Historic Tacoma mill turned city park gets its soul back with multimillion-dollar gift

Lumber saw to centerpiece Ruston Way park

Skip Dickman and his father, Bud Dickman, visit the gigantic head saw that will be reassembled as the new centerpiece for Dickman Mill Park on the Ruston Way waterfront. Video by Tony Overman
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Skip Dickman and his father, Bud Dickman, visit the gigantic head saw that will be reassembled as the new centerpiece for Dickman Mill Park on the Ruston Way waterfront. Video by Tony Overman

A 34-foot-tall saw with spinning gears taller than a man soon will be back on Tacoma’s Ruston Way waterfront.

Cambia Health Solutions is giving $2.93 million to restore the 15-ton saw and create space for it at Dickman Mill Park.

Cambia president Mark Ganz announced the gift Wednesday at the company’s 100 anniversary gala at the Foss Waterway Seaport.

Cambia, the parent company of Regence BlueShield in Washington, is headquartered in Portland. But the company got its start in Tacoma a century ago.

Timber workers pooled their money to create the Pierce County Medical, Industrial and Surgical Bureau, to handle workmen’s compensation claims, according to Secretary of State records.

To celebrate the centennial, Ganz and the company were looking for something to memorialize its history while honoring the legacy of the timber industry and Tacoma.

“We were born out of the timber industry and we were born in Tacoma,” Ganz said.

He wanted something that would last.

He got a 15-ton hunk of metal.

“I think it’s going to last for the ages,” Ganz said.

Today, the head saw lies in pieces in a Metro Parks Tacoma maintenance yard.

“They were looking for the ability to restore it,” Ganz said of Metro Parks. “We put it to them, ‘What will it take?’ “The numbers looked credible and so we said yes.”

It’s long been part of Metro Parks’ plan to install the restored saw at the park.

“We ask the public to dream big,” said Metro Parks board president Andrea Smith, who grew up next door to the Dickman family and remembers seeing the mill in operation.

“We’re talking about our history, about how logging and lumber mills were important to the growth and the beginnings of Tacoma,” she said.

It’s a return to glory of sorts for the site, once a bustling lumber mill. It closed in 1977, burned itself into an eyesore in 1979 and got new life as a nine-acre park in 2001.

Today the park is part wetlands, boardwalk, beach and ruins. About 1,000 of the pilings that once supported the mill and dock still stand just offshore.

Flood tides wash into concrete structures and around pilings — the last remains of the mill, which dated to 1889, the year of Washington statehood.

In 1922, the mill was sold to Leonard Howarth and Ralph L. Dickman Sr. At the time, Tacoma had 70 lumber mills producing 4,036,000 board feet of sawed lumber for every eight-hour work shift.

Dickman Lumber Co. introduced the eight-hour, one-shift-per-work-day schedule in Tacoma. It was the last intact mill on Tacoma’s waterfront when it closed in 1977.

“We had a lot of happy years, and we had some hard times, too,” Dickman’s son, Ralph L. “Bud” Dickman II told The News Tribune in 2000.

Now, 92, Dickman visited the saw Tuesday with his son, Ralph L. “Skip” Dickman III.

“It was the last over-the-water dock in Tacoma,” Bud Dickman said of his family’s mill. Then he turned his attention to the saw.

His father installed it in 1923, two years before Bud was born.

“I saw it run,” he said. “We had good sawyers.”

His father, he said, used the saw to make lumber for shipyards.

“You’d get more money on the lumber,” he recalled.

The head saw was a mechanical marvel of its day.

Powered by a 350-horsepower Westinghouse motor, the saw could cut boards as long as 65 feet. It could mill up to 150,000 feet of lumber a day at its peak in the 1920s and 1930s.

Two huge wheels held a 15-inch-wide, 11-foot-long band saw.

“We had to change it twice a day,” Skip Dickman said. “It would get dull.”

The saw was powered by steam into the 1970s.

“We had a big stack and air pollution shut us down,” he said.

The mill, which was converted to electricity, employed as many as 150 men.

“7:45 a.m. every morning that steam whistle blew, that’s how you knew the shift started,” Skip Dickman said. “At 4:30, it blew again.”

When his grandfather died in 1972, the whistle blew for a full minute.

“It kind of gave me goosebumps,” he recalled.

Logs came in and lumber went out on ships, trains and trucks.

“Toward the end, when we got close to shutting down we just didn’t have the logs we used to have,” he said.

The saw survived the fire of 1979 and in the 1980s was moved temporarily to Marine Park by businessman Adolph Cummings and Bud Dickman.

The park later was renamed Cummings Park, and the saw was dismantled and moved to the storage yard.

It’s registered as a historic artifact and is the only known saw of its kind in Washington.

It won’t be operational when it’s restored but should look like it is, said Melissa McGinnis, Metro Parks’ historic and cultural resources administrator.

Structural weaknesses will be repaired, rust and any lead paint removed, McGinnis said. Then it will get a fresh coat of paint.

The approximately 2,000-square-foot waterfront plaza at the park will project visitors further over the water, giving them new views, Smith said.

The project is expected to take two to three years to design, obtain permits and build, said Metro Parks spokesman Michael Thompson.

In addition to the $2.9 million Cambia is giving $382,000 for the naming rights to a 48,000-square-foot event lawn for the under-construction park on the peninsula near the Tacoma Yacht Club. The money will pay for 51 percent of the cost.

“You only turn 100 once,” Ganz said.

Craig Sailor:




1889: Abraham Coon Young of Caro, Michigan, builds a shingle mill for $500 near the original Tacoma town site.

1922: Mill sold to Leonard Howarth and Ralph L. Dickman Sr.

1952: Dickman Mill becomes most productive lumber mill in Tacoma.

1972: Dickman died.

1977: Mill closed.

1979: Fire destroys mill.

1991: Metro Parks Tacoma buys half of former mill site from developer J. David Page for $1.1 million

1993: Ram Corp. proposes 100-room hotel for northern half of site. Metro Parks board buys it instead for $808,500.

1997: Clean-up of toxic waste begins. Public rejects parks board proposal to change name to Heritage Mill Park.

1998: Mill ruins demolished.

1999: Construction delayed when pockets of heavy oil are discovered.

2001: Park opens.

2002: Silver Cloud Inn, just south of the park, opens.

2017: Head saw restoration and park expansion announced.

Source: The News Tribune archives