The rain held until the ribbon was cut.
Cumulus clouds larger than freight trains rolled across the late-afternoon sky on Thursday as ghosts of actual trains awoke within the campus of the University of Washington Tacoma.
Where once there were busy tracks now stands a trail – the Prairie Line Trail at UW Station – dedicated as a linear monument to the transcontinental Northern Pacific Railroad that established its terminus in Tacoma in 1873.
Those rails remain after 141 years, rusted between newly seeded grass, finely crushed gravel and a long checkerboard or walkable bricks.
These were the rails that carried Tacoma through three separate centuries of prosperity and depression, weariness and rebirth, and the final train came and went in March, 2003.
The Northern Pacific Prairie Line ran north from Tenino, down from Tacoma’s Brewery District to the saltwater arms of Commencement Bay.
The railroad gave birth to a global Tacoma, and on Thursday, Tacoma gave thanks.
“This has been a great partnership,” said UWT Interim Chancellor Kenyon Chan, addressing a gathering of perhaps a hundred students, faculty, guests and officials.
Chan noted the cooperation and the contributions to the project by the City of Tacoma, the state Department of Ecology, the Greater Tacoma Community Foundation and various contractors and subcontractors.
The 80-foot-wide right-of-way runs through the heart of the campus, he said, and represents more than a simple trail.
It also provides an “innovative approach to rainwater” helping to clean that rainwater in its journey from along the steep hillside to the Thea Foss Waterway.
On a very personal level, Chan said it was an honor to touch and feel the rails laid by “nameless Chinese workers who built the railroad.”
As the ceremony continued, U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer recognized the early contribution of the late UWT Chancellor Debra Friedman, and he noted that the trail “celebrates Tacoma’s history,” a history tightly sewn by the railroad as it joined the Great Lakes to the Puget Sound.
Kilmer said he foresees a series of trails that will run from Gig Harbor to the Foothills Trail, from Point Defiance and beyond downtown Tacoma.
“I just think that’s cool,” he said.
Tacoma City Councilmember Robert Thoms noted that “this project is about partnership,” winding from the waterfront, as it eventually will, up to South 26th Street.
And the rain continued to hold until just after the purple ribbon was cut with ceremonial scissors by Kilmer, Thoms, City Councilmember Anders Ibsen and UWT Student Body Vice President Tyler Bjork.
Later, as the crowd thinned, UWT Vice Chancellor for Finance and Administration Harlan Patterson explained, “Part of our mission is to build connections. We really like to see ourselves as a campus without hard borders. This is the greatest asset we could have for that. This will help bring people into our community.”
He said the trail will become “our campus green, our campus square.”
It will become a place to study, to gather, perhaps to remember a day when steam clouds rose from the bellies of locomotives.
And the rain did come but only briefly, watering the new grass and giving a fresh polish to the iron rails just barely buried.