward,” indicating its new status as merely on of the voting districts in a larger city. Informally, it was called “Old Tacoma.”

Policing changed with the establishment of the Tacoma Police Department. Prior to this, the laws were enforced by elected Marshals. Howard Carr (Job’s youngest son) served in this capacity for three short, non-concurrent terms. (In fact, he is mentioned in an 1883 Tacoma Ledger article about a violent incident on the waterfront.) With the merger, TPD usually assigned two patrolmen to the 1st Ward to keep the peace. Still, Old Tacoma could be a dangerous port town. Sailors off the ships, local saloons glad to sell them liquor, and women of “questionable virtue” kept the police force busy and Old Tacoma residents looking for any signs of a more-civilized society.

NPRR is Finally Complete

No, the terminus was not located in Old Tacoma. It was placed on the shoreline mere feet outside its boundaries - not far from Matthew McCarver’s first home in Tacoma. I’m sure both Carr and McCarver felt the mockery in the decision.

Having said this, Old Tacoma did grow throughout the decade as train travel improved. The first train that arrived in 1873, came up from Portland (having taken a left turn at the Columbia River and gone into Oregon and on to Portland). In 1885, the railway across Washington Territory was finally built over Stampede Pass. However, the feat was only accomplished by sending trains through a series of treacherous switchbacks - not a very comfortable way to travel. The final completion came in 1887, after Nelson Bennett’s crew succeeded in boring a two-mile-long tunnel through the Cascades. Now, the people and goods really began to flow into Tacoma. It would create a path that would be used by the many Croatian and Scandinavian immigrants who came to live in Old Tacoma over the next twenty-plus years.

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A Road Between the Two Tacomas

Until 1889, the easiest way to get from Old Tacoma to New Tacoma was to go by water. In fact, the Steamboat Alida had a regular run between Old Tacoma’s dock and the Municipal Dock.
Probably one of the biggest changes of the decade came with the creation of Tacoma Avenue. It was built in 1889, finally connecting the longtime rival communities. Most importantly, it brought a streetcar to Old Tacoma. Now, travel to Downtown was convenient and easy.

These changes, though, were no death knell to Old Tacoma. To the contrary, commercial interests continued to invest in the neighborhood and a large portion of Tacoma’s 36,000 residents in 1890 lived, worked, worshipped and shopped in this unique corner of town.

New Decade - Strong Community

According to the 1890 Tacoma City Directory, the infrastructure of Old Tacoma was quite sound. Hansen & Ackerson (now the Tacoma Mill Co) was the largest sawmill in the world. A “milltown” had grown up along the east end of 30th Street, just outside its doors. Late in the decade, two more sawmills and two shingle mills were added to the waterfront, along with a boatworks and a shipyard - all employers with a nearby workforce.

Those workers and their families didn’t have to go Downtown. Old Tacoma had two shoemakers, both a women’s and a men’s clothing store, and two physicians. They could by fruit & vegetables at the grocers and meat at the meat market. A new stove, necessary drugs or even cigars were available right in the neighborhood. For entertainment, they could choose between five restaurants and ten saloons. If help was needed around the house, there was a plumber, a house painter and a paper hanger who could be called upon just up the street.

Allen C. Mason, a real estate magnate who made more than one fortune selling Tacoma, was impressed by the Old Tacoma community. He believed the railroad terminus might still be moved to the neighborhood. So, he built Old Tacoma’s first brick building - a large, three-story structure on the south side of 30th Street that was called the Pioneer Building; it housed a number of retail businesses on the ground floor and apartments on the upper floors.

The terminus was relocated, but not to Old Tacoma. The railroad would eventually build a spur to service the many industries along Old Tacoma’s waterfront, and then routed trains headed south along the same tracks and through the tunnel under Point Defiance. These changes, unlike those that came in the 1880s, had little influence on Old Tacoma. It simply solidified the fact that the neighborhood was, indeed, a neighborhood. That, in fact, is the best part of the story. Tacoma City - Old Tacoma - Old Town... 1880 to 1890 was definitely a decade of change. Job Carr saw it in the light of disappointment, but the new generation of Old Tacoma residents saw opportunity yet to be grasped and built a community so strong that we can celebrate it today as one of the most beautiful parts of our wonderful City of Tacoma.