Special Reports

Public artworks carry spirit of railroad history

It's 1920. It's been 30 years since the fortune-making Northern Pacific relocated its repair shop to South 56th Street.

Since then, houses for railroad workers have been springing up like flowers, businesses blooming along South Tacoma Way. Northern Pacific Bank now stands on the corner of South 56th Street. Harkness Furniture and Brown's Flowers are soon to come. From cattle farms and empty space, South Tacoma Way is now the place to come for a good time, and for making money.

Fast forward to 2007: The railroad optimism of the 1900s is hard to find. A little-used line sits buried behind empty businesses in this part of town. Yet the hardworking spirit lives on, if you know where to look. Three public art pieces exist in the stretch of businesses between South 47th and South 56th streets, each a modern tribute to those railroading glory days.

Fritz Church's "Gateway" sets the scene as you round the curve from Union Street. On the east side of South Tacoma Way, just before the Tacoma Cemetery, a huge wheel comes into view. Buttery orange, resting on two railroad spikes in a semi-circular round-house, the wheel has that long-spoked wagon look of an early locomotive, but in stylized steel.

Commissioned by the South Tacoma Business District, the artwork honors the Northern Pacific Shops and workers by freeze-framing the motion of their trains.

Down near South 56th, a Larry Anderson bronze captures one of those workers right there on the sidewalk. Lifesize, overalled and train-driver-capped, he swings his little girl up for a delighted embrace. "Coming Home," like all Anderson sculptures, celebrates a humanity seemingly larger than life, yet with gentle folds and angles.

But it's around on South Washington, in the Heritage Bank parking lot, that the railroad's magnitude hits home. Mary Mann's mural, commissioned by the Northern Pacific Bank just before it became Heritage, recreates the past in an enormous 110 by 16 feet.

Engine No. 1549 chuffs its timber-laden way past neat freight yards and serene dairy farms, with rolling hills behind. In contrast to the Van Gogh-like swirling of cool blue sky and green grass, the railroad workers stand confidently and unsmilingly on the track, arms folded, a looming 10 feet high.

It's the picture of successful industry, tinged with a clear-edged golden light, and if you look across South Washington to the X-cel Feed silos and railroad just beyond, and smell the yeasty, wheaty aroma, you can almost believe yourself back there, in 1920, when South Tacoma Way really was the place to be.

South Tacoma Way public art

 • Fritz Church, “Gateway Art Project,” 2001, fabricated steel, 4745 South Tacoma Way.

 • Larry Anderson, “Coming Home,” 1984, bronze, 5450 South Tacoma Way.

 • Mary Mann, “Heritage Bank Mural,” 1998, paint, 5445 S. Washington St.

Related stories from Tacoma News Tribune