A place in History

March 21, 2005 

 
Washington State Historical Society
Groups such as the Tacoma Ex-Service Women's Club, shown June 1, 1922, navigated a wooded or sandy path to Point Defiance Park's Picnic Beach. The promenade is there now.

DREW PERINE/The News Tribune
Many South Sound residents commemorate special occasions at the park. Peter and Svetlana Schedrin, center, have fun with fellow Ukranian Americans at their wedding party at the Pagoda last month.

American Indians camped, fished and hunted on its shores and called its imposing banks “near face” or “near cliff.”

U.S. military explorers came across the same landform in 1841 and saw an ideal fortress, a point that would “bid defiance to any attack.” The federal government set it aside as a military reservation.

Decades later, the leaders and residents of a young City of Destiny looked at the peninsula, with its sandy beaches and enchanting forest, and saw something else.

A place of beauty.

A place to gather.

A place set apart.

A park that they claimed for their own.

As the city grew, Point Defiance quickly became a refuge where residents could escape city life, a place for camp-outs and picnic lunches, courtship, quiet contemplation, fishing, swimming and running barefoot.

It became Tacoma’s treasure.

It still is.

But a century after it officially became a Tacoma park, Point Defiance remains a work in progress.

Age-old questions persist about traffic, money and the park’s future development.

The park’s only true master plan dates to 1911, a fact evidenced by its charming, haphazard feel.

Park leaders hope to use this centennial as a chance to not only look back at the park’s history, but also to look forward to begin shaping its future.

They tread carefully around the subject of creating a new master plan, though, knowing that any attempt to change the park might be met with opposition from generations of Tacomans who view it with nostalgia and want to keep it “the way it was.”

For many, Point Defiance Park represents childhood.

“If you grow up in Tacoma, you grow up in the park,” said Charnell Scotton, a Tacoma native and retired parks employee.

Yet change is one of the park’s constants.

Financial pressures, the rise of the automobile, municipal politics and cultural shifts have all helped produce a century of change at Point Defiance Park.

SO, JUST HOW BIG IS IT?

At 702 acres, Point Defiance isn’t even close to the largest U.S. city park.

The Trust for Public Land’s Center for City Park Excellence ranked El Paso’s Franklin Mountain State Park, with a whopping 24,000 acres, the largest big-city park.

The largest park in the Northwest is Portland’s Forest Park, which ranked No. 10 in the study with 4,836 acres.

New York’s Central Park has 840 acres.

Seattle’s largest park – Discovery – has only 534 acres.

 

An amusement park has come and gone. Buildings have burned. Bison, which once lived near the park’s Bowl, made way for gardens. Horses came and went from the trails. A huge indoor swimming pool was built and demolished. The zoo has grown from two deer and a possum to a state-of-the-art facility.

The way people use the park has changed as much as the park itself.

Visitors arrive by automobile now, rather than by streetcar, horse or steamer.

And they generally stay for a few hours instead of an entire day or weekend or summer.

The challenge for Tacoma leaders and lovers of the park is to figure out how this unique space can keep up with the demands of a changing populace while retaining the key elements that make it special.

The natural beauty.

The feeling of refuge.

The sense that something so large and scenic couldn’t possibly be found in the middle of an urban setting.

“It’s a beautiful park,” said Genevieve Glundberg, widow of Metropolitan Park District Director William Glundberg, the last park director to live in the Lodge at Point Defiance. “You never tire of it. You can go there 100 times and never tire of it.”

A PARK IS BORN

The Metropolitan Park District has chosen this year as the park’s 100th anniversary – it marks the transfer of the deed from the federal government to the city. But the park’s origins go back another 17 years.

The U.S. government recognized the military possibilities of the peninsula, and in 1866 President Andrew Johnson set aside about 640 acres for a potential military reservation.

But after 20 years of sitting dormant, a movement began to turn the point into a park.

It was fueled by a blend of crass commercialism, altruism and aesthetic idealism.

The idealism was part of a national movement in which early urban planners and landscape architects recognized the need to set aside space for nature in the midst of the country’s growing cities. New York City’s Central Park became the most famous example of the idea, but cities across the country created urban parks during the late 1800s.

Tacoma was particularly ambitious. Its park was larger than almost anything found in the Eastern United States and was more centrally located than most of the urban parks in the West, said Michael Sullivan, a Tacoma historian.

“Most of the cities of the East so randomly developed during the industrial age and nobody thought about the extravagances of open space,” he said. “In the far West, some cities stumbled across it by dumb luck because they hadn’t grown so fast, but most of those parks are in cities that are not on the water, so those parks tend to not be central but on the outside of the city.”

