Why Tacoma owes its slogan to a ‘crazy person’

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By Paula Wissel

Tacoma has been known as the “City of Destiny” for more than 140 years.

And while the city’s slogan is unique because it has lasted for so long (when was the last time you heard Seattle referred to as “Jet City?”), it also comes from a 19 Century “crazy person” who was a relentless promoter of Tacoma.

 

‘You’ve got a motto crafted by a crazy person.’

Peter Callaghan, a columnist for the News Tribune is standing in downtown Tacoma near a sidewalk plaque commemorating an around the world trip that was launched from the city on March 18,1890.    

On that day, as a cannon boomed over Commencement Bay, New Yorker George Francis Train sailed towards Japan, intent on breaking the around the world record. It was partly self promotion and partly intended to put Tacoma on the map as the jumping off point for world travel.

(By the way, Train did break the record.  He made it back to Tacoma in 67 days, 17 hours, 59 minutes and 55 seconds.)

Train is often credited with naming Tacoma the “City of Destiny.” At the very least, he popularized the slogan, using it over and over in his bombastic syndicated newspaper column called, inexplicably, “Train’s Vander-Billion Psychos.”

While he was a genuine national celebrity of his day, most accounts also describe him as being more than a little wacky.

Callaghan jokes that Train’s designation of Tacoma as the “City of Destiny” didn’t bode well for the town’s future.

“You’ve got a motto that was crafted by a crazy person. I think that’s a bad place to have started from,” Callaghan said.

 

A 19th century rock star

So who was this man, forever tied to Tacoma’s motto?

In his heyday, the 1870’s and 1880’s, George Francis Train was a genuine national celebrity, as well known as Oprah is today. He was fabulously wealthy, from a family of shipbuilders, but fancied himself a poet and philosopher. He traveled the entertaining speaker circuit.

Tacoma historian Michael Sullivan says he ranked up there with the best of them.   

“He was on the Mark Twain level. He was a headliner,” said Sullivan

Sullivan says George Francis Train was sort of a cross between Mark Twain and P.T. Barnum “with a little bit of Buffalo Bill thrown in.” He’d do impressions and take questions from the audience.

He packed opera houses and theaters up and down the west coast including in Tacoma.   

 

Train claims the “City of Destiny” as his own

Kurt E. Armbruster wrote in the winter 1998-99 edition of the magazine “Columbia” that Train’s view was that America was the world’s salvation:

“He launched a journal called ‘Spread-Eagleism’ to trumpet the message:

Young America is the vanguard of change ­– the coming age! His watchword is reform….The true American defies competition and laughs sneeringly at impossibilities.’”

He expounding on everything from growth and progress to the importance of giving women the right to vote.

But, he also once spent a year speaking only to children because he decided adults had nothing to say. And he promoted all sorts of strange fads.

“He espoused a pure diet of fruit and chocolate, living only on fruit and chocolate. He would just say stuff that people would go, you are loony,” Sullivan said.

For whatever reason, after  visiting  and speaking in Tacoma in 1869, Train embraced the town with all his heart and vowed to do everything he could to help it become the Manhattan of the west.

 

I hear the train a comin’

Keep in mind that, back in the 1870’s, which city on the sound would become the big metropolis was really up for grabs. Seattle, Tacoma, Olympia and Port Townsend were all competing for the one thing: the Railroad.

Northern Pacific was deciding where to locate the terminus for its transcontinental rail line. The stakes were huge. Not only did it mean people and jobs, but with the railroad came the telegraph.  That would mean newspapers could get updates from around the world and banks could wire money.

It would be like if you were the only place around to have the Internet.

 

Tacoma wins

Tacoma was chosen for the rail line. And George Francis Train, who was known to exaggerate, took credit, saying he traveled with the railroad bigwigs when they sailed around Puget Sound looking for a site.

“Train would always say, I was the one who pointed to Commencement bay and said there’s your terminus,” said Sullivan.

Thereafter, Train would claim that he “made Tacoma, the City of Destiny.”

 

Seattle broods

Having lost out to Tacoma, Seattle sulked. City leaders, including Arthur Denny, tried to convince Northern Pacific to change its mind. It wouldn’t.   

A rivalry and mutual dislike between the two cities was born. George Francis Train did everything he could to encourage it.

He would often end speeches with this chant, encouraging the audience to join in:

Seattle!  Seattle! Death Rattle! Death Rattle!

Tacoma! Tacoma! Aurora! Aurora!

Your ‘Pyramid’ is feeble when

You come abreast Tacoma Men

With your ‘Seattle-Blatherings’!               

But, you might say, Seattle had the last laugh.

 It became the big, prosperous city, known around the world, not Tacoma.

So why didn’t the City of Destiny live up to its promise? Does the slogan still have meaning for Tacoma? And what about the animosity between Seattle and Tacoma? Is it still there?

That’s what we’ll explore in the second installment of this story.