It’s not much to look at now, the remnant of decades of slag dumping into Puget Sound from the Asarco complex.
Behind a chain-link fence, earth-moving equipment and construction workers roll out liners to be capped with clean fill dirt and eventually grass and pathways. The recently opened Waterwalk, part of the Point Ruston residential and retail development, will let walkers and bikers reach the border of Point Defiance. The district hopes to open a temporary walkway along the bluff to the boat house by September. Once completed, the city will finally have a single shoreline path from Foss Waterway to Owen Beach.
Until earlier this year, no one thought much about what to call the area. It was always there – or as “always” as most living Tacomans know. The dark slag heap was noticed mostly because it was ugly and because the tip nearest the ferry dock is occupied by Tacoma Yacht Club’s non sequitur of a building — the ski chalet on the Sound.
It was just, you know, the slag heap. As a placeholder more than anything else, Metro Parks Tacoma has taken to calling it Peninsula Park.
That could change, though. Park Commissioner Erik Hanberg and Daniel Rahe, a Tacoma landmarks commissioner and editor in chief of the online magazine Post Defiance (postdefiance.com), have started a campaign to name the park for a famous Tacoman that most people don’t know is a Tacoman.
Frank Herbert is the author of the fabulously popular series of science fiction novels based on the fantastical desert planet called Arrakis, or “Dune.” Herbert, who died in 1986, won the two top awards for sci-fi writers — the Nebula and the Hugo. His books are the basis for both the 1984 David Lynch film starring Kyle MacLachlan and the 2000 mini series staring William Hurt.
Herbert is also credited with helping inspire a generation of environmentalists. Herbert was born in 1920 at St. Joseph Hospital. A less than sound home life left Herbert free to explore the Sound, once rowing from Burley to the San Juans alone, swimming across the Narrows, sailing with friends to British Columbia and back.
He lived on Day Island, Dash Point, Browns Point and the East Side, attending Stewart Middle School and Lincoln High. After spending time in Oregon with an aunt and uncle, he was a newspaper reporter there and in California and served briefly in the Navy. In 1946, he enrolled in a creative writing program at the University of Washington, where he met his second wife Beverly Stuart.
The couple returned to Tacoma to be married, and Herbert reported for the Tacoma Ledger and Tacoma Times while beginning to write fiction. His son and biographer Brian Herbert says he moved 23 times before graduating from high school.
“At one time, we lived on the Tideflats, on Marine View Drive, with a view of the smelter, and the accompanying, all-too-familiar odor,” Brian said via email.
“Tacoma was also the point of departure for our family when Dad loaded us into a 1941 Cadillac Lasalle hearse (our family car!) and we moved to the mountains of central Mexico in 1955.”
Brian Herbert is a published writer, including co-writing a multi-volume prequel to the Dune series. In his biography “Dreamer of Dune,” Brian Herbert writes that the environmental themes at the heart of “Dune” emerged from his father’s life in Tacoma.
“Dad was a daily witness to conditions in Tacoma, which in the 1950s was known as one of the nation’s most-polluted cities,” Brian wrote, “largely due to a huge smelter whose stack was visible from all over the city, a stack that belched filth into the sky.”
Seeing that happen to his hometown contributed to his own environmental ethic.
“This became, perhaps, the most important message of ‘Dune,’” Brian wrote.
In an article on Post Defiance in which he birthed the idea of naming something in Tacoma for Herbert, Hanberg made the connection to the smelter site.
“In other words, Tacoma’s pollution was so bad, primarily due to the Asarco smelter, that it inspired Herbert’s message of conservation,” Hanberg wrote. “It may not be a legacy that Tacomans want, but it is a legacy nonetheless.”
Now that the smelter site is being reborn, what better place to bring Frank Herbert back home? The actual park land being restored is a direct result of the smelter’s pollution. Melissa McGinnis, the historic and cultural asset manager for Metro Parks, said it began in 1917 when the district wanted a breakwater to protect the boat launch and marina. A deal with the smelter allowed it to dump slag into the water, forming a jetty.
Because it was considered tidelands, it was owned by the state. The Department of Natural Resources sold the land to the district in 1964. The district leases the point to the yacht club but considers the entire peninsula just another part of Point Defiance.
Rahe (pronounced “Ray”) convinced his fellow landmarks commissioners to send a letter to the Park District to support the renaming and has started an online petition (www.ipetitions.com/petition/frank-herbert-park-in-tacoma).
McGinnis said that once a request is made, the district will follow its naming protocols with the ultimate decision made by the executive director and the park board. McGinnis said honoring Frank Herbert fits within the district’s policies and notes that the district hasn’t often been innovative with names, usually using geographic identities or street names. Even McKinley Park, named for the 25th president, had been known as East Park.
“We aren’t known for our creativity,” she said.
Well, here’s their chance.