Peter Callaghan: Marker deserves new life back where it began 87 years ago

peter.callaghan@thenewstribune.comDecember 15, 2013 

“At three in the afternoon on Dec. 16, the last spike was driven. The citizens of Old Tacoma and New Tacoma gathered to watch the ceremony.”

– Murray Morgan,

“Puget’s Sound”

Just three days before federal land grants would expire, crews including 700 Chinese laborers managed to complete what would pass as the terminus of a transcontinental railroad. That deadline and the already devastating economic Panic of 1873 explain why the last dash to saltwater sliced diagonally down the steep hillside rather than along the river and bay.

Getting there before Dec. 19 meant the Northern Pacific Railroad was entitled to the grants of federal land offered in exchange for a second transcontinental line. It also allowed the railroad to raise funds for further construction by selling land at the terminus.

In reality, this “transcontinental” railroad reached only Kalama on the Columbia River, where passengers could take a ferry to Portland. The Panic had halted the eastern progress of the mainline at Bismarck, N.D.

Still, it was the birth of what was then called New Tacoma — so designated to distinguish it from the small village that centered on what is now North 30th Street and McCarver and Carr streets in Old Town.

“The sledge was passed among the dignitaries. Gen. Sprague, who had chosen Kalama, tapped the spike, as did Skookum Smith, Job Carr and (Morton Matthew) McCarver. John Bolander, head spiker during three years of construction, drove it home. We can only guess at the thoughts of Carr and McCarver as they helped fix New Tacoma, not their Tacoma, as terminus.”

— “Puget’s Sound”

That all happened 140 years ago Monday. But half a century after the last spike was driven, a growing city still dependent on the railroad feared that it was losing its history. To fight back, the Women’s Club sponsored an essay contest for school children and commissioned a marker.

Built of sandstone by the Walker Cut Stone Co., it was dedicated June 10, 1926, at the corner of South 17th Street and Pacific Avenue, near where the final spike was driven.

“It is of such ample proportions,” wrote The News Tribune of the new marker, “that it will not be overlooked by either citizens or visitors.”

Ample enough not to be overlooked unless, of course, you move it blocks from its original placement and stick it at the back of a little-used open space called Pugnetti Park. Rather than look out over that historic right of way, the stained and weathered stone now scores a fabulous view of the Interstate 705 interchange at South 21st Street.

Plans are underway for an exciting reclamation of the stretch of the Northern Pacific right of way known as the Prairie Line. The section within the University of Washington Tacoma will begin a rebirth as a trail and linear park sometime in the spring.

And just last week, Tacoma won a $1.92 million grant from the Puget Sound Regional Council to build its section between Pacific Avenue and South 15th Street. Incredibly, a swap with the BNSF Railway for this section has still not been officially completed, nine months after it was agreed to. But city staff says there are no points of contention and expect/hope for BNSF signatures soon.

As planning and design progress, however, the city should consider bringing that sandstone marker back to its original home. Since telling the history of the Prairie Line is part of the project, what better way than to show how it has been recognized as a significant site for a long time? I’m certain the state Department of Transportation, which owns Pugnetti Park, won’t mind.

“They were there to drive a last spike. Around them were work camps, steam-age machinery, canvas tents and tree stumps that no one expected to last long. At their feet, however, was a wide swath of cleared, level ground marked by iron rails that climbed the hill and set off for the prairie and the continent beyond.”

— Michael Sullivan,

“Of Sweat and Railroad Tracks: Tacoma’s Holiday Origin”

Peter Callaghan: 253-597-8657

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