Railroadman paved the way for historic hotel

In 1882, Charles B. Wright, who throughout most of the 1880s controlled the Northern Pacific Railroad and the Tacoma Land Company, ordered construction of an “exceptional” hotel in Tacoma. He wanted it to demonstrate to guests that they had reached an important destination.

The Northern Pacific Railroad’s line from St. Paul to the Columbia River was nearing completion and there was already a line from the Columbia River to Tacoma. Wright anticipated a big increase in traffic and the rapid settlement of the area. That meant Tacoma had to have a well-appointed “hostelry” where visitors – especially potential investors – could stay and be entertained while they looked around.

Wright hired the New York architectural firm of Mead, McKim and White. White was junior partner Stanford White, who had just achieved prominence for designing Boston’s Trinity Church. He came to Tacoma in spring 1882 to look over the proposed building site. From then until construction was complete, the architect and various out-of-town contractors stayed in the first houseboat built in Tacoma.

The hotel was at 913 South A Street at a spot on the bluff above Commencement Bay between Ninth and Tenth Streets. The houseboat was anchored directly below and the two were connected by a wooden staircase. At the time, the Puyallup River flowed along where the grain elevators and half-moon railroad yards were, quite close to the bluff. According to an article in the Tacoma Daily Ledger dated 9-16-1913, the houseboat was the only place of importance on the waterfront, which certainly wasn’t really correct. The waterfront had two miles of warehouses and all kinds of businesses, and many Tacoma residents used the staircase.

As much as we know about the houseboat is that it was two stories and had 10 rooms. Conferences between White, George Evans and William Whidden, construction supervisors, and railroad and land company representatives took place there.

Early in July men began excavation which included pushing the dirt over the edge of the bluff next to the railroad tracks. Peter Irving eventually had to put up a retaining wall. A tramway was built on the site from 10th Street along A Street for the entire length of the property. In mid-month an incline iron track 200 feet long was constructed to connect the top of the bluff with the bottom. Hoisting engines were positioned at 10th Street. Bricks came in on scows and until they were needed, the loaded scows waited on a gridiron. Uncut sandstone came in on flatcars from Wilkeson. When they were needed, bricks and stones were loaded onto the incline car and taken to the top of the bluff. From there a horse pulled the car full of materials to wherever the men happened to be working. For a year, men swarmed the site until the hotel was complete and ready for its grand opening on August 8, 1884.

When the hotel was done, a man named Gage Wheeler bought the houseboat and turned it into a boathouse. At that time Tacoma’s boat business consisted largely of renting boats to fishermen, gill netters and duck hunters and the boathouse was the center of their activity. Later on, when the Tacoma Yacht Club had its clubhouse on Maury Island, the Ferris boathouse became the club’s headquarters on this side of the bay.

Gage owned the boathouse for several years and then sold it to Ed D. Ferris. However, Tacoma’s waterfront business was growing and the channel in front of the boathouse was filled in. As a result, Ferris moved the boathouse and away from the base of the cliff and farther south in the waterway. Between 1880 and 1890, Tacoma’s population swelled from 1,098 to 36,006. A growing citizenry came with a growing appetite, and flour and cereal mills sprang up to meet the demand. Between 1880 and 1893 the flour-milling industry reached its heyday. Grain houses went up along the waterfront and Ferris had to move the boathouse again. It ended up at a place just south of the 11th Street Bridge, but not for long. Construction had begun on the new Lincoln Avenue Bridge and the houseboat was moved a third time, again farther south. By 1913 so many industries were going up at the south end of the bay the city wanted every bit of waterfront it could get ahold of and there was literally no place moorage site for the boathouse. Ferris gave up and sold it to Andrew Foss. In September the Foss Boat House Company began its demolition.

The Tacoma Hotel was the pride of Tacoma for another twenty-two years and then it was destroyed in a fire. At the time St. Luke’s Episcopal Church was being moved stone by stone from 602 C Street (Broadway) to 3601 No. Gove. The church stones had been cut in the same year and at the same quarry as the hotel stones, in fact St Luke’s was the first building constructed from Wilkeson sandstone, so several tons of fire-damaged hotel stones were hauled to Gove to complete the relocation. Others of the stones and the bricks went into building Mr. and Mrs. Charles Wolfe’s private home on Brown’s Point. Sadly none of the carved or etched stones or bricks survived the fire.