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Tacoma won the lottery when Northern Pacific Railroad investors chose it for the western terminus of NP’s transcontinental line from the Great Lakes over spots such as Port Townsend, Mukilteo, or Seattle.
“It was really crucial to the development of Tacoma to have a major railroad terminating in their community,” said Gary L. Tarbox, executive director of the Pacific Northwest Railroad Archive in Burien, of NP’s arrival in 1873.
The railroad put the city on the fast-track toward commerce and recognition, while boosting industries, including its own, that thrive today.
What if Tacoma had not gotten the railroad terminus?
“Well, you just have to go up to Port Townsend,” Tarbox noted of the city he said never developed into a major port because it didn’t have the rail transportation to make it happen.
Tacoma has an attractive deep-water port in Commencement Bay that was active with sailing vessels before NP’s arrival, but the railroad added a key transit link and established a symbiotic transportation network that flourishes still today.
‘Booms and Busts’
“Between the time the railroad got here in 1873 and about 1900, it was ups and downs, booms and busts, big time — and when the booms hit, it was fabulous,” said Michael Sean Sullivan. Sullivan is an adjunct teacher of Tacoma and Pacific Northwest history at the University of Washington Tacoma and partner in Tacoma-based Artifacts Consulting Inc., which works on historic-preservation projects.
Sullivan said buildings rose along what is today the University District. The Warehouse District bloomed. A big section of Pacific Avenue downtown blossomed with beautiful buildings, including Old City Hall, built in 1893. Neighborhoods sprung up around streetcar lines.
“The sturdy foundation of the city, the pattern of the city, was all pretty well laid down in that period, in those 25 years at the end of the 19th century,” Sullivan said. “Tacoma flirted with being more important than Portland or Seattle, but it never quite really was. There were too many factors that were never going to allow Tacoma to become a metropolitan kind of area the way Seattle or Portland did.”
That was due in part, he said, to its location on a peninsula with city limits of mostly saltwater and getting landlocked by other cities by the 1890s. Other railroad lines eventually crossed the Northwest, boosting Portland and Seattle and slowly diminishing the luster of landing the terminus.
Nonetheless, Tacoma still had a lot going for it, including a deep-water port, rail, lumber galore, and more.
A Major Player
The Port of Tacoma, today a major national player, is enhanced by dockside rail, allowing containers to be directly loaded to and from rail cars and easy access to main BNSF Railway lines through town connecting to the rest of the country.
There aren’t too many companies that can say, “Connecting the Pacific Northwest since 1873,” as BNSF touts in its messaging, but BNSF can lay claim to that through its predecessor Burlington Northern Railroad, which was created in 1970 with the merger of five railroads, including the NP, according to BNSF historical documents on its website. Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway merged in 1995, finally becoming BNSF Railway in 2005.
“Obviously, the NP played a key role in the original development of Tacoma, and today that role continues as the main line that runs through Tacoma is the busiest in the Northwest,” said Gus Melonas, a BNSF spokesperson.
He noted the city’s mainline connects Tacoma not only with the Northwest, but with customers nationally and internationally. There can be more than 60 rail operations through Tacoma in a 24-hour period, including BNSF, plus north-south operations of Union Pacific Railroad, as well as Amtrak passenger trips, and Sound Transit commuter operations on Sounder trains.
Other Key Industries
While the railroad and port — through shipping, shipbuilding and other industries — played vital roles in Tacoma’s development, so, too, did lumber, influenced heavily by Frederick Weyerhaeuser’s arrival in 1900 and subsequent development of Weyerhaeuser Co., headquartered in Tacoma until 1971; Camp Lewis Army base’s opening in 1917; and, to a lesser extent, myriad industries ranging from food products to beer-making, candy-making, and the arts. All still play key roles today.
The Tacoma Chamber of Commerce formed in 1884, with early advocacy on behalf of what would become the port and Camp Lewis. Even earlier, it supported land acquisition in 1888 for that year’s founding of what is today the University of Puget Sound.
While the railroad accelerated Tacoma’s development, the first white settlers arrived long before the final rail spike was driven. English explorer and naval officer George Vancouver sailed through in 1792, naming or renaming points of interest that include Mount Rainier, Puget Sound (Peter Puget was a junior officer on Vancouver’s ship), Admiralty Inlet, and Vashon Island along the way, according to Sullivan. “Vancouver named the really big stuff, and then American explorer (and naval officer) Charles Wilkes named the second tier of stuff. It was Wilkes who named Commencement Bay and Point Defiance.”
Influenced by Hudson’s Bay
The area was relatively quiet among European travelers until the 1820s, when Hudson’s Bay Co. fur-trappers established one of the company’s most important posts in what would become Washington state at Fort Nisqually on the outskirts of today’s Tacoma, Sullivan noted.
Commerce steadily picked up in Tacoma about 1850, as California miners, needing timber to shore up mines, came here, he said. Numerous sawmills set up around Commencement Bay, loading wood on schooners for delivery south. Mills were paid in gold.
While Tacoma was Northern Pacific’s western terminus, NP didn’t complete its transcontinental connection with the line running west from Minnesota until 1883 in Gold Creek, Montana. When the Tacoma rail opened in 1873, it was from Kalama, Washington, on the Columbia River.
From there, trains were ferried across the Columbia and set on rail to Portland. Northern Pacific trains then used another company’s rails from Portland to Wallula, Washington, near the Tri-Cities.
