Stand at the end of North Carr Street in Old Town, right where it bumps into the railroad tracks, and you’ll be where Tacoma began 150 years ago Thursday.
Back then you wouldn’t have seen any roads or rails. There wouldn’t have been any buildings or wires. But just off shore you would have seen a canoe with several men in it. One of them would have been standing and shouting in your direction.
On Dec. 25, 1864, pioneer Job Carr was canoeing along the shore when he spotted where he would build a cabin and become the first permanent white settler of the future Tacoma.
“When we came opposite of where Tacoma now stands I raised on my feet and exclaimed, ‘Eureka! Eureka!’ and told my companions there was my claim,” Carr recounted in an 1885 letter.
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Job Carr’s story and the founding of Tacoma is the story of the West and all its idealism: starting over, taming wild lands, striking it rich and being the vanguard of a new society.
“The Carr family is a human-scaled story about a family with a rich set of personalities,” said Tacoma historian Michael Sullivan. “If you were going to pick a colorful, progressive minded family to base your origin (story) on, it’s pretty wonderful to have the Carrs.”
The gently sloping land Carr saw that day in 1864 was at the confluence of two creeks and sheltered from the prevailing winds. Today, the topography has changed some — the creeks are now buried. But the ingredients that would shape Tacoma’s future in the 1800s are still there today: railroads, shipping and remnants of timber.
“What’s unique about Tacoma is that the first settler family had a rich personality and stayed here and continues to be here. And where they settled — Old Town — is still a discernible neighborhood, part of the story and a physical part of the city,” Sullivan said.
Mel Carr, one of Job’s great-great grandsons, estimates there are about 25 descendants living in the greater Tacoma area. Mel, 74, didn’t get interested in family history until 1990. Since then, he’s become the family’s unofficial historian.
The Carr family has a remarkable photographic collection of Job, his cabin and the earliest beginnings of Tacoma. Many were made by Job’s son, Anthony. “Anthony was a photographer during the Civil War. After the war he came out here to meet his dad and brought a camera with him,” Mel Carr said.
“Job came from a family of people who weren’t afraid to move about,” said Mary Bowlby, The Job Carr Cabin Museum’s executive director.
The museum’s replica cabin sits in the northwest corner of Old Town Park. It’s about two blocks from the site of the original cabin — the first permanent, non-Native home in Tacoma. Originally a one-room structure, later expanded, the cabin recreates what life would have been like for Carr.
Carr’s settling on Puget Sound represented the final leg of his family’s 200-year-long westward move from Europe. His pilgrim ancestors left England in 1635 and eventually settled in Rhode Island. One of them, Caleb Carr, became the colonial governor. Job Carr was born in New Jersey in 1813. From there the Quaker family moved to Ohio and then Indiana when Carr was about 12.
It was in Richmond, Indiana, where Carr married Rebecca Pittman. Carr worked as a painter and wallpaper hanger. Together they had four children: Anthony, Howard, Margaret and Marietta.
Whatever plans the family had were disrupted in 1861 when the Civil War began. By August, Anthony had enlisted in an Indiana volunteer regiment. The following month, at 46 years of age, Job followed his son into battle. Job Carr was a staunch abolitionist, Bowlby said.
Job Carr fought in the Battle of Shiloh in Tennessee in April of 1862. Later, after being injured near Atlanta, his military service ended. Rebecca, who was volunteering at a field hospital at the time, took Job back to Richmond to nurse him back to health.
Local historians and descendants describe Rebecca Carr’s spirit and personality as being as strong as Job’s.
“They were exact opposites. He was very conservative, she was very liberal,” Mel Carr said. “She was probably one of the first starters of women’s suffrage. Job didn’t care for that type of thing.”
While in Indiana, Rebecca developed an interest in the spiritualist movement, according to Bowlby and Sullivan.
“She discovered she had a talent for seeing into other people’s lives. She would call herself a seer or seerist, not a fortune teller,” Bowlby said.
In the decades leading up to the Civil War, abolition wasn’t the only progressive idea gaining strength in America.
“With the ideas of social experimentation, women’s suffrage, also came spiritualism. We think of it as wacko today but in those days, it was a more secular religious belief,” Sullivan said.
When Carr later moved west, their marriage did not survive.
“He sent for Rebecca to come and she said, no, she wasn’t coming. They eventually divorced,” Mel Carr said.
