A school field trip visit to St Peter's Church, Tacoma, 2015
When Job Carr set out to seek his own “Manifest Destiny” he knew change was imminent. He came to Puget Sound in the fall of 1864, knowing a transcontinental railroad was coming – some bay on the Sound would be home to the terminus of those tracks. Carr “spent five months in exploring up and down the Sound, every bay and nook from Olympia to the Snohomish River – the shore lines, facilities for wharfage (sic), anchorage, protection of harbors, inlets and outlets, etc.” (Carr, 1885), looking for the ideal location. He was not simply looking for a new home for himself. Job Carr was looking for a place of opportunity and the future home of a great port city. He knew ships would come, land would be cleared, and people would fill the new town’s streets with life. Job brought change to Commencement Bay.
The first sign of that change was seen in 1869, when steam rose above the bay – spewed out by the Hanson, Ackerson & Company mill. The mill was “a Gargantua, (sic) swallowing the growth of centuries at a gulp and spewing out the digested product” (Ripley, 29). Workers came to run the mill, ships arrived to carry away their product, and Tacoma came into being “…a thriving port, crammed with sailing ships of all kinds and nationalities” (Fischer, 54).
All of this sounds quite poetic, but the reality was a crowded, muddy mess – “a city bellying out from its mud-and-muddle diapers. We were the terminus. Just what this magic word implied to the eager crowd it would be hard to say” (Ripley, 33). As more people arrived – mostly men who had grown used to the rough frontier life – Tacoma’s reputation as a place of bars and brawls became well-established. And yet, there were many people like Job, who knew the future of our town lay in bringing order out of this chaos.
Tacoma’s 1st Church
St Peter's Church, Tacoma, ca. 1874
Old St. Peter’s Church was built in July of 1873 – shortly after Tacoma became the terminus of the Northern Pacific Railroad. Episcopal Bishop Benjamin W. Morris came to Tacoma on his itinerant swing through the Territory. He urged the good people of Tacoma to build a house of worship. This need was underscored when he led a service in the nearby Chinese laundry (the only other space available to accommodate the crowd was one of the thirteen saloons). Following worship, Mr. and Mrs. J. Walters hosted a dinner to honor the Bishop. By the end of the evening, a plan was in place to build a church. E.S. Skookum Smith pledged a half-lot for the building. George E. Atkinson, superintendent of the Hanson & Ackerson Mill and the town’s chief employer, was appointed to oversee the project.
The mill paid in ‘scrip,’ with pay recorded on cedar shingles. These were accepted by the village merchants and the mill’s company store. Few individuals were paid in hard cash at the time. So, when Mr. Atkinson said that unless a good workforce showed up to build the church, the mill would have to insist on being paid in gold for its food stuffs, malt and distilled beverages, it got everybody’s attention. The saloons decided to open only after 3:00 pm, and within seven days the church was built. The green lumber cured in place with the result that the walls ripple.
Bishop Morris appointed the Reverend Charles Bonnell as the church’s vicar and George E. Atkinson as the lay reader. Bonnell was in Olympia, so the services were mainly conducted by Atkinson (who was a Presbyterian). Only a handful of that fledgling congregation professed to be Episcopalian. Many congregations used the building before they could build their own – Catholics, Presbyterians, as well as Chaplain Stubbs of the Seaman’s Friend Society. “Surely, I thought, God comes to listen when Chaplain Stubbs of the Sailors’ Mission prays in the green-clad chapel” (Ripley, 29). As a result, St. Peter’s has always been religiously diverse.
Interior of St Peter's Church, Tacoma, 2015
One of a Kind
In 1874, a family arriving from San Francisco had to sell their household goods at auction on the Old Town Dock to satisfy their debts to the ship’s captain. The winning bid for their organ was $120.00, paid for with a promissory note in the name of St. Peter’s Church. The instrument was duly installed and the only person in town who could play the organ was Anna Wolf. Anna was of the Hebrew faith, but she became the church’s organist and (by giving concerts and donating the money she received from teaching others to play the piano) Miss Wolf paid off the note in three years. Then, the mill presented the church with a bill for $300.00 for the lumber everyone had thought was donated for its construction. It took another four years, but Anna’s efforts paid off the debt to the mill.