“To comply with its charter requirements, the NP had to build a line from Wallula to Tacoma,” according to BNSF’s website.
That would create a more direct route to the sea from Eastern Washington, but crossing the Cascade Mountains wasn’t easy, with the NP building track west from Wallula and east from near South Prairie toward Stampede Pass.
South Prairie also is where the NP branched a coal line south to the coal mines in Wilkeson, Carbonado, and Fairfax. Coal also was conveniently available along NP’s line it was running east from South Prairie through Buckley and Palmer Junction before switchbacking over the Cascades at Stampede Pass in 1886, the Pacific Northwest Railroad Archive’s Tarbox said. The switchbacks were replaced by a tunnel in 1888, but collapses required a shutdown for repairs, and the tunnel reopened in 1890, he said.
When NP reached Tacoma in 1873, one of the first things it planned was a line to the coal fields in Wilkeson in 1877, and ultimately to coal sites in Carbonado, and Fairfax, Tarbox said. Coal was an important economic footing for Tacoma, he said, noting NP brought significant amounts of coal into the port to be shipped to San Francisco, and coal brought money into the city.
“They found coal through that whole region,” Tarbox said. “It wasn’t great coal; it wasn’t real hard coal, but it was sufficient to run the railroad and also to power industry,” he said. The railroad needed business in its early days and exploited the coal fields “because California needed (the coal) and (NP) knew they had a big customer down there.”
Pilings for coal docks from where the coal was shipped still are visible off Schuster Parkway north of the grain elevators.
Trains also shipped grain into Tacoma from the Midwest and from Eastern Washington, where production soared after the railroad’s arrival in the 1880s, Tarbox said.
The NP brought not just steam technology, freight, and passengers, but it also brought the telegraph, which meant banks and newspapers came first to Tacoma, UWT’s Sullivan said. While some banks were here, the telegraph modernized banking through wiring money and carried news feeds.
The magnificent Union Station didn’t arrive until 1911.
“Tacoma cleared whole blocks of industrial land and vacated busy 19th Street to accommodate a new railway station; concourse; and multiple sidings for travelers, postal freight, and modern wire and telegraph service,” Sullivan wrote in his tacomahistory.live blog. “The deal required the railroad to build with architectural meaning and high design standards, and the NP went all out with a domed, distinctly Beaux Arts structure,” which was designed by the same architects who did Grand Central Station in New York City.
Tacoma’s mayor, Angelo Fawcett, wasn’t a friend of NP and wanted something in return, swapping 19th Street for a big section of the central waterfront to be publicly owned, which had been completely owned by NP and blocked other transit competitors, Sullivan said. The deal opened the door for a new bridge and municipal dock and created a break in NP’s waterfront wall, he said.
Once the city got the property, it built the Murray Morgan Bridge/South 11th Street, which opened in 1913 as a higher, bigger bridge with a central lift for harbor traffic and as a public bridge, separate from NP’s existing bridge for the railroad and its customers. A bridge provided access to the entire Tideflats that NP didn’t control, opening the area to development and the modern Port of Tacoma, which formed in 1918, he said.
“That was a big chess move in the story of Tacoma,” Sullivan said of Fawcett’s deal.
The last train left Union Station in 1984, and the building fell into disrepair, followed by private and public efforts to save it, and eventually a proposal to convert it into a federal courthouse. In 1987, Congress OK’d leasing the station for 35 years; restoration and an addition followed in the early 1990s, and the courts opened in 1992, preserving a city landmark.
BNSF’s Melonas said Tacoma’s rail terminal is significant along the railroad’s northern tier because it handles all types of freight, plus passengers and commuters.
“It plays a critical role in the railroad’s infrastructure overall and will continue to play a key role” meeting customers’ needs, he said.
Today, more than 300 BNSF employees are based out of Tacoma and Auburn, the latter part of the Tacoma operation, Melonas said. Those include people in maintenance, engineering, operations, structures, signals, and policing.
The arts were another early player in Tacoma’s development. The Tacoma Theatre was the idea of railroad executives, said Kim Davenport, communications manager for the Tacoma Historical Society.
“The dream was that if this is going to be the City of Destiny and this is going to be the greatest new city on the West Coast, it needs a grand performance venue,” Davenport said of the theater, which opened in 1890 at Ninth and C streets with the largest stage of any theater north of San Francisco or west of the Mississippi River. The neighboring Pantages and Rialto theaters wouldn’t come until 1918, almost 30 years later.
The venue was converted to the Music Box movie theater in 1927 and destroyed by fire during a matinee showing of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds in 1963, Davenport said.
The theater drew famous musicians, actors, and comedians of the day, with Tacoma being a primary stop in the Northwest, she said. Mark Twain, Harry Houdini, John Philip Sousa, Al Jolson, and many others stopped by, too.
“I think you can draw a line between that and, say, the Tacoma Dome (which opened in 1983) — this has always been kind of a vital part of Tacoma’s economy, maybe a little bit outsized for the size of the city,” Davenport said of the thriving arts scene and theater district that has attracted bigger names than one might expect for the population.
The Port of Tacoma includes about 2,400 acres of land in the Tacoma Tideflats, a hub of manufacturing, warehouse, and maritime operations that’s also home to various nonport companies.
