The question of whether the Pacific Northwest's tallest mountain should be called "Mount Rainier" or "Mount Tacoma" sounds like a good-natured dispute - the sort of thing friends might banter about over beers.
That's not the way it was.
In fact, the dispute over the mountain's name was the subject of serious civic warfare for 56 years, from 1883 to 1939.
It was no laughing matter for either of the main combatants - Tacoma pushed desperately for the change; Seattle was dead set against it.
For Tacoma, the change represented not only economic prosperity but urban pride and civic self-esteem.
The question went before arbiters at the U.S. Board of Geographic Names three times, in 1890, 1917 and 1924.
Congress debated the issue. Newspaper editors around the country took sides. Even Presidents William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt weighed in.
Up front and in public, Tacoma's arguing points were historical accuracy - Tacoma is a variation of an Indian name - and patriotism. Barely concealed lurked the real issues: money, money and money.
If there werea Mount Tacoma National Park, boosters knew their city would be the undisputed gateway to an international attraction. They believed it would bring in an unending stream of tourist dollars. And sharing a name with the Northwest icon would give the city limitless prestige and a priceless public relations advantage over rival Seattle.
Those thoughts occurred first to directors of the Northern Pacific Railroad Co. in 1883, the year the railroad completed its transcontinental line to Tacoma. In March, the railroad announced in its Northwest Magazine that from then on, the mountain would be referred to as "Mount Tacoma" in all company publications.
"The Indian name Tacoma will hereafter be used in the guide books and other publications of the Northern Pacific Railroad and the Oregon Railway and Navigation Co., instead of Rainier, which the English Captain Vancouver gave to this magnificent peak when he explored the waters of Puget Sound in the last century.''
But it wasn't so clear that "Tacoma" really was the Indian name for the mountain. There had been two early references to the word in print. One, a phonetic variant, appeared in the journals of William Tolmie, a Hudson's Bay Company doctor stationed at Fort Nisqually, near present day DuPont, in 1833, when he wrote that he had enjoyed "a fine view of Tuchoma or Mt. Rainier, appearing in relief against the cloudless firmament."
The other reference - far more widely known - was in a travel book by Theodore Winthrop called "The Canoe and the Saddle," published in 1862.
"Mount Regnier Christians have dubbed it, in stupid nomenclature perpetuating the name of somebody or nobody," Winthrop wrote. "More melodiously the Siwashes call it Tacoma - a generic term also applied to all snow peaks.''
In 1868, not long after copies of Winthrop's book made their way to Washington Territory, land speculators struggling to build a city on Commencement Bay changed the name of their project from "Commencement City" to "Tacoma."
But had any Indian ever actually called the mountain Tacoma?
Maybe, maybe not.
Various Northwest tribes had different words to describe the mountain, or mountains in general, most of which were unpronounceable by whites, but which have been recorded as "Tahoma," "Tacobet," "Tuwouk" and "Tacoba." Winthrop lamented the "sibilantous gutterality'' of the Indian languages, an observation that threw his pronunciation into doubt.
And the definitions were equally unclear. Some agreed with Winthrop. Some said it meant Rainier in particular. Others said the word meant "large breast" and was applied to mountains for the obvious visual resemblance. Still others said it meant "where the waters begin.''
If the Northern Pacific's marketers were aware of these inconsistencies, they clearly didn't think them worth a fuss. Their motives had nothing to do with etymology and everything to do with economics. Tacoma was at the end of the Northern Pacific line, and railroad executive Charles B. Wright was president of the Tacoma Land Co.
Northern Pacific wanted to fill trains with tourists, and Wright wanted to sell real estate by associating the mountain with the town.
Tacoma promoters enthusiastically supported changing the mountain's name. The Tacoma Ledger, the town's largest newspaper, used "Mount Tacoma" in all of its editorials and news stories beginning in 1883.
Elsewhere in the territory, people were incredulous at first; then, offended and alarmed. Seattle newspapers lambasted Tacoma's effort as "historical robbery."
Seattle businesses had been using the name "Mount Rainier," and realized that a "Mount Tacoma" could shift national attention and economic prosperity to their southern neighbors.
