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.

Mr. and Mrs. Peter Judson, their sons Peter and John and niece Gertrude Meller left Galena, Illinois in April 1853, by wagon train and joined the Longmire party. After an indescribably difficult trip over the Cascades and Naches Pass, they all rested along Clover Creek. The Judsons eventually continued on to the prairie land south of Tacoma. According to John Judson, they left their wagon and livestock there, took camping equipment, and went to Steilacoom. From there they took an Indian canoe around the point to Commencement Bay and finally reached Tacoma in October 1853.

To say Tacoma was sparsely settled at this time is an understatement. Nicholas DeLin had a log cabin and mill on Gallagher Creek which is now paved over by South Tacoma Way at the section where it passes the Rescue Mission. His six to eight employees cut trees from the bank of the bay and rolled them to the water, using the tide to get the logs to the mill. On average, the mill put out 3,000 foot of logs a day. They were rafted and floated to ships waiting in the harbor down near 5th and Dock Street.

North of DeLin’s mill an employee named James Barnhart had a log house at 15th and A Street. His was considered to be the first log cabin built on the bay’s west side. North of him, at approximately 3001 No. Starr Street, fisherman and boat builder, George Boldin lived. Farther down the bay, about half way to the smelter site, a man named Chauncey Baird built a home and worked as a fisherman and a cooper. Local fishermen bought Baird’s barrels and packed them with salmon to ship to San Francisco. And finally, the business concern of Swan and Riley was located where the smelter was eventually built.

Four men, all farmers, lived on the east side of the bay: Adam Benston had a house on the Puyallup Indian Reservation where the administration buildings were later built. On the other side of the Puyallup River, Jacob Kishner, Carl Goerichs and Peter Ringquest lived.

When the Judson’s arrived in Tacoma, they weren’t impressed. The land was almost entirely virgin timber. Pacific Avenue was an upland swamp, with alder, ash, crabapple, salmonberries, and skunk cabbages. The foliage attracted grouse and pheasants every fall. In the winter, the bay was covered with ducks, geese and swans. For deer, men walked up to what is now Yakima Avenue to hunt. In spring and summer, the Indians staked their ponies on the tide marshes to feed on the grasses. During spawning season, the air was full of the smell of rotten fish. But on a more pleasant note, John Judson also remembered that the tidelands were full of the sounds of the Indians singing.

The Indians and non natives got along very well. They hunted and fished together, splitting both the costs and whatever they caught. Sometimes they’d stay out all night, sleeping underneath their canoes.

In October 1853, Peter Judson filed for a claim on the land between DeLin’s mill and James Barnhart’s place. He built a home and outbuildings east of the present Union Depot. Eventually, he bought out Mr. Barnhart and changed the boundaries of his claim to include one mile of waterfront and extending up the hill half a mile.

In late autumn, 1853, after the Judson’s built a house, they started clearing the land, a job they worked at all winter using a hoe because so few tools were available. In spring, they sowed wheat, planted potatoes and assorted vegetables. John Judson particularly remembered carrying the potato starts on their backs from Steilacoom which was their nearest trading post.

Everything grew well. When the wheat was ready, they cut it with a sickle and threshed it with a flail A flail is two or more large sticks attached by a short chain; one stick is held and swung, causing the other to strike a pile of grain, loosening the husks and leaving seeds, chaff (bits of seed head) and straw. The Judsons then raked the straw away and shook the grain seeds and chaff using a winnowing tray (or basket). When shaken and tossed on a windy day, the light straw and chaff blew away and the seeds remained in the tray. The family then took their wheat by canoe to Tumwater to be ground into flour.

There was no road between Tacoma and South Tacoma and walking to Steilacoom and back in one day was no easy undertaking. Canoe was the customary mode of transportation. In the fall of 1855, just before the Indian wars, the men cut a road from Tacoma to the prairie, rescued their cattle and oxen, and took them to Tacoma.

Soon after that, the Indian wars began and the Judson’s left. During their two years they had built a house and barn, which was full of grain and feed, outhouses for their animals, had a flock of chickens and pigs, and a root cellar full of vegetables. When they returned after the war, only the land was left. John Judson said memories of their hurried flight were so strong they hadn’t the heart to stay and start over.

“Tacoma Herald,” July 26, 1878
“Yesterday afternoon a brand new Chinese fishing boat made its appearance in our bay. It was built on the Sound, about ten miles above here and is to be used in the fishing business by some Chinese who have been upon the Sound for some time catching and drying various kinds of fish for the San Francisco market. It looks as though it had backed into a lot of chicken coops and three or four pairs of stairs and had gone off with them all sticking to it. Photo courtesy of Tacoma Public Library.

In the late 1870s and early 1880s, the “Tacoma Herald” was a short-lived, weekly newspaper with a section dedicated to what the residents were doing. Inside the paper, on the left side of page 4 was a column called “Local Intelligence,” where everything from complaints about Mr. Graham’s pigs to runaway animals on the wharf were noted. The editor, Francis Cook, wrote fairly regularly about doings in the Chinese community, providing a small window into their lives here.