The Manufacturing Industrial Council (MIC) for the South Sound funded a Tacoma Tideflats project last year in collaboration with the University of Washington Tacoma Schools of Engineering and Technology, and Milgard School of Business, that found 219 Tideflats businesses across six sectors employed 2,143 people.
“While the Tideflats is well known for its maritime, transportation, distribution, and manufacturing operations, 116 companies fall outside those categories,” MIC’s report found.
“The total economic impact of Tideflats businesses was determined to be $5.3 billion … (and) approximately $2 billion was identified as the aggregate industrial contributions, while $3.3 billion represented the value of industry contribution across other industries within Pierce County.”
The Early Days
Voters approved public formation of the port in 1918, but the port region was active long before that with private warehouses linked to the railroad and other operations. Lumber, coal, and wheat were among goods shipped out, with grain a big part of Tacoma’s maritime development, UWT’s Sullivan said.
But that wasn’t all. In a magazine celebrating the Port of Tacoma’s 100th anniversary as a public port in 2018, the port noted that in 1885 a ship with more than 20,000 tea chests arrived in Tacoma, where half the tea imported into the United States arrived by 1896. “Spurred by the tea trade, Asian ships began arriving with silk, rice, and other goods,” the magazine said.
Today, there’s hardly an item that doesn’t percolate through the port.
Early on, grain warehouses lined the shoreline for about a mile from what is the Foss Waterway (named after tugboat company operator Thea Foss) toward Old Town, where wheat was bagged and shipped all over the world via “wheat fleets” from about the 1870s on, Sullivan said. Sailing ships visited the port, which was oriented to the prevailing southwesterly winds, until the 1930s, and mostly they carried grain and lumber, nonperishable hard freight. Steamships replaced the sailing ships, and grain elevators rose along the shoreline, as did flour mills.
Flour production was huge along the shoreline, but a massive fire at the Centennial Flouring Mill in 1947, north and below Stadium Bowl, proved fateful.
“A lot of people see that … fire as kind of the end of the age of wheat and grain, where that was the dominant thing along the waterfront,” Sullivan said.
While not dominant, grain remains big today, Sullivan said, noting the grain elevators along Schuster Parkway.
The port opened the grain terminal in 1975. There, the Tacoma Export Marketing Co. (TEMCO) mostly handles corn, soybeans, and sorghum from the Midwest, according to South Sound Business archives.
The port’s first three commissioners: a farmer from Orting, a banker, and a longshoreman, said John McCarthy, a port commissioner since 2018 whose family has port ties dating to the 1940s, when his father worked for Todd Pacific Shipyards during World War II. McCarthy — who’s president of the commission this year and previously served as commissioner from 1983 to 1992 — also worked the docks to put himself through school, becoming a lawyer and a judge until recently retiring.
Farmers and others felt they could get a fairer shake with a public port than with private ownership along the waterfront that made it difficult for them to have consistent delivery of their products, McCarthy said.
Aside from facilitating product shipments, the port also has been instrumental in numerous other industries. A big one was shipbuilding, which dates back to at least World War I.
Then, the Foundation Co., headed by a family member of the Remington firearms and typewriter businesses, built wooden boats on the port’s Hylebos Waterway closest to what’s now State Route 509, according to shipbuildinghistory.com. Foundation built about 20 ships in Tacoma for the French government, but most were scrapped in the 1920s after the war ended, the website said.
“It combines what we already had in the timber industry with the skilled craftsmen,” said Deb Freedman, an amateur researcher and former volunteer at the Tacoma Historical Society, of the wooden ship construction. “They would take these giant beams that were a foot on either side, foot-square beams, and use them to make the hulls of these giant ships.”
Todd Dry Dock & Construction Co. built mostly cargo ships in Commencement Bay from 1918 through 1924 before closing, then reopening for World War II as Seattle-Tacoma Shipbuilding, producing ships for the U.S. and British navies, according to shipbuildinghistory.com. During its peak, renamed Todd Pacific Shipyards Inc. in 1942, the shipyard employed 28,000 people, according to the website.
The Tideflats not only had thousands of people working there, but also military cargo moving through, McCarthy said.
The Navy bought Todd’s yard after the war, then sold it to the port in 1959, according to shipbuildinghistory.com.
Other shipbuilders included Tacoma Boat, established in 1926, which built fishing and military vessels, including minesweepers for the U.S. Navy, but closed in 1992, the website noted.
Martinolich Shipbuilding started boat building in Dockton, on Maury Island, in 1905, and closed in 1930, after which the Martinolich family restarted shipbuilding in Tacoma in 1935, mostly tugs and fishing vessels, later expanding to California, the website said. The Tacoma yard, on the East side of the Blair Waterway, closed in 1974.
While Gig Harbor was more of the center for actual fishermen, Tacoma was a center for production of fishing boats, and many of the best fishing boats were mostly built by Croatian immigrants, Sullivan said.
Western Boat Building Co. was started by Martin Petrich, Joe Martinac, and William Wichert in 1916, building mostly fishing vessels until World War II, when it built patrol boats, minesweepers, and sub-chasers before returning to fishing vessels, tugs, coastal freighters, and more, according to shipbuildinghistory.com.
Martinac went on to found Tacoma’s J.M. Martinac Shipbuilding Corp. in 1924, according to a column in The Bellingham Herald in 2014 by Allen Petrich Jr., grandson of Martin Petrich, lamenting the pending foreclosure of the company.