In 1890, the year after Washington became a state, Tacoma boosters took the issue to the U.S. Board of Geographic Names. The board flatly turned down the request after hearing testimony from Northwest scholar and Indian authority James G. Swan, who said the word "Tacoma" had no significance and was merely " a mispronunciation of a native name."
Northern Pacific gave up the battle at that point. But not Tacoma.
If anything, the decision fanned the flames in the City of Destiny. When it began to look as if the mountain would be designated a national park, Tacoma turned up the heat even more, proceeding with a political campaign that continued for nearly 50 more years.
While the ultimate motive of Mount Tacoma advocates was profit, their public arguments took on an entirely different cast. In the first place, they said, Peter Rainier - the man after whom Capt. George Vancouver named the mountain in 1792 - was an obscure and undeserving Britisher who had never seen the Pacific Northwest, let alone the mountain.
Worse, they said, he fought against the colonists during the Revolutionary War.
They claimed Tacoma was the traditional Indian word for the mountain, and it had been the mountain's true name for untold centuries. Not only that, it sounded better.
Opponents weren't convinced.
Rainier might not have been a Northwesterner, they said, but neither were Peter Puget nor Juan de Fuca. Once you start changing names, where do you stop? Should every English, German and Spanish name in the country be changed?
Furthermore, Rainier defenders argued, the mountain already had a name that appeared on maps and in reference books all over the world. Changing it would be needlessly confusing and expensive.
Those opposed to the change characterized Winthrop as an unreliable travel writer and dilettante, who either made the word Tacoma up, or at least recorded his own version of an Indian word that sounded only vaguely like it.
Both sides went to great lengths. In 1893, Tacoma boosters rounded up local Indians - including Chief Seattle's children, Moses and Angeline - and had them put their "X" on affidavits confirming that Tacoma, or a close phonetic equivalent, was the mountain's real name.
Seattle boosters rounded up an equal number of Indians who insisted it was not.
The combatants pursued every old pioneer they could find, looking for first-hand witnesses. The old-timers disagreed and shed no definitive light on the dispute.
Books were published on the subject. Heartfelt poems were composed. "Scientific" conferences were called. Reams of circulars were printed.
In 1924, U.S. Sen. Clarence Dill of Washington nearly circumvented the names board by introducing a bill to change the name to Mount Tacoma. It passed by voice vote.
But in the House, a committee chairman sent the matter to a final, ill-fated hearing before the Board on Geographic Names, whose chairman was the prominent naturalist C. Hart Merriam. For the third time, the board turned down Tacoma's request, declaring that Rainier had been the mountain's name for 125 years, that it was firmly established and that there was no good reason to change it.
Tacoma's efforts, Merriam said, were based only on "self interest, commercialization and local sentiment."
The name war officially ended Dec. 6, 1939, when the Tacoma Chamber of Commerce, convinced that confusion over the mountain's name was hurting business and stalling development in the park, passed a resolution accepting defeat and urging its citizens to do likewise.
Gary Reese, the manager of special collections at the Tacoma Public Library and an authority on Mount Rainier history, is frustrated by those still bearing the old grudge. He compares them to Southerners who refuse to let go of the Civil War.
"You have to know when to give it up," Reese said. "We should have said, 'OK, we lost,' and then gone on to other things.
"We spent an awful lot of our civic time arguing about the name of the mountain, and making enemies. That civic energy could have been spent on something more important. While we were spending our energy on this, we lost many, many opportunities.''
Like all wars, the battle over the name had lasting consequences. Historians say the dispute permanently damaged the relationship between Tacoma and Seattle. It hurt both cities economically. The confusion stalled promotional efforts that could have brought more business to the park and more tourism dollars to both cities.
Mostly, though, the controversy hurt Tacoma. The city was regarded with amusement by the rest of the country and resentment by many citizens of Washington state, who looked at the effort as an attempt by Tacoma to appropriate the mountain.
"Tacoma people grabbed hold of that issue so strongly, it became part of our persona,'' Reese said. "We alienated everybody in the state. When you focus on something that minor with the tenacity with which we battled the battle, you make yourself a laughingstock."
In the end, the only winners may have been wilderness preservationists, who were opposed to commercial development of Mount Rainier National Park. Public confusion over the mountain's name stymied tourist promotion and stalled congressional appropriations - both of which worked to keep Rainier in a natural state.