Tacoma in 1890 – boats, streetcars and characters

By Morf Morford
Tacoma Daily Index

The Tacoma Daily Index began in 1890. As always, Tacoma held a  lot of promise and had challenges that served to define it and in many ways define it still.

Tacoma in 1890, like Tacoma in 2018, was a city on the verge,  a city which, for a variety of reasons, seems to emerge like some kind of hibernating creature from a time of stability- if not decline – and then explodes with energy and possibility.

Tacoma, of course, was a very different place in 1890. Even then, Tacoma was a place in motion, in process and yes, with  destiny.

Many geological features and historical accidents defined what would become the city of Tacoma.

Tacoma was a city in flux, a place where fortunes could be made or lost, where an investor or entrpreneur’s fortunes could be made or lost on the next investment, fire, explosion – or government contract.

Tacoma, besides battling the elements, inclement weather and economic downturns had Seattle to contend with. The inter-city rivalry, promoted by civic boosters from both cities, continues to define not only Tacoma and Seattle – but our developing relationship and national – if not international identity.

No city could make its mark without solid and respectable educational institutions. The University of Puget Sound was founded in 1888  (1*), Pacific Lutheran University in 1890   (2*).

When it comes to transportation, you could make the argument that it was easier to get around in the Puget Sound area in 1890 than it is in 2018.

The “Mosquito Fleet” was in full operation. In the early 1900s a boat ride to Seattle (from Tacoma) took 77 minutes.

Thea Foss began her rowboat business in 1890. By 1902 Foss tugboats served most of the vessels entering Commencement Bay. By the First World War the Foss tug fleet was the largest on Puget Sound

These were passenger-only boats. In 1890 and into the early 1900s, roads were terrible (hmm…) and automobiles were essentially nonexistent.

But Tacoma did have a streetcar system. The Tacoma and Steilacoom Railway Company started in 1890. For several years the Tacoma system (under various names and owners) was the largest electrically-operated inter-urban network in the world.

This mix of trolleys and streetcars brought people to work and to the ever-expanding suburbs of Pierce County. This network was also the source of one of Tacoma’s greatest accidents – the streetcar crash of July 4, 1900, which killed 43 people and injured 65 more (you can see a detailed history of this accident here http://www.historylink.org/File/7477).

The street car line went from downtown Tacoma to Steilacoom and from Point Defiance to Spanaway  Park. There were also streetcar links connecting to lines that went to Seattle. Like the Mosquito Fleet, these transit lines (at least at first) were privately owned businesses.

The advent of the automobile meant the end of both of these systems.

The Washington State Ferry System took over a network of private ferry systems in the early 1950s, the street car tracks had been torn out in the 1930s.  (3*)

As of 2017, there were 22 ferries operating across the Salish Sea.

And as a reminder that “everything that is old is new again” Sound Transit approved a tax in 1996 that would establish yet another light rail line.

For far more on Tacoma’s history, look here for more on Tacoma’s odd and interesting past – https://tacomahistory.live/category/1890s/.

George Francis Train - He usually gets credit for the term "City of Destiny." Image courtesy  Washington State History Museum.

George Francis Train – He usually gets credit for the term “City of Destiny.” Image courtesy Washington State History Museum.

It may have been the times or it may have been the geography or it may have been the intoxicating combination of freedom and opportunity, or perhaps some combination of all of these, but Tacoma has always attracted, created or unleashed some of the most eccentric characters in American history.

I’m planning a fuller exposition on some of these, ahem, unique personalities later, but for now I’ll focus on one of the lesser-known but perhaps most influential  characters; George Francis Train.

George Francis Train was born into a wealthy family in Boston in 1829. His parents and sisters died from the Yellow Fever in 1833. He was raised by his grandparents who sent him to school to become a minister.

Instead, he roamed the world. He ran for president, was arrested multiple times (15 times to be exact, either for siding with revolutionaries or assuming the bad debts of others) started several companies around the world and hobnobbed with royalty of various countries.

With ample assets, among other things, he organized a clipper ship line that sailed from the East Coast around Cape Horn to San Francisco, organized the Union Pacific Railroad, helped construct the eastern portion of the Transcontinental Railroad, and a horse tramway company in England.

He made three trips around the world and was supposedly the inspiration for Jules Verne’s best selling novel  “Around the world in 80 days.”

Train actually did it in 67 days and 12 hours – when he was 61 years old.

In his earlier trip around the world (to raise publicity and funds for his presidential run) in 1870, Train spent two months in France – which included two weeks in jail. It took the intervention of the US government and writer Alexandre Dumas  to get him out.

As one book puts it, he became “increasingly eccentric.” In 1873 he was arrested and threatened with commitment to an insane asylum.

He ran for president of the United States, charged admission fees to his campaign rallies, and drew record crowds. He became a vegetarian and adopted various fads in succession. For a time he advocated a strict diet of fruit and chocolate.

He spent his final days on park benches in New York City’s Madison Square Park, handing out dimes and refusing to speak to anyone but children and animals – because, he claimed, adults had nothing left to teach him.

And yes, of course he has a Tacoma connection.

After visiting Tacoma in 1869, he became enamoured with the city and its potential. George Francis Train in fact is credited with coming up with – or at least  effectively marketing – the term “City of Destiny” for his adopted home – or at least next obsession. For more on how he became forever associated with this term, check out this article – http://knkx.org/post/why-one-eccentric-man-named-tacoma-city-destiny.

He had a syndicated pro-Tacoma column titled “Train’s Vander-Billion Psychos” (which, in my humble opinion, would make a great name for a Tacoma tribute band).

Train, a man of vision, a vision that somehow transcended the practical, or even possible, seems like a  candidate for patron saint of the  pulsing, contradictory, sometimes frustrating and yes, gritty place many of us call home.

He began (and ended) at least one of his ’round the world trips in Tacoma.

Some say that this statue is based on George Francis Train.  Photo:Morf Morford

Some say that this statue is based on George Francis Train. Photo:Morf Morford

You can see a commemorative plaque regarding these trips on Broadway, across from The Broadway Center, below the Pythian Temple in downtown Tacoma.

With his energy, passion and yes, “increasing eccentricity” he reminds me both of where Tacoma came from and where it is going.

About two years ago, a crew from BBC visited Tacoma. Here is their video summary – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gsn3LvQX7vE.

Somehow I think George Francis Train would agree.


(1*)   UPS was chartered in 1888  and began classes in September of 1890 with 88 students. Originally named The Puget Sound University in 1903, the school was re-incorporated under a different name: the “University of Puget Sound.” In 1914 the university was renamed the “College of Puget Sound.” In 1960, the university’s name changed from the “College of Puget Sound” back to the “University of Puget Sound”

(2*)  PLU classes began in 1894 with 30 students. Tuition at the time was $1 per week. Harstad Hall housed the entire university until 1912 and is still in use.

(3*)  The state ferry system was meant to be temporary until a series of bridges could be built.