Tacoma’s Chinese came mostly from Kwantung Province because its capital, Canton, was for many years the only port in China where foreigners were allowed to do business. Businesses that wanted Chinese laborers hired men through a government-licensed company called the Six Companies of Kwantung. Each of the six companies represented one of six districts and clans that existed in Kwangtung province. The company negotiated the workers’ wages, and each worker paid the company 2.5 percent of their wages, plus a $40 one-time fee to cover transportation costs to the United States.

By law, the Chinese couldn’t buy land. As a rule, Tacoma’s Chinese leased land from the Northern Pacific railroad and lived along the waterfront.  In 1877, a Portland man named Kwong Tai leased a waterfront lot on the wharf between stores run by Mr. Fife and Mr. Ingalls. He was in the U.S. to open a branch of the Chinese contract house, and establish a store.
According to one brief newspaper note from Oct. 1877, 109 men were working on the road bed above the wharf, unloading car loads of gravel because occasional high tides flooded the railroad tracks and washed away the dirt.

One of those workers had a bad accident. He was walking along the tracks just ahead of the train carrying something in a yoke over his shoulder. As the train came close, he stepped aside to let it pass, but one end of the yoke got caught in the engine and threw him underneath. The wheels ran over one leg just below the knee, and caught and mashed his toes on the other leg.

He was taken to one of the Chinese homes, and Drs. Bostwick and Alverson amputated the mangled leg and dressed what wounds they could. A week or so later, the paper said the injured man was up and walking on crutches.

The Chinese had a large vegetable garden on 11th and C Street (Broadway) but they also covered the wharf around where they lived with moss, put dirt on the moss, and planted vegetables in it. For additional greens, they planted baskets and hung them over the edge of the wharf. Their greens were well ahead those of local farmers. In fact, the Chinese were such good farmers, on June 14, 1879, the paper noted that local stores were out of potatoes and owners had to order them from San Francisco. The editor wondered why the Chinese were out on the streets selling potatoes they’d raised and harvested already while local farmers were so far behind.

Tacoma residents referred to the Chinese as the Celestials and the Celestials ran laundries, cleaned houses, and waited on tables at restaurants; they were the garbage men for homes restaurants, and hotels. They carried the refuse away in buckets hanging from a pole balanced on their shoulders, and fed it to their pigs. Some residents objected to the Chinese keeping their pigs under their houses or, occasionally, in them. Another thing white people found objectionable was that the Chinese diet included skunks, bottom fish, and mussels pried off the pilings.

Except when working, the Chinese kept to themselves and, for the most part, Tacoma residents were tolerant of them, but not always. In June 1877, a Chinese man went into a saloon one night, bought a several bottles of liquor, and headed for the back of the room to drink in peace. Unfortunately, a white man there didn’t like the idea; he took a chair and hit the Chinese man with it. The fellow was so frightened he was afraid to leave and asked the proprietor to walk outside with him. However, the assailant followed them, knocked the Chinese man down and kicked his head. The man got up and ran, and everyone else in the saloon broke all the liquor he’d bought except one bottle which they passed around. The assailant said he’d done it because he didn’t want a Chinese buying his liquor over the same bar that he did.

That same year an unnamed Chinese man was hit by a rock 16-year-old Delmar Manches threw at him. A warrant was issued for Manches’ arrest and there was a trial. Tacoma didn’t have much in the way of law enforcement back then. The judges were three local residents and a ship’s captain. During the trail several white men testified that Manches had frequently been seen stoning Chinese men. Several Chinese witnesses identified Manches as the culprit. The defense claimed Manches had been with a group of other boys and that the witnesses had identified the wrong person. In spite of the white witnesses Manches won.

In January 1879, while Seattle hotel owner John Collins fired all the Occidental Hotel’s     Chinese labor and replaced them with white men, Tacoma celebrated the birth of a Chinese baby. According to the “Herald,” Tacoma’s entire female Chinese population spent the infant’s first night with him.

World War II brought revitalization to Chinese communities, perhaps because restrictions were finally lifted on women emigrating from China.

Tacoma Writer, Karla Stover’s new book on Tacoma history
Hidden History of Tacoma: Little-Known Tales from the City of Destiny
Karla Stover
ISBN: 978-1-60949-470-4

For years, Senior Scene readers received a dose of history with every paper in the guise of Karla Stover’s “Walkabouts.”  Each month, Stover introduced Pierce County residents to the characters, times and landmarks of Tacoma and its surrounding environs.  History isn’t about dusty old dates and dried up people and places, and Stover breathed life into the buildings we pass each day on the way to work and the music we hear when we turn to “old time” music programs.  She talks about local history on KLAY AM 1180, leads history walking tours and writes for several local papers.

Recently Stover released “Hidden History of Tacoma: Little-Known Tales from the City of Destiny.”  The book is a compilation of some of her previously published work as well as some new stories about familiar places and people.  These short, usually only a couple pages long, stories provide opportunities to get a real taste of life “way back when.”  She covers Tacoma from its birth to right around World War II.

Meet Karla Stover at the Lakewood Towne Center’s Barnes and Noble on Friday, May 25 from 3-7 p.m.