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The Railroad Comes to Commencement Bay

Written by Olivia Inglin | Edited by Mary Bowlby

Originally publish in the Eureka Times, 2016 Fall issue

First NPRR Train to Tacoma

First NPRR train to Tacoma

Railroad Reality

The United States became logistically fused as a nation when the railroad connected the West and East after the Civil War. President Abraham Lincoln first commissioned the Continental Railroad in 1864. It finally reached the Washington Territory in 1873 when the main terminus on Commencement Bay was completed.

However, while on Commencement Bay, this terminus was not located in the growing settlement of Tacoma. Instead it was placed just outside the boundaries of the surging town in an area that the railroad company staked to become “New Tacoma.” By buying unclaimed land- and also placing it within the boundaries of a booming area- the Northern Pacific Railroad Company was able to gain control over high stakes real estate, which would only become more profitable as the city expanded. This decision proved to be beneficial for the railroad company; but for many settlers the decision to place the terminus on Commencement Bay in “New Tacoma” was a rude awakening to the harsh reality of the railroad industry.

The Northern Pacific Railroad Company competed with companies including the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific Railroad Company to take control of the rail construction in the Washington territory. But in the end the Northern Pacific Railroad Company took the lead on construction of the railroad track and terminus in the Washington Territory. The company relied on three men to advise on where to place the terminus. These men were Jay Cooke, Judge R.D. Rice of Maine, and Captain J.C. Aisnworth of Portland, Oregon. These men advised the committee to place the main train station outside the center of Tacoma.

“Resolved, That the Northern Pacific Railroad Company locate and strict its main road to a point on Puget Sound on the southerly side of Commencement Bay, in T. 21, N. R. 3 East of Willamette meridian and within limits of the City of Tacoma, which point in the said City of Tacoma is declared to be the Western Terminus of the main line of the Northern Pacific” (Radebaugh, 4).

The decision by the Northern Pacific Railroad Company was a shock to many in Tacoma, Seattle, Olympia, and other cities such as Bellingham. In 1999, Historians Heather M. MacIntosh and David Wilma explained that many in Seattle believed that the train terminus would be placed in their growing city ( Not only was Seattle growing faster than Tacoma, but it also had offered the railroad company huge incentives to put the terminus within Seattle limits. Likewise, many in Tacoma, including Job Carr, were also shocked. This decision meant that Tacoma would now have a competing settlement roughly two miles away, and one that had the huge advantage of a railroad terminus.

NPRR Headquarters, Source: Tacoma Public Library

Northern Pacific Railroad Headquarters, Source: Tacoma Public Library

More specifically, for Job Carr this announcement was personal because it had been the railroad expansion that first brought him to the Tacoma area. After being honorably discharged from the Union Army in 1864, Job Carr moved to Washington Territory after learning about the recent signing of the Northern Pacific Rail Road Charter. Carr first stopped in the Olympia area, but he quickly determined that Commencement Bay would be a much better spot for the railroad terminus. Carr settled in the area in 1865 and watched as the town around him began to grow. He claimed nearly two hundred acres of land for his original settlement in an area that he referred to as “Eureka,” better known today as Old Town, Tacoma (Carr, 1).

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The lives of men like Job Carr were intertwined with the expansion of the railroad.

Differing Priorities

Carr settled with the hope that the settlement would expand, and worked to make his vision come true. A few years after establishing his claim, he sold most of his land to M. M. McCarver, a representative of a Portland-based company supposedly desiring to invest in a mill and basic infrastructure in the Tacoma area. However, over time Carr realized that McCarver and his associates had no real intention of creating a mill, instead they were more interested in land speculation for a railroad terminus in Tacoma. This understanding led to Job Carr holding disfavor toward Mr. McCarver.

“But he had not had the deed in his hand fifteen minutes before he told me he was going to write a long piece for the Portland papers and tell the world that he had discovered the pint(sic) (as he always designated it) for the terminus of the R.R. I looked at him in astonishment and finally said well Mr. McCarver if you do just add to it that at same time you discovered a man by the name of Job Carr living there who had been holding that same pint for that same purpose for two years and a half before you ever saw it, if you don’t I will tell them in such a way as you may not like” (Carr, 1).

