At what was otherwise a celebration came some disturbing news.
While welcoming a new tenant – the Children’s Museum – United Way President Rick Allen talked about a pending deal to purchase much of the Burlington Northern-Sante Fe right of way behind the Sprague Building. The idea is to pave over the land for parking, but it could eventually be combined with an existing parking lot for a development site.
Listening was Tacoma City Councilman Ryan Mello, who knew of those tracks not as surplus property for some future building but as the terminus of what the city hopes will be the Prairie Line Trail. BNSF has agreed to trade 20 feet of the right of way for a trail that will run from the Foss Waterway through the University of Washington Tacoma campus and south.
But the right of way can’t be a trail if it is a parking lot. And it certainly can’t be a trail if there’s a building there.
Shortly thereafter Mello also learned of the history of that particular right of way when Pierce County Councilman Tim Farrell and former Tacoma historic preservation officer Michael Sullivan began spreading the word.
The rusting rails and overgrown right of way is where Abraham Lincoln’s dream of a second transcontinental railroad reached tidewater. Just days ahead of a deadline for completion, the Northern Pacific completed the link on Dec. 16, 1873, by rolling a construction train down to what is now the Moon Yard at the mouth of the Foss.
“By four o’clock the spike was firm, the speeches were over, and Tacoma was the western end of the transcontinental,” wrote historian Murray Morgan in “Puget’s Sound.”
It also is likely the last remaining terminal tracks of an American transcontinental railroad.
“The diagonal score of the Prairie Line that cuts across Tacoma’s south downtown hillside can be thought of as the stopped hand of a clock,” wrote Sullivan in a historical documentation of the line conducted for the UWT. “It precisely marks a very specific moment in the history of the northern transcontinental railroad and the development of the American far west.”
According to plans for the trail crafted by the City of Tacoma, the actual right of way would not be used on the east side of Pacific Avenue. Instead, the bike and pedestrian trail would cross over next to the Tacoma Art Museum and use the inner shoulder of Hood Street for the trail. That has been requested by the art museum to tie the trail more closely with its redesigned plaza.
(Some maps, photos and renderings are at http://bit.ly/Polibuzz.)
So rather than take its 20-feet trade down the center of the right of way where the historic tracks surely were laid, the city would take it on the far southeastern edge, closest to Hood Street. That would also allow the city and BNSF to firm up legal ownership of Hood.
Such an arrangement would then allow United Way to purchase the remaining 60 feet for $300,000 (from rental income from the Sprague Building, not donor money) and combine the land with its existing parking lot. Allen said that during better economic times he fielded calls from more than two dozen developers interested in such a property.
But it would require a one-eye-closed view of the history of the city and the railroad. It would place the end of the “Prairie Line” trail not on the “Prairie Line” but nearby. And it would allow most of the actual land to be buried, first under asphalt and perhaps in the distant future under a building.
At a recent Tacoma council committee meeting, Sullivan urged the city to abandon plans that would destroy the integrity and the actuality of the historic right of way.
“This is Tacoma’s first real estate,” Sullivan told council members. And it has been in one ownership for 138 years. “I’m alarmed the second use of that property will be a surface parking lot. I find that deeply disturbing.”
Sullivan suggested looking at the way the UWT is planning its segment. After purchasing the entire right of way, UWT will not build on any of it, instead having a trail while leaving the historic rails intact and in place.
The city section is even more significant than the UWT section because it is closer to, and within sight of, Lincoln’s objective – tidewater.
Finally, Sullivan rejected the notion of having the Prairie Line Trail on Hood Street and pretending it is historic.
“The Prairie Line is immutable. It is where it is … let’s use the historic ground.”
Allen said he didn’t understand the historic significance of the right of way until a recent visit with Farrell and Sullivan. And he said he has no interest in harming the historic nature of the right of way.
If it doesn’t make both historic and financial sense to have the trail on one edge and leave enough land for future development, then he will back away from the project, he said.
“If the only options are to asphalt it over or do nothing, then we’ll do nothing.”
Peter Callaghan: 253-597-8657 email@example.com blog.thenewstribune.com/politics