“Tacoma became known as ‘The Fishing Boat Capital of the World’ following World War II,” Petrich Jr. wrote. “It was a thrill to drive across the 11th Street Bridge in the swarm of cars, trucks, and buses into clouds of steam and the shrieks of starting whistles at the yards, plants, and mills.”
A few days later, the company sold for just more than $6 million in a foreclosure auction on the County-City Building plaza, The News Tribune reported.
In a Business Examiner (now South Sound Business) story, Joe Martinac, company president, referred to the industry’s difficult business climate this way: “Anybody in the boat-building business has to be half crazy.”
Boat-building still breathes in the port, albeit in a smaller way.
One builder, Nordlund Boat Co. on Marine View Drive, launched in 1958 and is run today by second-generation brothers Paul and Gary Nordlund. Nordlund mostly builds yachts and last year delivered its largest ever, a 115-footer, according to Paul Nordlund. Nordlund boats range from that size down to about 50 feet. The company currently is building a 65-foot pilot boat for a Southern California customer.
Their father, Norm, worked for Martinac before venturing out on his own. The brothers and their sister started working with their father at an early age, Paul said.
“The people that worked for my dad, many of them were out of the shipbuilding (companies),” Paul said. “They had worked for Martinac or some of the other ship-builders, so we grew up working around the people that were in their industry.”
The company employs 22 people today, but was at about 75 at its peak a few years ago, and builds two to 2 ½ boats annually. The industry nationwide has been down the past couple years, Paul said, even with the strong economy before the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I don’t know that anybody knows exactly why, but it hasn’t been a real strong industry the last few years,” he said.
Nordlund has taken on more repair work, including additions and remodels, to keep business steady.
“It’s not necessarily an easy business to be in,” Paul said, citing competition from cheaper overseas builders, among other factors.
Nordlund’s boat-building has included fishing boats, an Alaska tour boat, and a boat for church missionaries.
“My dad would always say, ‘If they’ll pay us to build it, we’ll build it,’” Paul said.
The Western Flyer, the boat that John Steinbeck chartered right after publishing The Grapes of Wrath in 1939, was built in Tacoma.
It was built in 1937 as a state-of-the-art purse seiner to fish for sardines out of Monterey, California, according to the website of the nonprofit Western Flyer Foundation, which named the builder as Martin Petrich Sr., owner of Tacoma’s Western Boat Building Co.
Steinbeck and friend Ed Ricketts chartered the boat to Mexico’s Sea of Cortez in 1940 for six weeks of exploration, after which they wrote Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research.
Since that voyage, the Western Flyer became an icon of American literature, according to a story by Kevin M. Bailey on the foundation’s website. “Some say that it is, perhaps, the best-known fishing boat in history,” he added.
The foundation is restoring the boat in Port Townsend and plans to return it to Pacific waters for research and education.
A Transformational Move
The port, of course, is home to myriad businesses.
In 1940, the port established its Industrial Development District, opening the door for companies that included Kaiser Aluminum, Philadelphia Quartz, and Ohio Ferro Alloys, the port’s centennial magazine said.
After World War II, various big companies created operations in the Tideflats, Port Commissioner McCarthy said. Others included Hooker and Occidental Chemical, and Simpson, now WestRock, a pulp and paper mill, to name a few.
In the early 1980s, the port developed the first intermodal rail yard on the West Coast and attracted the two largest container shipping lines in the world in 1985, Sea-Land and Maersk Line, McCarthy said.
K Line, Evergreen Line, and others followed, and Tacoma became the fastest-growing port in North America, the magazine said.
The move was transformational.
“In a period of five years, we went from 150,000 containers to over a million containers,” McCarthy said. “And we did that by developing this concept of developing an intermodal yard on dock.”
The idea of putting containers on ships didn’t really start until the late-1960s, early ’70s, McCarthy said.
“When container trade started, nobody had a rail yard immediately adjacent to a dock that you could take a container off the ship, put it right on the rail car, and we were the first port to do that,” he said. “That was our impetus to grow in the container trade. … That was our boost.”
Giant cranes today reflect the booming container traffic and ever-larger container vessels.
The port in the 1960s also bought 500 acres in Frederickson, just south of Tacoma, for industrial development and sold its last parcel there in 2014, The News Tribune reported.
The site includes Boeing supplier Toray Composite Materials America Inc., among others. The port is able to move freight to that area, which also has become a big employment center.
At the port today, Concrete Technology Corp., which dates to 1951, makes major structural components for bridges, buildings, and piers, including the latter for past port expansions.
Over time, as many legacy industries around Commencement Bay slowed or ceased operations, new uses for that real estate emerged. Focus shifted from activities like shipbuilding and aluminum smelting to high-tech manufacturing in support of the aerospace industry, as well as warehousing and distribution centers, the port’s centennial magazine said.
Point Ruston — today featuring waterfront condos, apartments, custom view homes, a waterfront hotel, urban village, theater, and waterfront walkway — emerged from the site of the former ASARCO copper smelter.
TOTE Maritime Alaska is advancing plans announced last August to relocate its company headquarters from Federal Way to Tacoma, where the company’s 120 employees can be closer to port operations for twice weekly cargo service to Anchorage, according to Grace Greene, president of TOTE Maritime Alaska. The move was to be done by spring 2020, but the timeline for relocation has been pushed to first quarter 2021 due to pandemic-related circumstances.
