How did the 'City of Destiny' lose out to Seattle?


By Paula Wissel

(This is the second installment of a 2-part series about Tacoma’s designation as the City of Destiny.)

Why didn’t Tacoma become the premiere city on Puget Sound?  How did the City of Destiny lose out to Seattle?

Back in 1873, it looked like Tacoma would be graced with fame and fortune when the city beat out Seattle to become the terminus for the Northern Pacific Railroad.


Apparently, Tacoma didn’t have an exclusive on destiny

But, Tacoma’s railroad advantage didn’t last.

Shortly after the Northern Pacific line chugged into Tacoma, Seattle got a transcontinental railroad of its own, the Great Northern. By most accounts, it was a better run operation.

Then, there was the financial panic of 1893. Fueled by the bursting of the railroad speculation bubble, Tacoma, still more dependent on the railroad, felt the slump worse than Seattle.


The future is paved in gold

On a summer day in 1897, a steam ship from Alaska sailed into Seattle’s Elliott Bay laden with gold.

It would be Seattle that would profit from the Klondike gold rush, selling supplies and provisions to men with “gold fever” who were headed north.

You could say Tacoma has been playing catch up ever since.


Was (is) Seattle better at making things happen?

Some say the destinies of both cities were determined in those early days.

Peter Callaghan, a columnist for the News Tribune, says the late historian Murray Morgan used to say Seattle succeeded because it was entrepreneurial, while Tacoma lagged behind because the railroad controlled everything.

“In Morgan’s view, Tacoma was completely a company town. So people would wait for the railroad or the railroad leaders to do things and if they didn’t or wouldn’t or couldn’t, it didn’t get done, whereas Seattle had to do those things itself,” Callaghan said.


Living in the shadow of Seattle

Tacoma city leaders, including Mayor Marilyn Strickland, insist there is no longer any animosity between Tacoma and Seattle. Strickland says she looks at the “greater Puget Sound region” as a whole and sees Tacoma as just one part of that.

But you don’t have to go far to find rumblings of the old rivalry and a certain resentment of all the attention Seattle gets.

Elizabeth Archambeault, owner of a consignment shop called “Anew Thyme” in downtown Tacoma, complains that Seattle-based media don’t come down to her city unless it’s to cover a crime story. She says there are a lot of fun events that never make the news.

“It irritates you, you know. I’m working hard to make Tacoma a viable place and here you don’t even want to talk about us,” Archambeault said.


‘Gritty’ or ‘formerly gritty’

Callaghan, News Tribune columnist, says, over the years, Tacoma has repeatedly strived to reinvent itself.  There were missteps, he says, like in the 1970’s when old buildings were torn down and replaced with ugly concrete parking garages. (A failed attempt to lure shoppers who’d fled to the mall back downtown.)

But more recently, Tacoma has repurposed historic 19th century warehouses to accommodate a University of Washington Tacoma campus, built museums and been the first city in the region to launch light rail.

Still, Callaghan chuckles at the how the outside world has treated these efforts.

“Every 5 or 10 years, people from Portland and Seattle come down to report about the renaissance in Tacoma. And then the economy goes sour or some other tragedy happens and they come back and do the ‘renaissance is over’ stories. I thought you could measure the economy of Tacoma by whether Seattle and Portland media were calling us ‘gritty’ or ‘formerly gritty.’” he said. 


Why City of Destiny slogan still fits

Tacoma historian and architect Michael Sullivan says, in the end, Tacoma may benefit from having missed out on the “tsunami of growth” experienced by Seattle.

Because the I-5 freeway bypassed it back in the 1950’s, Tacoma still has much of its historic 19th century architectural character intact.

“We don’t accommodate the automobile well, but we never sold our soul to do that,” Sullivan said.

He says Tacoma is in the perfect position to take advantage of a desire by people to live close to their work, to shop in small neighborhood districts and to get around by public transit, especially, he says, when you look at the growing number of cultural workers now in downtown Tacoma who are employed by museums, theaters and the UW Tacoma.

Sullivan says he has faith that Tacoma will someday live up to its City of Destiny motto, popularized by a somewhat wacky 19th century booster.

“I think somewhere George Francis Train is sitting up there going, ‘I told you so. You’re gonna make it. It is gonna be great,’” Sullivan said.


Check out part one this story