The commercialism was also part of a national trend, led by the financiers of the country’s new interurban trolley lines. Streetcar operators realized they could drive up ridership, especially on weekends, by creating a destination at the end of the line.

Allen Mason, an investor in Tacoma’s first streetcar line and the chief real estate developer of the North End, was at the forefront of an effort in the late 1880s to win permission from the U.S. government to develop a park at Point Defiance.

For Mason, a park served the dual purpose of providing a weekend destination for streetcar riders while also driving up the value of his real estate holdings.

The federal government eventually agreed, but it took two tries – and some creative, liquor-lubricated lobbying.

Because Washington wasn’t a state yet, Tacoma’s leaders persuaded a senator from Oregon to sponsor a bill in 1888 granting the city permission to occupy Point Defiance.

The bill passed through Congress, but President Grover Cleveland vetoed it for reasons that are unclear. One historical account surmised that it must have been some sort of misunderstanding.

Tacoma – and Mason – didn’t give up.

And this is where the alcohol likely came in.

In 1908, Mason recalled the effort for a Tacoma Tribune reporter, saying that shortly after the president’s veto, “a gentleman who had great influence in Washington” offered to provide the legwork “if I would cover the expense, which might be $500 or possibly $1,000 necessary for the social features of making friends. I gave him $500 and told him to sail in.”

The second bill passed through Congress quickly and President Cleveland signed it Dec. 17, 1888.

This time, there was no misunderstanding.

Tacoma could get to work creating its park.

The only catch: The federal government retained title to the park and reserved the right to reclaim it at any time.

EARLY DEVELOPMENT

Even though the land still belonged to the United States, Tacoma quickly made the park its own.

In 1890, the city hired a renowned Welsh gardener named Ebenezer Roberts as the park’s first superintendent.

Roberts, initially hired as a foreman to oversee clearing of the park, was a gardener first and foremost, said Doreen Beard Simpkins, Tacoma Metro Parks historian. He wasn’t a formally trained landscape architect, and it was apparent in his vision of the park as a wild, unmanicured place.

Edward Schwagerl, who planned the park’s landscaping, held lofty ideas for the park and produced a detailed contour map, Simpkins said.

When Roberts became superintendent, “he was going around yanking up the ‘Keep off the Grass’ signs,” she said. “He was all about getting his knees muddy and planting things.”

As park superintendent, Roberts asked schoolchildren to donate rose clippings that produced the park’s first rose garden.

Soon after the turn of the century, Point Defiance Park was firmly established as a destination for all walks of life.

It was the place to “see and be seen,” Simpkins said, but it was also a democratic place, where “the little people of the prairie homes” could escape, she said.

As the park grew in popularity, and Tacoma grew in stature, city leaders decided the tenuous arrangement with the federal government was no longer good enough. Tacoma wanted full title to the park before it spent too much money developing it. They were also alarmed at a brief discussion about putting a prison at Point Defiance.

In 1902, the city’s parks commissioner, M.L. Clifford, wrote to Washington U.S. Rep. Francis Cushman asking for help.

A year later, when President Theodore Roosevelt visited the city, Tacoma Daily Ledger columnist Bernice Newell stirred up publicity for the growing movement with a tongue-in-cheek article proposing to kidnap the president and take him out to the park.

Newell captured the affection Tacoma had for its park with bragging such as, “This article is not designed as a remonstrance, but why not show to the honored guest Tacoma’s greatest distincting feature, the most notable natural park in any city of the Union?”

An intense lobbying effort culminated on March 3, 1905, when Roosevelt, the father of the national parks system, signed over ownership of the park to the city.

The federal government still reserved the right to take back all or part of the park, but only if needed for military purposes or for a lighthouse. Otherwise it belonged to Tacoma.

Now the question was what to do with it.

FORCES OF CHANGE

At first, development of the new park was fueled by the same energy and determination that led to its creation.

In 1907, two years after securing the title to the park, the city created a separate taxing district to pay for its maintenance and development. The Metropolitan Park District still runs the park.

It was a bold move, particularly given the political climate of the era, Sullivan said.

The idea of spending public money on parks was a new one, Sullivan said. Government was supposed to provide essential services, not luxuries, and parks were regarded as such.

Tacoma had recovered from the depression of 1893 and was growing quickly. The city’s population more than doubled between 1900 and 1910, going from 37,714 to 83,743.

A few years later, park leaders commissioned a master plan for the park’s development.

Hare & Hare, a renowned landscape architecture firm from Kansas City, Mo., produced the plan that has influenced much of the park’s development over the last century.

The Tacoma Daily Ledger described it in a July 1911 article, writing: “In the past the improvements have been haphazard and on no general plan. It may be a long time before the board develops Mr. Hare’s entire scheme, but it will progress from year to year until, on its completion, Point Defiance Park will rank in beauty with the best, as it does now in natural attractiveness.”

