A route that once connected rails to sails will soon return to life.
The Prairie Line Trail, what’s known as a linear park, once again will link Tacoma’s waterfront with its historic brewery district.
Linear parks are the new urban must-have. They offer pedestrians the chance to move through a city, while enjoying views, art and historical perspectives.
That’s what the Prairie Line Trail aims to do.
A newly completed section of the trail joins Pacific Avenue with the Thea Foss Esplanade. It will be home to a small sculpture park.
A previously constructed section runs through the University of Washington Tacoma campus. That section was finished in 2014 but the trail’s history goes back much further.
In 1873, the route connected Tacoma with the rest of the nation when the city became the western terminus for the Northern Pacific Railroad’s race across the continent.
Today, the rail route — from Nalley Valley to the waterfront — has been only partially converted to a park.
On Thursday, city officials and others will lead the public on a walking tour along the completed section from the southern end of the UWT campus downhill to the waterfront. The tour will be followed by an art forum at Tacoma Art Museum.
THE OLD TRAIL
Walk along the abandoned route today, between South 21st and 25th streets, and you’ll still see the rusty rails on decaying wooden ties.
Where the line runs next to 7 Seas Brewing, UWT students park their cars against the rails. Humid air from a motel’s laundry service fills the area.
It’s not the most attractive setting. Until you look up.
The entire eastern side of the Jet Building, which houses the brewery, has been painted with a mural.
“Working Forward, Weaving Anew” by Jessilyn Brinkerhoff and Esteban Camacho Steffensen reads like a history book of Native American imagery. A weaver in traditional clothes works on a basket on the left while a carver in a modern shirt works on the right.
Metal art of an oyster, flower and other objects adorns the building. It was completed during the summer.
The work — co-painted by 14 Native American artists — is a reminder that members of the Puyallup and other tribes had their own trails long before white people appeared on the scene.
“It’s an extremely powerful piece that reminds us of the many histories of the people who make up our community,” said Amy McBride, the city’s art administrator.
Across South 21st Street and onto the UWT campus the trail becomes paved and planted. A rain garden incorporates the old rails.
Designers incorporated the rails into the trail’s paving, preserving the route’s original purpose. Until 2003, trains used the line, moving freight right through the heart of the campus.
Crossing signals still stand next to the line. They glow red at night.
At the northern end of the campus stands a large bronze sculpture, “Maru” by Gerard Tsutakawa, which pays homage to Nihongo Gakko, a Japanese language school that stood nearby.
It was one of the state’s largest until its pupils and their families were sent to internment camps during World War II.
THE NEW TRAIL
The new section of the trail that’s being previewed Thursday begins at Pacific Avenue and South Hood Street.
There’s no mistaking the first piece of art, directly across from Tacoma Art Museum. At first, it appears the railroad might have forgotten one of its rail cars on the tracks.
“Shipment to China” by Hai Ying Wu uses a 1909 railroad car to support the sculpture of dozens of bronze boxes. The boxes bear the names of Chinese workers along with their birth and death years.
The laborers helped build the Northern Pacific Railroad, often dying in the process. Later, in 1885, Chinese people were forced to flee Tacoma on that same railroad.
The sculpture was made in 1996 for the Chinese Reconciliation Park on Schuster Parkway but spent two decades in storage instead.
“It’s wonderful that this piece can be sited on the actual railroad,” McBride said. “Everybody’s stories, even though they are not always pleasant, are still part of the history and the sacrifices of the people who made Tacoma what it was.”
Further down the trail, a larger-than-life hand holding a rail emerges from the ground.
“Where the Rails Meet the Sails” is by Lance Kagey, Scott Varga and Mark Alvis of Rotator Creative.
Two other artworks have yet to be installed but should be in place by next summer, McBride said. Together, the four pieces will create a small sculpture park for Tacoma.
On Monday morning, Bryan Cordes of Crystal Soda Blast was painting a stencil on the trail’s pavement.
“We have located the terminus on Commencement Bay,” it reads in black letters.
It seems like an innocuous statement. But those words, in a July 14, 1873, telegram from Northern Pacific Railroad executives, shocked Seattleites and thrilled Tacomans.
The railroad was coming to Tacoma, not Seattle.
Signage along the trail relates area history, warts and all. The federal Environmental Protection Agency designation of the Foss Waterway as a Superfund site in 1983 and its cleanup is an example.
From there the trail crosses over the current railroad tracks on an overpass that’s been spiffed up with new orange railings.
The trail, as it has done for 144 years, ends at Tacoma’s waterfront.
The city plans to extend the other end of the trail from South 21st Street to South 25th Street. The cost, estimated at $6.5 million to $7 million, has not yet been obtained, spokeswoman Stacy Ellifritt said.
Walking Tour and Prairie Line Trail Celebration
When: 4:30–5:30 p.m. Thursday.
Where: Mural “Working Forward, Weaving Anew” behind 7 Seas Brewery, 2101 Jefferson Ave., Tacoma.
What: A tour of three new public art installations and other features on the trail.
Prairie Line Trail Artists Forum
When: 6–7 p.m. Thursday.
Where: Tacoma Art Museum.
What: Prairie Line Trail artists in a panel discussion as they reflect on their process interpreting historic resources to create unique public artworks.
Information: prairielinetrail.org/, both events are free.
Walk for Reconciliation and art symposium
When: Walk 9 a.m.; Art symposium 10:30 a.m-12:30 p.m. November 4
Where: Tacoma Chinese Reconciliation Park, 1741 Schuster Parkway, Tacoma to Tacoma Art Museum (about three miles).
Who: Tacoma Art Museum and the Chinese Reconciliation Project Foundation.
Prairie Line Trail Artworks and Artists
- “Working Forward, Weaving Anew” by artists Jessilyn Brinkerhoff and Esteban Camacho Steffensen
- “Where the Rails Meet the Sails” by Rotator Creative (Lance Kagey, Scott Varga, Mark Alvis)
- “Shipment to China” by Hai Ying Wu
To be installed:
- “Nexus” by Ryan Feddersen
- “Flow/Pressure” by Matthew Dockrey