Tacoma is an important portal for Alaska goods. About 80 percent of all goods going to Alaska come through the port with TOTE and Matson, said McCarthy, who as a young man in the 1970s loaded oil pipelines on boats heading to Alaska during Trans-Alaska Pipeline construction. “We have a history that goes way back and a strong connection,” he said.
One of the port’s advantages? It still has land to grow, McCarthy said.
When Frederick Weyerhaeuser and 15 partners bought 900,000 acres of Washington timberland from the NP in 1900, he wasn’t the first timberman in the area, but he certainly became the largest. The purchase was the largest private land transaction in American history to that time, according to the Weyerhaeuser Co. website.
The St. Paul & Tacoma Lumber Co., founded in 1888, bought 80,000 acres of timberland from the railroad, the largest purchase of timberland in the 19th century, according to company records. It opened its first mill in 1889 on “The Boot” island off of the Tideflats to ship lumber east via the railroad.
It opened a second mill in 1900, and the two mills produced a combined 400,000 feet of lumber and 400,000 shingles in a 10-hour shift, according to the records, noting St. Paul & Tacoma was one of the city’s largest employers, with 500 to 600 employees. During World War I, the federal government was the company’s largest customer, for lumber for barracks, warehouses, hospitals, and more, including wood for ships. St. Paul & Tacoma worked with other Tacoma companies to create the Tacoma Shipbuilding Co., “which received so many government contracts that the demand for lumber surpassed the mill’s output,” the records said.
UWT’s Sullivan said the St. Paul & Tacoma mill was gigantic, dominating the Tideflats area.
Another major wood-products player was Wheeler, Osgood & Co., located on the inlet branching off the Foss Waterway.
Wheeler, Osgood was a huge producer of high-quality doors and premanufactured molded windows, Sullivan said of its Douglas fir products used in homes nationwide. “That mill employed thousands of people. It was gigantic.”
Wheeler, Osgood was basically the first to start making wooden house parts right as the country’s population was booming, creating incredible demand for the mill, he said.
Focus on Furniture
There also were smaller mills, heavily staffed by skilled European immigrants, who made house parts like newel posts, gingerbread wood trim for exteriors of Victorian homes, and other high-quality handmade wood products, Sullivan said. From that, Tacoma evolved into a huge manufacturer of furniture.
Furniture manufacturing was a key industry in Tacoma for nearly 100 years, starting in the late 1800s, according to a 2018 story by Edward Echtle on historylink.org. “Through the decades, many significant furniture factories came and went, for a time making Tacoma the largest furniture-manufacturing center west of the Mississippi River,” he wrote.
F. S. Harmon and Co., organized by Fremont Smith Harmon, was among Tacoma’s earliest large furniture operations, Echtle wrote.
“Tacoma’s years as a major furniture-manufacturing center supported thousands of family-wage jobs and contributed significantly to the city’s economic development,” according to Echtle. “The confluence of abundant raw materials and power, ease of shipping, and a community of skilled woodworkers enabled Tacoma’s furniture industry to flourish.
“While large-scale production of furniture in Tacoma has all but vanished in recent decades, a legacy of fine-furniture-making persists on a smaller scale,” he continued. “In addition, many of the substantial buildings that formerly housed Tacoma’s furniture-making giants now serve as homes to a new generation of businesses and organizations. The former Harmon buildings on Pacific Avenue are now the center of the University of Washington’s Tacoma campus.”
Tacoma-milled lumber and logs were shipped globally. On March 25, 1921, the Edmore was the first ship to call on the Port of Tacoma after the port’s formation in 1918. The ship loaded lumber bound for Japan, according to the Port of Tacoma’s centennial magazine.
St. Regis Paper Co. absorbed St. Paul & Tacoma in 1957. St. Regis merged with Champion International in 1984, and the sawmill became Champion property, The News Tribune reported. Simpson Lumber Co. bought the mill two years later, then later sold to Interfor, which sold it in 2016 to IPT after shuttering it.
IPT redeveloped the 54-acre site into the Tacoma Logistics Center, with 1.1 million square feet of space for lease in two buildings.
Simpson also sold its Tacoma Tideflats paper mill in 2014 to what is now WestRock, The News Tribune reported. WestRock operates a pulp and paper mill.
Weyerhaeuser Timber Co.’s first headquarters, in 1911, was two rented rooms in a building in Tacoma adjacent to NP’s office, according to Weyerhaeuser’s website, noting NP had the only maps of the land the company had purchased. Tacoma would be the company’s headquarters until 1971, when it moved to Federal Way, then Seattle in 2016.
Reflecting the company’s diversity of business, Weyerhaeuser Timber Co. became Weyerhaeuser Co. in 1959. Today, it has three main business segments: timberlands; real estate, energy, and natural resources; and wood products.
Like other industries and companies, Weyerhaeuser was called on to help in the war effort, beginning in World War I, when spruce from its forests was used to build airplanes. In addition, Weyerhaeuser lumber was used to build wooden ships and barracks. The Army turned soldiers into loggers and moved into Weyerhaeuser forests to step up production of lumber for the war, the company said.