But Rebecca eventually made it west after her second husband died. First relocating to California with daughter Margaret, Rebecca settled in Tacoma in 1882. The cabin she lived in, at North Carr and 30th streets, was within shouting distance of Job’s.
Rebecca never gave up her beliefs, even after relocating to Tacoma. “She made her living with sailors and other people doing fortune telling in her little house,” Sullivan said. She also served as an apothecary.
JOB’S MOVE WEST
In late 1863, Job Carr traveled to Iowa, where he acted as an orchard consultant of sorts.
“He was kind of a Johnny Appleseed character. He was an orchardist. He understood fruit and crops. He felt he could make a living at it,” Sullivan said. He dealt in starts and seeds and helped farmers start orchards.
But Carr didn’t spend long in Iowa. The Far West, long a frontier fit only for the brave and hardy, was opening up to settlers. The government was eager to have the region settled with Americans in order to bolster its territorial claims against the British.
In 1864 President Abraham Lincoln inked a land agreement with the Northern Pacific Railroad. The contract — to build a transcontinental railroad — included the proviso that the railroad had to reach the shores of Puget Sound by Dec. 31, 1873.
“Job understood that wherever that railroad ended, there would be great opportunity. So he decided that he was going to come out here,” Bowlby said.
In a letter to a daughter Job Carr wrote, “In the spring of 1864 heard of the passage of the Northern Pacific Railroad charter and immediately resolved to go to Puget Sound and locate at western terminus of said road.”
Sullivan thinks the railroad was just part of Carr’s decision to move west.
“He was a farmer, a Quaker and a man of peace. Here he is in the war, gets wounded, gets banged around a lot and then he is ready to go as far west as you can get and start over again,” Sullivan said.
How Carr got to Puget Sound is a little murky, but he may have traveled with a wagon train. “He had a cart and two oxen. That’s how he traveled from Council Bluffs, Iowa — about 2,000 miles on the Oregon Trail,” Mel Carr said.
He arrived in Olympia, the only town he knew of, on Nov. 13, 1864.
“I’m seeing the place then in a very dilapidated condition. I was convinced no sane company would ever locate the terminus of the transcontinental railroad there if there was any other place to go,” Job Carr recounted.
About a week later he arrived on the Puyallup Indian Reservation, at the base of McKinley Hill, where he stayed with a family that worked for the government.
“From there he scouted all the way to the Snohomish River looking for the best possible place where they might terminate that railroad,” Mel Carr said.
PUGET SOUND AND ‘EUREKA’
In 1849 the California Gold Rush had sent a torrent of forty-niners, as they would be called, to find their fortune in the Golden State. That led to booming cities like San Francisco and a resulting demand for timber.
“The quickest way to get wood to build these cities was to come to Puget Sound. The schooners would come up here and pay gold right on the barrel head for timber on the beach,” Sullivan said.
While the Denny family started a lumber mill on Elliott Bay, Swedish immigrant Nicholas Delin established a mill in 1852 near the end of today’s Foss Waterway. For power he used water that flowed from a Nalley Valley creek.
The boom did not last. The Gold Rush petered out in 1855 and in Puget Sound, a war between the U.S. government and local tribes started. The few settlers in the area relocated to Fort Nisqually and Fort Steilacoom. Delin abandoned his mill.
By the time Carr arrived in 1864 local hostilities had ended and the Puyallup Tribe’s reservation had been established.
At the time, swamps, waterways and thick vegetation made land travel time-consuming around Puget Sound. Settlers quickly learned they had to adopt the travel mode of their native neighbors and travel by water.
It was during that 1864 Christmas Day fishing trip to Gig Harbor with four or five other men when Carr had his “Eureka” moment.
Carr continued to explore Puget Sound for another five months in 1865 to be confident of his choice. “To go to a place no one had settled before would have been his intent,” Bowlby said. That crossed Seattle off his list.
The Donation Land Claim Act of 1850 and the Homestead Act during the Civil War allowed settlers to stake claim to Western property. Single men like Carr were allowed 168 acres and, if married, another 168 acres. Single women were not eligible for any land.
In 1865, Carr began work on his cabin and became the first, permanent white settler in Tacoma. Photos show he gradually cleared some of his 168 acres.
“To some degree, Job was the vanguard for the family — the idea that he would go and find a place for the family to end up at. They had the ideal pioneer spirit. Smart people and kind of counterculture,” Sullivan said.