The Hare & Hare Plan of 1911, as it has become known, was never completed, but many parts of it were implemented.

Among its legacies is a view of Point Defiance Park as four distinct regions: the formal or garden region, the waterfront, the zoo and aquarium, and the forest.

Another is the idea that most of the park should remain undeveloped.

The Hare & Hare plan recommended creating trails into the woods that ran as straight as possible to minimize disturbance, curving only to go around old-growth trees or large masses of shrubbery.

The thinking was in line with the desire of early parks commissioners, according to a 1938 history of the park undertaken as a project of the Works Progress Administration.

“In developing the park, the Park Board has adhered to its original purpose – to provide conveniences and comfort for picnic outings and at the same time retain and preserve as much of the natural wild beauty of the park as possible. Thus, without leaving the city, the people of Tacoma can enjoy a region of almost native forest, of a kind usually to be found only after a long drive from a city.”

But despite the early planning, much of the park’s development since 1911 has remained haphazard, with buildings or developments frequently arising in response to outside forces, including financial crisis and the automobile.

SURVIVING DEPRESSION

The Depression brought about the most active period of change to Point Defiance Park. It was during this era that cash-strapped parks leaders opened up Point Defiance to new forms of commercialism hoping to bring in money to maintain the park.

A private riding academy opened in 1933 and operated until 1964 when a fire destroyed the stables. The parks commission received 10 percent of the profits.

  HOW THE POINT WAS NAMED

Point Defiance owes its name to Charles Wilkes, the naval explorer who passed through Puget Sound in 1841 as part of an expedition to survey the U.S. territory. He saw the strategic potential of the peninsula, which the government soon claimed as a military reserve.

“Point Defiance, on the east, commands all the approaches to it … if strongly fortified would bid defiance to any attack, and guard its entrance against any force,” he wrote in 1849.

The same year, Funland, a private amusement park, opened near the park’s main entrance. A generation of children rode the Buzzer, Dodgem, Merry Mixup and Tilt-a-Whirl while noshing cotton candy and popcorn.

Mayor Bill Baarsma rode the bus to the park in the 1950s with his friends and cousins. Even now, he looks instinctively to the right when he enters Point Defiance Park, thinking he’ll glimpse the old Chute the Chutes ride.

“I still dream about it,” Baarsma said. “I go back to Funland.”

A pair of work-relief programs provided the park with the labor for many improvements during the 1930s.

The Works Progress Administration worked on Five Mile Drive, building culverts and restoring bridges. The initials “W.P.A.” are still visible on concrete culverts.

Another work relief agency, the Civilian Conservation Corps, built a camp for young, single men who cleared brush from the forest and restored Fort Nisqually, the old Hudson’s Bay Co. fort originally built in DuPont.

The Depression-era activity not only helped provide jobs and bring in revenue for the parks district, but also improved the park for visitors looking for inexpensive escapes from the desperation of the era.

Tens of thousands attended the annual Water Carnival put on by the Young Men’s Business Club in the 1930s and through the ’40s. Attractions included tugboat races, an air show and logrolling.

The improvements from the 1930s also helped spruce up the park for World War II-era visitors who flocked to Point Defiance.

During the 1940s, Point Defiance Park became a popular place for soldiers from Fort Lewis and McChord Air Field to unwind, joining families and church groups in Sunday picnics or playing carnival games and flirting with young women at Funland.

For Tacoma families limited in travel options because of gas rations, the park became a popular place to escape from the city without leaving it.

“We would go out there for lots of picnics,” said Gary Fuller Reese, retired director of the Northwest Room at the Tacoma Public Library “A lot of people would. And you’d always take three or four soldiers with you.”

THE AUTO ARRIVES

After the war ended, families kept going to the park for picnics and fishing derbies for many years.

"The timber in this great country is rapidly being cut down ... and in a very few years it will be necessary to go long distances ... to see this timber in its natural growth. It becomes, therfore, a matter of interest to all the people of the United States to preserve in some place easy of access some tract of land covered in this natural growth.

PARK BOARD SECRETARY M.L. CLIFFORD, 1902

 

But the rise of the automobile changed the way people got to the park and how they used it.

Whereas early visitors came by Mason’s streetcar and stayed for an entire day, the automobile allowed parkgoers to come from greater distances and stay for shorter periods of time.

Improvements to Five Mile Drive, the scenic roadway that snakes through the park, made it possible for a modern park visitor to experience Point Defiance without stepping foot in it.

Reese, the retired librarian, began going to the park as a young boy in the 1940s.

“My first real memories of Point Defiance were not of the park itself but of sitting in the back seat of our 1935 Ford in the long line down Pearl Street waiting to get into the park,” he recalled.

