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For good or for ill, it was the railroad that made Tacoma what it is

Neil Armstrong’s blue flight suit now hangs on display in a traveling exhibition currently at the Museum of Flight to commemorate man’s first walk on the moon 50 years ago.

Those who peer in for a closer look will note some small streaks of color, like paint, on the fabric, raising some intriguing questions about where in the training or the mission the garment acquired those markings.

The answer is considerably less spectacular than the moon mission, but it is highly apropos for what became of Americans’ fascination with astronauts and space and rockets and going to the moon. Those markings are paint, and Armstrong acquired them not while journeying to the stars but while puttering around the farm in Ohio. The flight suit was a comfortable coverall for performing tasks like painting.

This is the summer of anniversaries for spectacular achievement in transportation projects. May 10, 2019, was the 150th anniversary of the driving of a golden spike to signify completion of an east-west railroad linking the West Coast to the rest of the nation’s rail network, an event that turbocharged an already robust drive to settle and develop the West.

While it was a lot longer ago (none of us were around to witness it), and technically a much less spectacular achievement, it’s the transcontinental railroad that has had the more lasting impact on individual lives and communities’ fortunes.

It’s especially true for Tacoma. Although “The Transportation City” doesn’t have much zing as a branding statement, it gets to the essence of this city’s reason for being.

A protected harbor made it attractive for waterborne trade of the region’s bountiful timber, fish and crops. Tacoma never got a true airport of its own, but it certainly shared in the emergence of the region as an aviation center. Its commercial success today rides in large measure on being the nexus of a hub of highways connecting not just towns and regions but various modes of freight transport (especially when the missing link of state Route 167 and I-5 are completed).

But it was the railroad that lifted Tacoma from just another dot in an obscure corner of the map into national prominence, even global significance, however momentarily. The joining of the Union and Central Pacific railroads in Utah was definitely noticed by towns throughout the West that figured they ought to get in on the action and have a transcon of their own. That included Washington, which in 1869 had 20 years to go to become its own state, says rail historian and author Kurt Armbruster (“Orphan Road: The Railroad Comes to Seattle 1853-1911”).

“Anything that promised to end our isolation and increase the flow of population and goods was warmly welcomed. Made infinitely easier by the first transcontinental railroad, westward migration increased as did shipment of goods, benefitting not only California but Puget Sound and Seattle. News of the first spike of the Northern Pacific the following year (1870) only spurred more optimism and activity.”

Eventually the NP made it to Tacoma, declaring it the terminus city of a transcontinental line from the Upper Midwest. It was followed by the Great Northern, Union Pacific and the Milwaukee Road.

Tacoma lost its brief designation as the terminus of the northern transcon but not its status as an integral piece of the rail hub. The legacy of that history can be found today in the shape and structure of the city, its landmarks, and the direct and indirect jobs generated by the ability to move things around.

The heritage of being a city that moves things is often the stuff of tomorrow’s headlines. The whole fight over developing the Point Defiance Bypass, and the subsequent derailing of an Amtrak Cascades train on its first revenue trip over the route, was an attempt to relieve congestion on a highly prized commodity — a water-level route for freight trains, not known for their ability to climb or descend hills.

So what did we get out of the space program in comparison?

For impact on the lives of individuals, the development of personal computers has been a far bigger story than the space program. There’s an argument to be made that the former doesn’t happen without the latter’s ability. There’s another one that such comparisons are unfair, that the transcon was strictly a commercial venture; space, while it had some commercial aspects (even more so now that it’s a rich man’s pursuit), was much more about exploration and just proving it was possible.

That’s one aspect the commemorations of both events have trouble conveying — that to the people of the time, sending a railroad across a trackless (literally) country or sending three men to the moon was an epic event, not just one more entry in a history book.

But that’s all right. A historical event need not be spectacular to be important or relevant. No transcontinental railroad? Enjoy your quaint little fishing village and lumber mill on Commencement Bay.

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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