Tacoma's Historic Downtown -- A Tour

  • By Walt Crowley
  • Posted 9/28/2004
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 7050

This is a photographic tour of downtown Tacoma’s historic buildings, museums, theaters, and other cultural attractions. Presented by the City of Tacoma Economic Development Department. Written by Walt Crowley and produced by Chris Goodman, with photographs by David Wilma and Walt Crowley, and maps by Marie McCaffrey. Copyright 2003, History Ink. This feature is intended for personal use only and may not be reproduced by any means for commercial purposes without written permission from History Ink.

The site of modern Tacoma was the home of the Puyallup Tribe and other Native Americans for millennia. They named the nearby volcano “Tacoma” (sometimes spelled “Tahoma”), a term used for all snowcapped mountains. We know it today as Mt. Rainier thanks to British Capt. George Vancouver, who led the first European exploration of Puget Sound in 1792.

Capt. Charles Wilkes followed in 1841 as commander of the first United State Navy expedition into Puget Sound. He began his soundings in the waters off Tacoma’s shoreline, hence the name “Commencement Bay.” The first Euro-American settlers arrived a decade later to begin harvesting the area’s forests and farming its lands. They called their first village Eureka but ultimately adopted the native name of Tacoma, while relocating most of the original inhabitants to the Puyallup Reservation.

The community grew slowly until 1873, when the Northern Pacific selected Tacoma over Seattle and other regional competitors as the western terminus of the nation’s latest transcontinental railway. Unfortunately, the NP went bankrupt shortly thereafter, but it was later reorganized and inaugurated regional operations in 1883. Direct transcontinental service followed in 1887 with the opening of the line’s Stampede Pass Tunnel through the Cascades, and spurred the city’s rapid development during the next several decades.

Famed landscape artist Frederick Law Olmsted drew up the future city’s first comprehensive plan, which respected its steeply sloped topography but was criticized as resembling “a pile of fruit.” His design was not realized, and the town grew according to a more traditional grid laid out by engineer General James Tilton. After a series of disastrous fires incinerated much of Tacoma’s early wood-frame downtown in 1884 and 1885, the city decreed the use of sturdier stuff and thereby bequeathed future generations a legacy of handsome stone and brick architecture.

Now ranked as Washington’s third largest city with nearly 200,000 residents and one of the busiest ports on the West Coast, Tacoma is undergoing an economic and cultural renaissance -- but it has not forgotten its past. The city’s late nineteenth-century boom is carefully preserved today in two downtown historic districts centered around the Old City Hall and Union Station, along with historic theaters and other landmark buildings.

In the past two decades, the urban center has been enlivened with construction of new theatres, museums, and other cultural amenities. These attractions new and old are all clustered within easy walking distance of each other, and since 2003 they have been served by Sound Transit’s Tacoma Link line, the state’s first rapid rail transit to be built since World War I. In short, downtown Tacoma offers a delightful excursion into the past and an exciting preview of the future.


Old City Hall Historic District, National Registry of Historical Places Inventory Nomination Form, 1977; Union Depot/Warehouse Historic District, National Registry of Historical Places Inventory Nomination Form, 1978; Sally B. Woodbridge and Roger Montgomery, A Guide to Architecture in Washington State (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1980); Jeffrey K. Ochsner, Ed., Shaping Seattle Architecture, A Historical Guide to the Architects (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1994); Tacoma Rediva, Tacoma’s Downtown Rehabilitated Buildings, Kipp Associates/City of Tacoma, 1985; Tacoma’s Old City Hall Historic District Walking Tour, City of Tacoma, undated; Union Depot/Warehouse Historic District Walking Tour, City of Tacoma, undated; official Websites for the City of Tacoma, Tacoma Dome, Pierce Transit, Sound Transit, and University of Washington - Tacoma.

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