The city of Tacoma began developing into an urban center in the late nineteenth century. Often much of the city’s growth is attributed to the terminus of the Northern Pacific Railroad on Commencement Bay. However, while that decision was incredibly important there was another major resource that allowed for expansion even before the railroad arrived. That resource was the water of Commencement Bay and the greater Puget Sound. In the early days of Tacoma, the shores of Commencement Bay were not simply scenic places to visit, but rather the starting point of economic expansion and diversification for the City of Destiny.
The expansion of Tacoma can be linked to the growth of three powerhouse industries that utilized Commencement Bay during this time. These were lumber production, shipbuilding, and shipping. The first business that would require use of transportation by water was the area’s first saw mill, built by Nicholas Delin in 1852. While Delin only created a two-man business, his footsteps were soon followed by investors looking to build the industry. In 1869, Charles Hanson built a steam sawmill close by Job Carr’s cabin. (Magden, online). “When the Hanson & Ackerman Mill [sic] 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” (online). These mills were able to employ men and spur the growth of Tacoma because of the natural landscape of Commencement Bay. The depth and berth of the Bay promoted the industries of lumber and shipping to spawn and quickly grow. Nevertheless, it is important to recognize that while the natural landscape of Tacoma prompted city growth man made changes to the landscape further aided the future economy of the city.
The Hanson & Ackerson Mill opened for business in December 1869. The name later changed to "Tacoma Mill."
Source: UW Libraries
The Northern Pacific Railroad Company changed the landscape of Tacoma by building out the shoreline and deepening the shallow areas, which eased the development of shipping (which in turn aided other industries like coal) over a period of years. This easement allowed the city to flourish. From 1883 to 1888, Tacoma exported 250,000 pounds of coal per year. Longshoremen handling goods during this time were earning $1.50 a day unloading cargo ships, while coal gangs were earning 30 cents per hour (Magden, online). Business owners across Tacoma were incentivized to remain in the area as business expanded and revenue grew.
This increase in production was important to Commencement Bay because it was workers on the Tacoma waterfront who became key to shipping a large variety of goods. Specifically, the process of loading and unloading cargo became more streamlined when the Pacific Coast Steamship Company began in the early 1880’s. This company was the first group to organize stevedoring services between the areas that would become Washington, California, and Alaska (Magden online). A major victory in Tacoma for the growing company was to win a contract to unload Japanese tea cargo. “The Northern Pacific had succeeded in contracting with Fraser & Company of Yokohama and New York to bring the tea to Tacoma. To the cheers of hundreds of Tacomans, on August 7, 1885, the bark Isabel anchored at the NP wharf with 22,475 tea chests” (Magden, online). The introduction of large-scale coal and lumber exporting in addition to receiving tea shipments created a boisterous waterfront city in the late 1800s.
This is not to say that Pacific Coast Steamship Company did not have problems. During this time, the concept of labor unions was beginning to expand, and in some instances, longshoremen began demanding some benefits from the growing industry. For example, beginning in 1883 some groups of longshoremen were contracted out to work in Victoria, British Columbia unloading ships. While working in Victoria they were paid 50 cents per hour, but when working on Commencement Bay in Tacoma they were only making 30 cents per working hour. Eventually, the workers began demanding that the pay for working in Tacoma should match what men were making in Victoria. Unfortunately, the demands of the Tacoma workforce were silenced after the passage of the 1885 Alien Contact Labor Act. The act essentially put an end to any of Tacoma’s longshoremen going to Victoria for work. Shortly after this, the Pacific Coast Steamship Company placed their Puget Sound hubs on the waterfront in Seattle, which empowered Seattle longshoremen more than those in Tacoma (Magden, online).
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Magden, Ronald, and A. D. Martinson. The Working Waterfront: The Story of Tacoma's Ships and Men. Tacoma, WA: International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union, Local 23 of Tacoma, 1982.
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About the Author
Olivia Inglin volunteered with Job Carr Cabin Museum in 2016 and 2017. She graduated from Western Washington University with a bachelor's degree in History and Political Science. She follows her passion for American history through volunteer work. We are grateful for Olivia's willingness to put her knowledge to work assisting us with research and writing.