Special Reports

U.S. fortress becomes a beloved people’s park

Long before they held title to the land, the people of Tacoma claimed Point Defiance as their own.

The federal government designated the natural fortress as a military reservation in 1866, at a time when the United States was trying to secure the shoreline of the young territory. As it turned out, the only occupying force would emerge from the ambitious young city on Commencement Bay.

Early Tacoma leaders lobbied for and won the right to use the government land as a park in 1888.

With the completion of a streetcar line from downtown, the people came and a park took shape.

A newly formed city park commission hired landscape gardener Ebenezer Roberts as its first superintendent and built a residence for him at Point Defiance. The Welshman’s vision of formal gardens, natural forest and rustic amenities shaped the early park, which was quite literally his back yard.

Numerous structures and attractions – a plant conservatory, the giant log bridge, a waterfront pavilion – sprouted in the park’s first two decades. All except Roberts’ lodge fell long ago to age, fire or development.

People came for many of the same reasons they do today – for escape, for recreation, for romance. But a trip by streetcar to the park was a more formal occasion.

Parkgoers would wear their Sunday best and feast on elaborate multicourse picnics. Some set up camp for the entire summer in the still-wild woods.

Tacomans loved the place from the start, but feared the landlord might take it back for a prison or other use.

After making the case for ownership, on March 3, 1905, the young city got its wish and got its park.