Friday, March 31, 2017

Move Over Seattle; Make Way for the Railroad

I grew up around Tacoma, Washington, moving back a few years ago. Some people won’t have heard of the town. Whenever anything happens in the entire state of Washington, the news media will claim it’s “near Seattle.” Seattle has the bigger harbor. Seattle has the larger population. Seattle has the sports teams (go, Hawks!) and the concert venues. Seattle is home to the University of Washington. Seattle was the site of the World’s Fair, the location of many popular movies (Sleepless in Seattle, anyone?). Tacoma has always been a poor second cousin to the south.

Except when the railroad came to town.

Seattle was still a hamlet then. Yes, it had scored the Territorial University (which was still more grammar school than university then). Yes, it boasted a steam-powered sawmill. Surely the transcontinental Northern Pacific Railroad would choose Seattle as its terminus on Puget Sound. After all, the city fathers had offered 7,500 lots in town, 3,000 acres along the way, $50,000 in cash, and $200,000 in bonds.

Nope. On July 14, 1873, the mighty railroad notified Seattle that it had chosen the tiny village of Tacoma City located on Commencement Bay instead.

The people of Seattle were aghast, appalled. How could they have been passed over, for Tacoma? They were also a little worried. What would happen to Seattle if all the rail traffic went south? Papers of the time carried ads from merchants, saying “No terminus! And yet alive” and encouraging shoppers to come in for bargains.

Tacoma City was rather puffed up about the whole thing. There was a rush to buy land, position shops where the travelers could access them. Determined to make the most of the opportunity, men chartered another city just to the south along the route, calling it “New Tacoma.” (The two towns were later joined to form Tacoma.) Later, Tacoma would build a grand Union Station, still one of the city’s landmarks.

Supposedly the editor of the paper took great joy in rubbing the matter in Seattle’s face. Indeed, in early April 1875, the Tacoma Tribune even ran a story about the tragic fate of a thespian troop that had left Seattle by ship for Port Madison on the other side of the Sound. The ship sunk, with all hands and passengers gone. The problem? The accident never happened! The actors and their gear made it safely across the Sound.

I thought perhaps the Tacoma editor was trying to sell papers by making up more “interesting” stories. The editor of the Puget Sound Dispatch thought otherwise. He claimed the Tacoma editor was trying to denigrate Seattle.

“Four lies to one truth is far better than an average with the Tribune in mentioning any matter connected with Seattle and its harbor … But then, we have the charity to remember, that the humiliation which Tacoma has suffered in view of its utter and hopeless failure and the success of Seattle, has been an awful strain upon the patience of those who had built their hopes upon Tacoma as a rival town.”

It seems the rivalry I knew growing up is actually more than a century old. And counting.

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