Peter Callaghan: Abe Lincoln as founding father of Tacoma? Well, sort of

Staff WriterJuly 1, 2014 

Wednesday is the 150th anniversary of an event that made Washington state what it is today – for better and for worse.

Not that there will be a lot of parties, though, since few realize that it was July 2, 1864, when President Abraham Lincoln signed the charter creating the Northern Pacific Railroad.

Lincoln’s legacy focuses rightly on a few other events — you know, winning the Civil War, saving the Union, ending slavery in America. Stuff like that. But he also understood how the railroads would create a continental nation, would complete what was termed our Manifest Destiny.

“The great enterprise of connecting the Atlantic with the Pacific states by railways and telegraph lines has been entered upon with a vigor that gives assurance of success,” Lincoln wrote in his fourth State of Union message in December 1864.

But the northern route was not the favorite to become the second transcontinental. Michael Sullivan, who teaches a course in Washington state and Tacoma history at the University of Washington Tacoma, said the Northern Pacific was considered a road to nowhere.

But the war changed things. The same day Lincoln signed the charter, Confederate forces under the command of General Jubal Early were preparing to cross into Maryland, heading for Washington, D.C. Maybe Lincoln took pleasure in the railroad decision, Sullivan speculated, knowing the Southern Pacific route had been surveyed by Jefferson Davis, then the president of the Confederacy.

The Northern Pacific story is one of robber barons, financial and political corruption, intrigue, fortunes lost and fortunes gained. In other words, a great story.

In “Puget’s Sound,” Murray Morgan’s seminal history of Tacoma, the late historian quotes the NP’s Samuel Wilkeson describing the far Northwest as “a vast wilderness waiting like a rich heiress to be appropriated and enjoyed.”

Such attitudes — along with the dubious business ethics of the day — led to fantastic sales pitches to both market construction bonds and to sell the land.

“Selling the Dakotas and Montana as a subtropic paradise was one of the great publicity coups in the history of American merchandising,” Morgan wrote.

Much has been written of the railroad’s decision to make Tacoma the western terminus, a decision as much celebrated in Tacoma as it was condemned in Seattle, Olympia, Mukilteo, Steilacoom and Port Townsend.

It was more than nine years after Lincoln signed the legislation that the first rickety tracks reached Puget Sound on what is now the Foss Waterway — just days before the deadline set by Congress. Had the financially struggling railroad had more time — or more money — it might well have terminated the line farther north.

The terminus was a very mixed blessing for Tacoma. The railroad helped create a town from nothing and some of its leaders — Charles Wright specifically — acted paternalistically to benefit the social, educational and cultural interests of those who lived here.

But the No. 1 goal of the railroad and the barons was to make money, not promote Tacoma. In his history of the state’s first decade, Robert Ficken compared the “loser” of the terminus competition with the “winner.”

“Seattle was a real estate town in a large and more positive meaning of the expression — a community where citizens could take advantage of profit opportunities in a timely fashion,” Ficken wrote. “Tacoma, in contrast, was dominated by the Northern Pacific and its corporate land and utility affiliations.

“Years of habit, moreover, caused residents to rely far too much upon the Northern Pacific, an uncertain patron of progressive works.”

Over the next several months, Tacoma will commemorate one of its great public projects — the reclamation of the Prairie Line right of way that brought the first NP train to tidewater in 1873. Completion of the first phase of linear park and trail through the University of Washington Tacoma will be followed by groundbreaking for a city section below Pacific Avenue.

Neither would be happening without a presidential signature on a piece of legislation 150 years ago.

Said Sullivan: “To be able to trace the origins of your city to the offices of Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War is pretty cool.”

Peter Callaghan: 253-597-8657

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