The company purchased four surplus World War I merchant ships to transport lumber from the Northwest to the East Coast. In later years, the company purchased additional ships and created the Weyerhaeuser Steamship Co., the predecessor to its Westwood Shipping Lines, which operated for several decades before being sold in 2011, the company’s website noted.
In World War II, company vessels were ordered into federal service, and Weyerhaeuser Steamship Co. became a general agent of the War Department, directing the operation of 68 freighters and troop ships. In 1943, two ships of the original Weyerhaeuser fleet were torpedoed and sunk.
Today, Weyerhaeuser, a real estate investment trust, is one of the world’s largest private owners of timberlands, owning or controlling approximately 11 million acres of timberlands in the United States and managing additional timberlands in Canada, all managed on a sustainable basis, according to the company. It’s also one of the largest manufacturers of wood products in North America. In 2019, it generated $6.6 billion in net sales and employed approximately 9,400 people — a giant born in Tacoma.
“Weyerhaeuser really never brought much of their wood to Tacoma; their headquarters were here, but their big mills were in Aberdeen and Everett,” UWT’s Sullivan said. “Mainly Tacoma benefited from having all the executives and the family be here.”
A Banking Powerhouse
What eventually became Puget Sound National Bank in Tacoma was a powerhouse thanks to Weyerhaeuser’s banking business, Sullivan said.
“It was Weyerhaeuser and the profits and the management of money and the handling of the retirement funds and their investments out of Tacoma that spurred that banking giant,” he said, noting the bank also was able to put Weyerhaeuser’s deposits to work in the community through loans, multiplying the effect of the timber company’s business.
Freedman, who recently curated a Tacoma banking exhibit for the Tacoma Historical Society, called Puget Sound National Bank “the big rock, the big bank in Tacoma.”
It started in 1890 as Puget Sound Savings Bank, operating under that name until 1912; became Puget Sound Bank until 1916; Puget Sound Bank and Trust until 1923; then Puget Sound National Bank of Tacoma until 1992, when it was acquired by KeyBank, making it the only independent bank in Tacoma to celebrate a centennial, the exhibit noted.
KeyBank of Washington then established its headquarters in Tacoma and renamed the 1119 Pacific Ave. building Key Tower, which it later sold to Heritage Bank, which remains there.
Former Puget Sound National Bank executives, after the KeyBank sale in 1993, founded what is now Tacoma-based Columbia Bank. Chief among them was W.W. “Bill” Philip, former Puget Sound CEO, who went on to lead Columbia. Another former Puget Sound executive he recruited to Columbia was Melanie Dressel, who later followed Philip as CEO at Columbia and was named one of the 25 most powerful women in banking seven times before she died in 2017.
Columbia has grown into a regional powerhouse. It had 18.57 percent of deposits inside Pierce County as of June 30, 2019, making it No. 1 among 24 institutions, including national banks, with branches in the county, according to the 2019 Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.’s deposit market share report. The bank had 146 offices in three states and assets exceeding $14 billion at the end of first quarter 2020.
“I think we still think of Columbia Bank as a reborn Puget Sound (bank),” Freedman said, also noting a similarity between the old Puget Sound logo and Columbia’s.
Philip was a founding father of the University of Washington Tacoma, which is a major player in Tacoma’s continuing evolution. William W. Philip Hall, built in 2007, is named after him.
The Plywood Experiment
While Weyerhaeuser helped a bank grow, it also spun off some early experimenting with plywood, Sullivan said. The American Plywood Association, which was the early think-tank for the development of plywood, was based out of Tacoma.
The association, founded in 1933 in Tacoma as the Douglas Fir Plywood Association before becoming the American Plywood Association in 1964, changed its name in 1994 to APA — The Engineered Wood Association to more accurately reflect the geographic range (both United States and Canada) and product mix (plywood, oriented strand board, wood I-joists, glulam timber, structural composite lumber) of its members, according to the association website. The research center at the present campus in West Tacoma opened in 1969. The headquarters office building on the same campus opened in 1979.
APA has about 170 member mills in 23 states and seven provinces. An APA-related nonprofit organization, Engineered Wood Technology Association (EWTA), is comprised of product, equipment, and service suppliers to the engineered wood products industry, according to the site.
APA has a staff of approximately 85, including 58 at its headquarters in Tacoma and the remainder, including regional laboratory staff, quality auditors, and field services personnel, elsewhere around the United States and Canada.
The history of plywood was pretty much centered around Tacoma, emanating originally from Weyerhaeuser, “which was an early advocate of trying to find new forest products,” Sullivan said. “A lot of their high-level research and development was based out of Tacoma as well. That whole area of plywood and engineered woods was centered here.”
The timber industry, lumber, and shingles, were instrumental in Tacoma recovering from the 1893 banking panic, said Freedman.
“Those lumber and timber companies — that really set the tone for Tacoma,” she said of St. Paul & Tacoma and Weyerhaeuser.
‘The Lumber Capital of the World’
Lumber got its start, though, long before those two.
It goes back to the 1850s, Freedman said.
Nicholas Delin built a water-powered sawmill on Commencement Bay in 1852 where a creek entered the head of the bay, according to a historylink.org essay by David Wilma and Walt Crowley. With trees plentiful, sawmills proliferated.
“In 1907, Tacoma’s 135 lumber handlers stowed 202,559,628 board feet, a record that has never been equaled,” according to a historylink.org essay by Ronald Magden. “Throughout the world, Tacoma became known as ‘The Lumber Capital of the World.’ The 22 sawmills on Commencement Bay were working 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”
Tacoma’s deep lumber legacy remains today in various forms, including companies like Gray Lumber, which dates to 1903.
