A new look for Tacoma's historic Wapato Park

Metro Parks Tacoma will mark the completion of $4.6 million in improvements at historic Wapato Park Saturday with a variety of free activities.

The improvements were made possible in large part with the $2 million investment made by voters through the 2005 Park Improvement Bond. That funding positioned the park district to obtain additional matching grants for land acquisition, water quality improvements and water access totaling more than $782,000. These leveraged funds provided for acquisition and demolition of the final two private residences within the park’s footprint. That cleared the way to develop a nearly one-mile accessible walking trail around the perimeter of the lake. In addition, a new fully-fenced dog park featuring separate areas for large and small pets to romp leash-free with their owners was created.

The first phase of these recent improvements to the park began in 2006 with an approximately $1 million restoration of the historic pavilion following an arson fire. Insurance covered the majority of the work to renovate the historic site. Following phases included water quality and shoreline stabilization work. Crews wrapped up last month on the final phase of improvements, which included infrastructure updates such as new water lines and restroom facilities, as well as the popular trail and dog park enhancements.

The grand re-opening festivities, scheduled for Sat., July 14 between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m., include a nature walk around the lake loop trail guided by the Tacoma Nature Center; agility course activities set up for pets in the new dog park; casting lessons for youth 14 and under on the fishing pier provided by Point Defiance Marina; refreshments, complemented by scenic lake views atop the renovated pavilion; and live music performed by the Military Performance Team “Charlie,” a touring group that has entertained U.S. Presidents and foreign dignitaries from around the world.

Wapato Park, located at 6500 South Sheridan Avenue, has a long history in Tacoma. One of the earliest settlers in South Tacoma was R.A. Radebaugh, owner of the Tacoma Ledger newspaper. Radebaugh purchased over 300 acres surrounding Wapato Lake for what he envisioned as a fashionable residential district and public park. Radebaugh’s Wapato Lake Park opened to the public in 1889 and was described as “rapidly becoming the most beautiful vista of landscape in this section of the northwest.” Following financial difficulties in the 1890s, Radebaugh lost most of his Wapato Lake property, but the lake continued to serve as a popular recreation area for residents of South Tacoma.

Shortly after the establishment of the Metropolitan Park District of Tacoma in 1907, residents began requesting the Park Board to add Wapato Lake to the growing list of Tacoma parks. With little money available for land acquisition, it was the generous donation of 20 acres of lakefront property by Horace and Helen Scott in 1920 that started today’s Wapato Park.

Keeping Wapato Lake’s water clean has been a challenge throughout the park’s history. Early efforts included adding chlorine to cut down on algae growth. Then in 1936, as part of a Works Progress Administration project to improve the park, 180,000 cubic yards of mud was dredged from the lake hoping to clean it. By 1942 the lake was closed to swimmers due to unhealthful water conditions. Since that time a variety of other methods have been tried to keep the lake water clean such as harvesting aquatic plants, adding millions of gallons of fresh water, and even draining the lake in 1981 and removing tons of polluted sediment. Today, Metro Parks Tacoma is working closely with the City of Tacoma and the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department to develop a long-range plan to protect and improve water quality in Wapato Lake.

Metro Parks Tacoma recently completed $4.6 million in improvements to historic Wapato Park. New amenities include a nearly one-mile accessible walking trail around the perimeter of Wapato Lake, a new fully-fenced dog park, and a $1 million restoration of the historic pavilion following an arson fire. Wapato Park has a long history in Tacoma that dates back to 1889.