Let’s dig up Tacoma’s buried past

Tom Llewellyn is one of six reader columnists for The News Tribune in 2017. Photo by
Tom Llewellyn is one of six reader columnists for The News Tribune in 2017. Photo by

Columbus Day is a tricky holiday, right? We love the idea of exploration and discovery, but the reality is that from the moment Columbus landed in the Americas, Europeans and their descendants have worked their way from the East Coast to the Pacific Northwest doing bad things to indigenous people.

One particularly insulting thing was done right here in Tacoma, 129 years ago. And this Columbus Day, we could fix it. This Columbus Day, I want to dig up a rock.

That’s about as much as I’m willing to talk about the rock. I’ll get it wrong. I’m no expert. But Michael Sullivan is.

Sullivan is my favorite local historian. I bought him a beer (maybe two) and asked him to shed some light on a story that starts about 10,000 years ago when Clovis points were being used by local hunters, such as the Puyallup people.

Put in perspective, Clovis points were being used by indigenous tribes 8,000 years before Christ and five thousand years before the Egyptian pyramids. And that same technology may have been used on the rock — the one we should all dig up.

Sullivan said: “Whoever was here at that time left their mark. They carved a human likeness on this rock creating a petroglyph. If we were to uncover this, it would be the largest, most significant piece of ancient native art anywhere in the Puget Sound.”

Just think about that for a moment or two.

For thousands and thousands of years, this petroglyph stood on the beach, just down the hill from Old City Hall. The site is now called Half Moon Yards and is owned by BNSF Railway.

If you drive along Dock Street, the location is directly across from the north end of the Foss Waterway Seaport.

A Tacoma newspaperman, Herbert Hunt, wrote about the petroglyph in 1916:

“Prized among the Indians was a great rock, some seven or eight feet in height, which lay on the beach now covered by the Half Moon Yards, and which carelessly was covered when the railroad company made the fill there.

“Its surface bore the figure of a man, not clear in places, to be sure, but distinct enough for the Indians to declare that it was the work of the ‘Changer’-the mystical Almighty who sometime, in the far past, had worked among the inanimate, as well as the animate, things, wonderful miracles.

“Men had been turned into birds and trees and stones. A human being had been converted into Mount Tacoma. The stone on the beach had been a man.”

Sounds cool, doesn’t it? According to Hunt, it was more than cool to the local indigenous tribes. It was prized. Hunt wrote: “The Indians venerated it.”

So what happened?

In 1888, Northern Pacific Railroad owned the land where the ancient petroglyph stood and they needed a rail yard. Using high pressure hoses, they sluiced the hillside down, directly below their headquarters building. The petroglyph was buried. The rail yard was built on top of the fill.

But the petroglyph is still there. According to Sullivan, it is even mentioned in the environmental impact statements drafted during the dredging of the Foss Waterway.

I have no desire to vilify the railroads. We should consider the fact that this ancient treasure has, ironically, been preserved by the fill itself. But I am asking. BNSF Executive Chairman Matthew K. Rose and BNSF President and CEO Carl R. Ice, on behalf of all local peoples, ancient and otherwise: “Can we dig up this rock?”

It’s our connection to the ancient. It’s proof that people have been here — right here — making their mark and consecrating their presence. We are an old place. We are connected to the past. And you, BNSF, could be the heroes in this story.

So how about it? Can we dig up a rock together?

Tom Llewellyn of Tacoma is a content marketing director and children’s novelist. He is one of six reader columnists who write for this page. Reach him at tom@tommyllew.com