The pump organ at St. Peter's church in Tacoma
The potbellied stove kept the congregation warm, but it posed many problems. The stove pipe went through the roof where it attached to a chimney – a dangerous fire hazard. When a more-proper chimney was built it was too short, so smoke would blow back into the church. Transoms were put in the roof, which were controlled by strong young men with long poles. The large openings, though, let rain in just as the smoke was going out! Eventually, they painted the inside of the church battleship gray and learned to live with the smoke.
The potbellied stove at St. Peter's church in Tacoma
And now, about the bell; at Bishop Morris’ suggestion, the church was named St. Peter’s – not likely by chance. Charles Wright, President of the Northern Pacific Railroad attended a church by the same name in Philadelphia. The bell was the gift of Wright’s Philadelphia parish (by some accounts, purchased with pennies collected by Sunday School children). It arrived in October 1874. But the church in Tacoma had no belfry. Atkinson persuaded two loggers to leave the comfort of a local saloon and top the cedar that grew next to the church. The crew of the ship that delivered the bell used the ship’s rigging to hoist it up on the stump. To ring the bell, one climbed a ladder on the south side of the church, mounted the peak of the roof on cleats, navigated a board from the peak of the roof to a point just below the bell, and reached up to rock the bell in its cradle. The intrepid pioneers did not add a bell rope for nearly another decade.
St Peter's Church with bell tower, Tacoma, 2015
When the tree was topped, its rings were counted, determining that it had been a sapling when Columbus first arrived in the West Indies! Thomas Ripley describes St. Peter’s and “the oldest bell tower in the world” in his book, Green Timber. “Tiny St. Peter’s church, rough carpentered, showing the ‘loving marks of the hammer’ all over it, stood among its shack brethren smack up against Tacoma’s last remnant of God’s first temples – a mammoth fir (sic) trunk that formed the tower for the clanging bell on its sawed-off top” (Ripley, 29). Women in the Tacoma community thought the tree, which had not only been topped but also limbed, needed adornment. So, they planted English Ivy at its base. It didn’t take long for the non-native invasive plant to engulf both the bell tower and the church!
Jane A Walters planted and nurtured the ivy to adorn the belltower at St Peter's Church. She lived across the street from St Peter's. Her husband Augustus served 7 non-consecutive years as Tacoma City's Mayor and 10 years as Post Master. Tacoma Daily Ledger, 1899
In spite of the efforts of local congregations, when Thomas Ripley arrived in Tacoma in 1889, he was told of “how the sailors and loggers first called time on their fights and came (to St. Peter’s) to catch their breath for the next bout” (Ripley, 29). Worship services and missionary outreach could be effective in making Tacoma a more civil place, but fisticuffs and brawls were still a factor. Law and order was necessary, as well. In 1905, when Anton Otto Fischer arrived in port aboard the Gwydeth Castle, sailors were enticed upon arrival to jump ship in Tacoma with claims of “steaks, every day. I can get you a good job any time. No night watches, plenty of girls and plenty of fun” (Fischer, 55).
Streetcar on Starr Street passing St Peter's Church with ivy-covered bell tower, Tacoma, ca. 1900-1920 - image courtesy of Pierce Transit
Carr, Job. Dictated account, 1885.
Fischer, A. Otto. “Foc’sle Days: A Story of my Youth,” Charles Scribner & Sons, NY, 1947.
Hunt, Herbert. History of Tacoma Washington. Tacoma, Washington. Tacoma Historical Society Press, 2005.
Keliher, The Rt. Rev. John. “A History of Old St. Peter’s Church, Tacoma”.
Ripley, Thomas Emerson. Green Timber. Palo Alto, California. American West Publishing Company, 1968.
Tacoma Daily Ledger, April 1883.
Timothy, Det. Erik. "More Than A Century of Service," Tacoma Police Department, 2008.
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