Later that year Anthony joined him. “When his son arrived in November (of 1865), all he had to do was some shingling of the roof so Anthony helped him,” Bowlby said.
Howard, who had been taken prisoner in the Civil War, joined his father and brother in 1866. He was recovering from a long incarceration at Camp Sumter (Andersonville Prison) in Georgia. “He went from 150 pounds down to 92 pounds. They didn’t expect him to live. In his diary he talks about seeing 300 people die in one day from starvation,” Mel Carr said.
Daughter Marietta traveled by ship from New York to the Isthmus of Panama and then took another ship up the west coast to Port Townsend before finally arriving in Tacoma via canoe. Marietta and her young son were later killed when the steamer Pacific sank off Cape Flattery in November, 1875. She was on her way to California to visit her sister Margaret.
All told, Job and his two sons owned 1,000 acres of today’s Old Town, Mel Carr said.
“When the boys come out they end up staking claims all around him,” Sullivan said. An early map of Tacoma shows both Job’s claim and those of his two sons adjoining his. “He will eventually give up large sections of his claim to (developer Morton Matthew) McCarver to attract the railroad.”
By July 1873 the Northern Pacific had reached Tenino after turning north from the Columbia River. Financial setbacks and labor disruptions had slowed its progress.
“They had only six months to finish and if those tracks weren’t operating and weren’t reaching saltwater, the whole financing collapsed,” Sullivan said. They picked Tacoma because it was the quickest place to get to, he said.
“Then they are in a scramble to be able to get the tracks done. Within the last few weeks, they raced from Lakewood down the easiest way they can where the Prairie Line is today.”
For practical reasons, they weren’t going to lay extra tracks to Old Town. The railroad also gave them automatic land grants to unclaimed land.
Though Carr and the railroad were separated by a couple of miles, he still benefited from the growing city before and after Northern Pacific’s arrival.
“He kind of becomes a local character who is respected and admired and is reasonable,” Sullivan said.
Carr’s cabin became the city’s first post office in 1869, with Carr serving as the postmaster for a short time. When the nearby Hanson and Ackerman sawmill was completed later that year, the post office was moved there.
“Everybody says (Job Carr) was the first mayor of Tacoma. It was really a board of trustees,” Bowlby said. Carr was elected as president in 1874. His cabin was used as a polling place. The Carr Museum displays the combination polling and mailbox he used along with several other family artifacts.
Carr served as the clerk for the Territorial Legislature, as a notary public and as justice of the peace. He also worked at a Steilacoom Lake grist mill where he tended the machinery.
At age 70 in 1883, Carr married what Bowlby describes as a mail-order bride. “In those days, with that age difference, you can pretty much assume it’s arranged for her to come out and take care of him as he gets infirm. But he takes care of her financially with his estate,” Sullivan said.
“She was not happy,” Bowlby said. “One newspaper account says she was seriously contemplating moving back with her mother when he died. She probably did as there’s no account of her being here after that.”
“She didn’t get along with Howard and Anthony. Rebecca was living out here, too,” Mel Carr said.
Carr died in 1887 and is buried in Tacoma Cemetery on South Tacoma Way. Since then, several family members have joined him, including Rebecca, who died in 1909.
Carr’s original cabin was moved to Point Defiance Park in 1900 and placed on the bluff overlooking the ferry landing. It eventually rotted and was dismantled. “Supposedly, they saved the logs but nobody knows where they went,” Mel Carr said.
A lackluster replica was built in 1917 along the park’s Five Mile Drive. It was torn down in the 1980s. That replica led many present-day Tacomans to think they had seen the original, Bowlby said.
In 2000, the current replica was built in Old Town Park, spearheaded by Old Town business owners Karen Poole and Phillis Olson. The cabin and museum are nonprofit. Mel’s cousin Rick Carr serves on the museum’s board.
“Rick and I have a taken active roles keeping up the history. Whenever they have Job Carr Days, I’ll go down there and talk about the family,” Mel Carr said.
For Sullivan the founding of Tacoma by the Carr family is about as good as a Western pioneer story gets.
“They weren’t here as religious zealots. They weren’t here as pre-financed industrialists like the Dennys who settled in Seattle. They weren’t here as military people. They were a family that had been divided by war and came out as future Westerners — with an idealism.”