But it was not only Carr that would become gravely disappointed with the railroad terminus decision. General McCarver would later become greatly dissatisfied when the terminus was not built on the land he had purchased from Job Carr. Like Carr, McCarver worked to acquire land holdings in the Tacoma area in order to create growth in the area; but unlike Carr, he secured land in order to sell it to the Railroad Company as a location for the terminus. And while Job Carr had held the actions of Mr. McCarver in disdain, some do believe that his land speculation was enacted to create a better Tacoma. For example, author Thomas Wickham Prosch believed that McCarver was only working for the benefit of Tacoma:

“He [McCarver] bought the Galliher, Judson, and other lands, to the aggregate of more than two thousand acres, mostly in 1872, as he thought for the Northern Pacific Company. He was innocent and honest in the matter, and supposed that by his procedure he would be benefiting himself, his family, his town and the company. Not only did he thus contribute his time and his talents, but he also gave individual land, his claim in the present heart of the city, and other lands that he had bought from time to time during the five years preceding. Just how the Company was approached in the matter is unwritten history…it did not occur to him that the railroad men with whom he was dealing and whose enterprise he was richly subsidizing would use the means he had given them to inflict upon him their hardest blows. That they would endeavor to destroy his town by building a rival town two miles away, by robbing it of its name…” (Prosch, 116).

Within this mindset, it is easy to see how McCarver would have felt betrayed by the Railroad industry after the terminus location had been decided. But McCarver entered the land speculation game at a time when there were simply too many players. During this time, the Northern Pacific Railroad Company was making growing towns and cities — including Olympia, Tacoma, Seattle, and Bellingham —compete to get the terminus. Author and railroad expert Kurt E. Armbruster explains that by 1873 Seattle was offering $700,000 worth of money and land for the terminus, and Tacoma was offering a majority of unsettled waterfront property. This unsettled land would surely see a rush of new arrivals if a terminus was placed within the landscape of the growing town of Tacoma, which created a large appeal to company ownership to place a terminus on Commencement Bay (2).

Moreover, during this time the Federal government provided railroad companies with land grants to build railroad tracks. Railroad companies or speculators could get up to 20 miles of surrounding land for each mile of track struck. This meant companies would often seek out large tracts of land, and develop roundabout paths for tracks to take, in order to earn more money. Company leaders like Jay Cooke knew that citizens would congregate around an area with a railroad terminus, so it made much more sense to buy unsettled land that could then be sold and profited from, than to buy land in an area that was already settled. These factors - combined with a ticking clock to create a terminus - prompted the Northern Pacific Railroad Company to settle on an unpopulated location on Commencement Bay instead of Tacoma or any other growing cities and towns on Puget Sound.

Tacoma Daily Ledger, July 5, 1887

Tacoma Daily Ledger, July 5, 1887

Vision vs. Profit

Both McCarver and Carr felt the disappointment of failure when they were unable to secure their most ideal expansion of Tacoma. Before its completion, the continental railroad enticed men like Job Carr and General McCarver to stake much of their livelihood on bringing the railroad to their cities. But from the perspective of the Northern Pacific Railroad Company, the idea of claiming new land for the terminus was too enticing to pass up. On Commencement Bay, the Tacoma Land Company and the Northern Pacific Railroad eventually owned 7,260 feet of waterfront property, which only gained value as time continued. The railroad connected citizens and coasts across the United States, but it also created major wealth for railroad owners and stockholders and dashed the hopes of local citizens in the process. Thus, the lives of men like Job Carr and General McCarver were intertwined with the expansion of the railroad, serving as reminders of just how competitive the railroad industry was in the United States. Unfortunately, the expansion of the railroad in the United States was not a harmless governmental project; instead it was a harsh business with the goal of profit for owners and shareholders at heart.

Works Cited

Armbruster, Kurt E. "Orphan Road: The Railroad Comes to Seattle." Columbia Magazine, 1997, 7-18.

Morris, Chuck. The Northern Pacific Comes to Tacoma 1871-1900. Museum guide story, NPRR Exhibit, Tacoma.

Prosch, Thomas Wickham. McCarver and Tacoma. Seattle: Lowman & Hanford, 1906.

Radebaugh, Randolph F. "Tacoma, the Pacific Terminus of the Northern Pacific Railroad" : [Radebaugh, Randolph F.] [from Old Catalog] : Free Download & Streaming : Internet Archive." Internet Archive. Accessed August 26, 2016.

Wilma, David, and Heather M. MacIntosh. "Northern Pacific Railroad Announces Tacoma Terminus on July 14, 1873." HistoryLink.Org. August 22, 2004. Accessed August 26, 2016.

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.