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Would a permanent submarine display add panache to Tacoma’s tourist scene?

The U.S.S. Cabezon, seen here in June 1964, once was moored along the Tacoma waterfront. Would a permanent submarine display add to the Tacoma tourist scene?
The U.S.S. Cabezon, seen here in June 1964, once was moored along the Tacoma waterfront. Would a permanent submarine display add to the Tacoma tourist scene?

The recent ruminations in this space about Tacoma and tourism, and what attractions the city has and lacks, prompted a reader to offer an interesting nomination.

“One museum I would like to see added would be a retired warship on display, possibly a fleet submarine,” the reader wrote. “They are relatively small and could be parked on the City Waterway (now Thea Foss Waterway) near the Glass Museum and close to state history museum, car museum, etc.

“How about the space formerly used by Martinac shipbuilding? That would help develop the opposite side of the waterway, and a boardwalk could connect the venues. We already have a restaurant on that side, and others would follow. I have seen the subs at San Francisco and Pearl Harbor, and they add diversity to the local museum scene, and, of course, Seattle doesn’t have one.”

Seattle actually did have one for a while — not one of ours, a decommissioned (at least we think they were no longer using it) Soviet sub tied up at Pier 48 on the waterfront and open for tours. It’s now in San Diego.

At one point, maybe Tacoma did, too, although on this we’ll have to rely on our more venerable readers.

Sitting on this columnist’s desk as this is typed is a pocket U.S. highway atlas of late-1980s vintage. On each page of regional maps are listings by cities of the sights and attractions to be found in each. The circa-1988 listing for Seattle would largely work in 2018, with the exception of the Kingdome, which was spectacularly blown up in 2000.

Here’s what that atlas has to say about Tacoma: “Tallest totem pole in United States, Tacoma Narrows suspension bridge, Historical Society Museum, Point Defiance Park (Job Carr House, Old Fort Nisqually, Deep Sea Aquarium, Zoo), permanently moored submarine U.S.S. Cabezon, Tacoma smelter.”

Hmm, that list needs some revisions and updating. The original cabin was in Point Defiance Park but no longer exists. There are now two Narrows bridges, and visitors can walk across one of them (great views, too). It’s unclear what the lure of the smelter site would have been, unless people got a kick of driving back and forth through the tunnel. Redevelopment of the site as Point Ruston was a huge net increase for local tourism.

But what’s the story on the submarine?

Internet information on the Cabezon is scant, but here’s what we could find. The Cabezon (named for a type of saltwater fish) was a World War II submarine that saw limited action. At some point in its post-war life it was moored in Tacoma as a reserve or training vessel. Beyond that, though, there’s nothing on where it was moored, exactly when it left or why (“scrapped” is about as much detail as is available) and whether it was really an attraction or just something people could catch a glimpse of or gawk at.

The lack of detail notwithstanding, the reader is on to something here. A submarine would be cool to see and would draw crowds. The Oregon Museum of History and Industry in Portland has one available for tours — even sleepovers — tied up on the Willamette River Better still, it would serve as a nice complement to the Foss Waterway Seaport, which is making a nice long-term transition from a jumble of maritime-related stuff to a true maritime museum — something the Puget Sound region, for all of its maritime heritage, lacks.

Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry has some space devoted to maritime subjects, and there are boats moored nearby for touring. For a time Seattle also had a small museum on Pier 66 devoted to modern maritime subjects including the port, but it’s long gone.

Consider what’s possible here — a maritime museum with its own fleet of vessels, moored in the water or on shore (how great would it have been to have the Kalakala as a static display on land, but, oh well).

The reader’s placing of a sub on the Tideflats side of the Foss is a bit problematic, in that this community is facing a major debate over the encroachment of non-industrial uses over there. But that’s a debate for another column and nothing that can’t be worked out anyway.

Why does all this matter, other than to those of us who like history, museums and old transportation equipment? What’s the connection to business and economics, the purported focus of this column?

Well, Tacoma is in the tourism and entertainment business. Whatever it can muster to raise its profile and set itself apart from every other city, county and region gives it just that much more of a competitive advantage in the competition for visitor dollars and mindshare. That it also heightens the quality of life for those living there is an added benefit.

Museums in Tacoma, Tukwila, Snoqualmie and Elbe/Mineral have the other modes of transportation (cars, plane and trains) covered. Tacoma can claim the boats part of that spectrum, add to its portfolio of attractions and build tourism as a way of drawing money into the community.

Now, who’s got a spare submarine they’d like to send us?

Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at bill.virgin@yahoo.com.
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