“Why are we successful? Those core principles that have been passed down since 1903,” Blake Fransen, the company’s marketing coordinator and a fourth-generation family member, told South Sound Business last year. “We do things the Gray Lumber way.”
Wood Products and Wooden Bats
Ben Cheney is another important lumber name in Tacoma history.
Cheney formed Cheney Lumber Co. in Tacoma in 1936 and is credited with standardizing the length of building studs at 8 feet, a concept that reduced discarded and wasted wood, according to the Tacoma-based Ben B. Cheney Foundation. A baseball fan, Cheney also helped bring Triple-A baseball to Tacoma in 1960 after helping build Cheney Stadium that year in record time.
The stadium could become part of a bigger project than Cheney might ever have envisioned, with a proposal by the owners of the Tacoma Rainiers baseball club and Seattle Sounders soccer team to build a world-class soccer stadium north of Cheney, with a housing/retail/entertainment complex in between the stadia.
What began as Camp Lewis, an Army base during World War I in 1917, has grown to a massive, strategic Army-Air Force installation, one of the five largest military bases in the world.
Pierce County voters bonded themselves to purchase 70,000 acres to donate to the federal government to use as a military base, according to the base’s online history page. It was the first base created from a citizen gift, the site said.
The military has more than repaid the South Sound community.
A military base economic impact study conducted in 2018 by University of Washington Tacoma’s Center for Business Analytics estimated the base’s annual economic impact on the South Sound at $8.3 billion to $9.2 billion. The study found at least $900 million of direct, indirect, and induced impact from JBLM’s operating budget; $850 million from Madigan Army Medical Center’s operating budget; $5.7 billion from JBLM’s overall salaries, wages, and benefits; and $860 million of direct, indirect, and induced impact from defense contracting, according to a post on UWT’s website.
JBLM has about 38,000 total service members (active, Guard, Reserve), 16,000 civilian employees, and 58,000 military family members, according to Joe Piek, JBLM Garrison public affairs officer.
About 70 percent of JBLM’s married families live off base in surrounding cities and communities, Piek said. Citing the UWT study, he said the base’s annual impact could be as much as $11.4 billion if other secondary factors are included, such as retiree spending.
“Joint Base Lewis-McChord is the premier Joint Power Projection Platform and Mobilization Force Generation Installation on the West Coast,” he wrote in an email. “JBLM is ready today and postured for future missions while remaining a resilient community partner in the South Sound.”
JBLM’s website even notes the area’s port and rail network as contributing to its strength, noting the base’s “global airlift capability, coupled with multiple seaports, and a robust rail and road network, allow JBLM to project combat power anywhere in the world.”
Researcher Freedman said Camp Lewis was the only induction center on the West Coast, so young men from seven states came to Camp Lewis and then went to war.
“That drew a base — people who came through who had never seen the area before, afterwards came back to live; it was huge growth,” she said.
From its earliest days, the base also became a revenue source for local companies that provided everything from timber for barracks to food for soldiers.
“That initiative to use public-voter money to build a military base also created this consumer base for all these different products,” Sullivan said. “It was the foodstuff that was produced in Tacoma.”
Nalley Valley is named after Nalley Foods, which made pickles and, later on, potato chips, among other items, he said of company food products it sold to the military base, and which also used the rail and port access to ship products all over the world.
The base contracted for huge amounts of fresh produce from the area, plus bought prepared or canned food from businesses, Sullivan said, noting the substantial food needs for feeding 25,000 to 40,000 men a day.
Big food providers included Tacoma’s Carstens Packing Co., which had a large slaughterhouse and meat-processing plant in the port area, Sullivan said.
West Coast Grocery, which also sold food to the base, took over the Tacoma Grocery Co. Building in 1896 (part of UWT’s campus today), selling products under the brand name “Amocat” (Tacoma spelled backward). West Coast Grocery thrived, expanding into the Birmingham Hay & Seed Building on its south side in 1917. The Pacific Avenue building served as a warehouse for West Coast Grocery until 1970, according to UWT’s description of the building.
West Coast Grocery later launched the Thriftway chain of grocery stores and supermarkets, according to Sullivan’s tacomahistory.live blog.
“The warehouse district was full of companies like that that handled food,” he said.
KNKX Public Radio, in a late-2010 story on the planned closure of Nalley Foods’ Tacoma plant in 2011, cited the company’s longtime local presence and impact.
“Nalley’s has been well-known for its brand of potato chips, pickles, and mayonnaise,” KNKX reported, noting the company’s 1918 founding by immigrant Marcus Nalley in Tacoma. The company became such a fixture that the industrial area around its plant in South Tacoma became known as Nalley Valley where Interstate 5 and State Route 16 merge, the story said.
In 2000, Nalley had 1,000 workers and was one of the top employers in Tacoma, retaining a local presence despite being sold several times among national conglomerates. The 160 employees remaining in 2010, who processed chili and beans, had their jobs moved to Iowa, KNKX reported.
“Marcus Nalley died in 1962, leaving behind a legacy that would continue to grow,” according to the Nalley company website. “Today there are more than 1,300 food products under the Nalley label, ranging from pickles to canned foods to salad dressing and peanut butter. With canned chili as its biggest seller, the Nalley label continues to be synonymous with delicious, high-quality food products.”
