Tacoma, conflicted

Do we love trees here or don’t we?

In a talk given April 17 to an overflow crowd at Tacoma’s Karpeles Manuscript Museum by Associate Professor of History Doug Sackman—part of a series celebrating Wright Park and the 100th anniversary of the Seymour Conservatory—listeners heard a tale not of two cities, but of a city and two natures: one, an Eden of mountains, trees, and water; the other, Eden industrialized. It was a stunning lecture, and, we regret, much too long to fully reproduce here. We picked out a few thoughtful paragraphs and bits of information:

In the summer of 1889 Rudyard Kipling visited Tacoma and had this to say about it: “The rude boarded pavements of the main streets rumbled under the heels of hundreds of furious men all actively engaged in hunting drinks and eligible corner-lots. They sought the drinks first. … We passed down ungraded streets that ended abruptly in a fifteen-foot drop and a nest of brambles; along pavements that beginning in pine-plank ended in the living tree; by hotels with Turkish mosque trinketry on their shame-less tops, and the pine stumps at their very doors.”

Charles Wright was appointed by the Northern Pacific Railroad to direct the Tacoma Land Company, its land development business in the Northwest. Wright hired landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed Central Park in New York and The Fens in Boston, to lay out the plat for Tacoma in 1873. Olmsted's plan was radical. It proposed an integration between form and landscape, order and nature, that would have, as one newspaperman observed, made the city created after it unique, “for it will be through and through like a park.” In other words, the two natures of Tacoma would be melded and harmonized. But the city fathers shot down Olmsted’s ideas. No corner lots!

PARADOX: planting trees in a landscape and AN economy built upon cutting them down 
Language from the original document creating Wright Park: “From Tacoma Land Company, a corporation of the State of Pennsylvania to the Corporation of the City of Tacoma,” May 29, 1886.

  • Within two years “clear and level said land” and “enclose the same with a substantial ornamental fence.”
  • Within thee years “seed land with grass, and set out and plant not less than one hundred and fifty ornamental shade trees.”
  • In four years, plant 150 more trees, and “keep and maintain the Park in good repair and care for all the trees therein planted, and plant other trees in place of all those that may die…”

It became city ordinance 127 on July 5, 1886.
The park was an open commons at first, and some residents ran cattle on its grounds. Not until 1890 did work really begin.

Martin Hoveland, a groundskeeper who started working in the park in 1910, said, “Back in those days, the trees in the park were so small that you could stand and look over them. The park looked more like a prairie covered in shrubs.”

When the trees finally did mature and later succumb, there were often eulogies in the newspapers, as when Big Boy, the American white elm at 6th and I, toppled after 75 years, (sometime after 1962): “He shaded old timers as they sat beneath him, thrashing out the problems of the nation and the world.”

A conservatory, whether here in Tacoma or in Kew, England, is a kind of inverse reflection of empire, a gathering-in of the tropics and the plants of the world by so-called plant explorers, not so much for the purposes of economic profit or political control but for scientific or aesthetic appreciation—an appreciation of beauty that well-heeled park goers felt when they parked their carriages and strolled inside the conservatory.

The trees were part of an educational program from the beginning. They were labeled in the 1890s, and then relabeled in the 1930s.

  • Teddy Roosevelt gave a speech at Wright Park on May 22, 1903. He planted the red oak in front of the conservatory.
  • The “mother’s tree” was planted in 1929.
  • A juniperus virginiana (eastern redcedar), taken from the spot of Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg, was planted in 1913.
  • In 1937 the California sequoia was planted.

It seems Tacoma city leaders always have been on the defensive. To bolster the city‘s cultural image 100 years ago they built Wright Park and the conservatory. In our day, the history museum, the art and glass museums, and the convention center. All were answers to Kipling and the army of less articulate Tacoma detractors who called the city an overgrown lumber camp, or later, an odiferous industrial wasteland. Tacoma has always faced a dilemma—a closeness to nature is a claim to fame, but to be too close to magnificent nature is to not be perceived as civilized enough.

By popular demand, Professor Sackman will reprise this lecture, “An Oasis in the Great Desert of the City's Paved Thoroughfares: Wright Park and the Two Natures of Tacoma 100 Years Ago,” at the Karpeles Museum, 407 South G St., Tacoma, on October 9 at 6 p.m.