Tacoma City Councilman Tom Stenger remembers rides through Five Mile Drive in his grandmother’s car.

“My Nana would drive me around and I’d be embarrassed because we’d go so slow,” Stenger said.

Now he emulates her driving style.

“I can take an hour to go through Five Mile Drive without actually coming to a stop,” he said.

While the rise of the car has been good for tourism, it has posed challenges: traffic, parking and conflicts with pedestrians and bikes.

By the 1960s and ’70s, the feel of the park had changed. Park leaders and residents complained that families were being driven away by young people drinking, using drugs and “cruising” the park.

“Social frictions arose,” a 1980 report prepared for the park district said. “The park became a far-reaching magnet for auto-borne youth, who by the 1970s were arriving complete with powerful car stereos.”

In the mid-1970s, a citizens advisory committee came up with a series of recommendations for the park.

The group wanted to ban cars and replace them with buses during the summer. Thirty years later, it has yet to happen.

In the 1980s, park leaders flirted with the idea of charging people to drive into the park, and residents revolted when park leaders briefly reversed the flow of traffic on Five Mile Drive.

TURMOIL AND INACTION

Park and city leaders, hobbled by money problems and political fighting, struggled to respond to the new concerns.

They appeared desperate during a public meeting held in 1971 in response to a disturbance that resulted in three arrests.

The News Tribune reported that City Manager William Donaldson wanted to hire “husky football players as watchmen” and a Tacoma police major “thought perhaps the clergy could be persuaded to patrol the park on Sundays.”

“But,” the article continued, “the question was raised whether they could handle the ‘tough element’ in the park.”

The problems persisted for several years.

“Point Defiance Park when the sun shines is taken over by druggies, drunks and dragsters,” began a story in the April 13, 1976, Tacoma News Tribune.

The article continued: “And extremely little is being done to curb such activity, a delegation of North End citizens complained at the park’s semi-monthly meeting.”

Parks leaders weren’t just criticized for failing to crack down on troublemakers.

They were also rapped for not providing clear direction for the park’s future.

A proposal to remove concessions that weren’t in line with the park’s educational purpose met some controversy, as did nearly every other change proposed during the period.

The problem could be eliminated, park board members were told, if they created a clear policy regarding what could and could not be done in the park.

In the absence of a clear plan, all sorts of proposals were floated, everything from building a steam train through the old-growth forest and a Sea World marine park along the water to banning cars from the park and removing the parking lot at Owen Beach.

“We even have had one suggestion that called for a motel and trailer court on Five Mile Drive,” then-board member Eva Stewart said at the time.

Although most of the ideas fell through, many received some consideration.

It wasn’t necessarily a bad thing that some of the proposals fell through.

Ernest Karlstrom, president of the Metropolitan Park Board in 1976, said that while some park board members were disappointed Sea World backed out, he was not.

Karlstrom wanted changes in the park to come from the local community.

“I hope the citizens of Tacoma realize something needs to be done and we can do it ourselves,” he said. “The park’s a precious gem, you know. It’s been neglected too long.”

Karlstrom and others suggested hiring a professional planner to produce a new master plan for the park and creating a permanent role for a citizens advisory committee, but neither idea was fully executed.

In 1979, the park district began work on a comprehensive guide for future development.

But parks director William Glundberg delivered the finished product to the park board March 31, 1980 – less than a week after he announced his resignation – and the plan was quickly forgotten.

Glundberg’s departure came amid a series of resignations from top park and zoo positions as the park district was floundering.

The Tacoma City Council wanted to take over control of the district, saying it needed greater accountability, and two years earlier the League of Women Voters called for an end to the park board.

LOOKING BACK AND FORWARD

Now, 25 years later, the park district is celebrating the centennial of Tacoma’s taking of the park’s title and once again talking about the need for a new master plan.

After 100 years, the park is showing its age, officials say. The Hare & Hare Plan of 1911 is out of date.

It couldn’t predict that tour buses and mountain bikes would one day compete for space in the park.

But the fundamental issues remain essentially the same now as they were in 1980 or 1905.

What’s the purpose of the park? How should it be developed? How will it be preserved and who will pay?

The chance to develop the old Funland site presents leaders with a big opportunity. There is talk of removing the park district’s shop buildings that occupy the site and eventually connecting the park to the redeveloped Asarco smelter site below.

And there will be talk of fixing age-old problems regarding traffic flow and user conflicts.

Like so many previous attempts to make changes, the conversation is bound to be contentious.

“Point Defiance has never been without controversy,” Simpkins, the historian, said.

But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

“I think it’s controversial because people care,” she said. “It matters to them.”

Jason Hagey: 253-597-8542
jason.hagey@thenewstribune.com

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