Another giant born in Tacoma.
Right before World War I, Tacoma was a center for candy-making due to its lack of high humidity and moderate climate, researcher Freedman said.
“Although the importance of Tacoma’s mild climate declined with the development of refrigerated rail cars or ‘reefers’ in the 1920s, Tacoma has remained a hub of candy manufacturing,” according to a Tacoma Historical Society chronology of confectioners in the city researched by Freedman and Brendan Balaam.
Notably, Brown & Haley, founded in Tacoma in 1914 and known for its Almond Roca, began marketing the Mount Tacoma Bar in 1915, which it supplied to World War I soldiers, along with taffy chews, according to its website. The bar was wrapped in a box with a picture of Mount Rainier as Mount Tacoma. The bar’s name changed to Mountain in 1923 as sales spread beyond Tacoma.
Almond Roca was unveiled in 1923, and the company introduced its pink tin in 1927, which extended shelf life and spurred worldwide sales, the website said. Soldiers in World War II enjoyed the treat, and the company continued growing. Today, it sells Almond Roca directly to more than 35 countries, with distribution taking that to 65-plus, according to the website.
The company’s access to the Port of Tacoma makes it cheaper to ship to Shanghai than Chicago, it added, calling Chinese New Year its second-largest selling season, behind Christmas.
Brown & Haley buzzes with about 150 employees and churns out about 3.2 million pieces of Roca every day, and rising, as the company continues to dial in new equipment on its production line.
Another Tacoma candy confectioner, Johnson Candy Co., began as a soda fountain in 1925 and has occupied its current building on Martin Luther King Way since 1949.
And Mars Inc., known today for M&Ms and Snickers, among other items, has a Tacoma link. In 1911, Frank C. Mars, born in Minnesota in 1883, began making and selling butter cream candy from his kitchen in Tacoma, according to the company’s website. After business challenges here, he returned to Minnesota and started a candies business, then developed the Milky Way bar in 1923 and moved to Chicago in 1929, where business only grew.
Tasty Local Ties
Another sweet-treat seller, Baskin-Robbins ice cream, has ties to Tacoma.
The stores that would grow into Baskin-Robbins started in California, but it was in Tacoma that one of the store’s founders, Irvine “Irv” Robbins, discovered his love for ice cream, South Sound Business wrote last year.
He was 5 when his family moved to Tacoma, where his father, Aaron Robbins, bought the Olympic Dairy company and the accompanying Olympic Dairy Ice Cream Parlor. At 14, he worked at the company’s ice-cream parlor at 11th and Broadway in Court C downtown, the story said.
Robbins graduated from Stadium High School in 1935 and UW in 1939. Eventually, Robbins found his way to Glendale, California, where he opened Snowbird Ice Cream in 1945. After opening several more stores across the Los Angeles suburbs, Robbins partnered with his brother-in-law, Burton Baskin, and the Baskin-Robbins empire took off, the story said.
With all the wheat and grain coming through Tacoma by rail, quality hops grown in Puyallup Valley by the likes of Ezra Meeker, and good water readily available, it makes sense beer would follow. Beer-making started early.
“We had a huge German population here that was making wonderful German-style Pilsner beers starting in the 1870s and I mean gigantic breweries,” Sullivan said. “Before Prohibition hit here, we had five major breweries. It was probably one out of every 10 households had somebody working in the beer industry here — it was a huge part of the local economy, making beer and distributing it.”
Tacoma was known for beer makers like Pacific Brewery; Puget Sound Brewery, which grew into Pacific Brewing & Malting; and Columbia Brewing (which made Heidelberg Beer after Prohibition), he said. Because refrigeration wasn’t as available, beer was made and chilled on ice, and then shipped on ice and had to move fast, so the breweries were producing huge barrels, and trains left full of beer, he added.
Once the rail tunnel through Stampede Pass was completed in 1888, Tacoma’s population exploded, including with European immigrants who were skilled beer makers, Sullivan said.
Brewery complexes filled blocks downtown, he said.
The 20-block section of downtown Tacoma covering South 21st Street to South Tacoma Way and Pacific Avenue to Tacoma Avenue South was the city’s Brewery District, where major beer-makers did their thing, according to a South Sound Business story in 2018. By the 1920s, however, Prohibition signaled the end of Tacoma’s hop heyday, shuttering most of Tacoma’s breweries, the story said. Heidelberg Brewing Co., which emerged out of Columbia, managed to make it until 1979.
Today, the Brewery District is experiencing a resurgence. As UWT grew from its start in 1990, the district’s economy began to recover, the story said, noting “Harmon Brewing Co. opened in 1997, and thrived on Pacific Avenue, breaking the ice for future brewers some 20 years later.”
One of those new entrants, 7 Seas Brewing, occupies the former Heidelberg Brewery building, rejuvenating a historic location in 2016.
“We are having housing, retail, and office space going in all around us, and it’s creating this synergy,” 7 Seas co-owner Mike Runion said in the 2018 South Sound Business story. “It’s such a unique corner of Tacoma. Industrial and brewing roots are all around us.”
Tacoma’s current industries — some of which the city’s founders would easily recognize today and others they could never imagine — now plant their own roots as they recognize the past and shape the future.