Territorial legislature incorporates Tacoma on November 12, 1875.

  • By John Caldbick
  • Posted 5/04/2015
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 11064

On November 12, 1875, the Washington Territorial Legislature enacts a law that incorporates the City of Tacoma, sets its metes and bounds, establishes its form of governance, and prescribes several other aspects of its operation and management. This is the second time in two years that Tacoma, located on Commencement Bay in Pierce County, has been incorporated, though the first by direct action of the legislature. Multiple incorporations are a not-uncommon phenomenon during these times, in part due to the confused and confusing state of territorial laws before they were organized and codified. In 1881 a neighboring town, called New Tacoma, will also be incorporated by the territorial legislature, and in 1883 an act of that body will merge what had been Old Tacoma (also known as Tacoma City) and New Tacoma into a single entity, called ever after simply "Tacoma."

A Confusion of Names

Tacoma's early history was somewhat unusual and its nomenclature more than somewhat confusing. The first few non-Indians to settle at Commencement Bay on southern Puget Sound arrived in 1852 and 1853, but abandoned the promising but unnamed site during the Indian Wars of 1855-1856. Non-Natives then shunned the area for nearly a decade, until in 1864 Job Carr (1813-1887), a Union Army veteran of the Civil War, saw promise there and decided to found a town he called "Eureka" on the shore of the bay.

Carr was a pioneer, not a builder, and he made little progress in his endeavor. In 1868 he sold most of his claim to a man of a more entrepreneurial bent, Morton Matthew McCarver (1807-1875). McCarver believed he could lure the Northern Pacific Railroad, which was planning to build a transcontinental rail line from Lake Superior to Puget Sound, to put its western terminus on Commencement Bay, practically guaranteeing the development of a major city there. (He was not entirely wrong; Tacoma was selected in 1873 -- to Seattle's great dismay -- as the railroad's western terminus, but McCarver would die eight years before the company finally got around to completing the transcontinental line a decade later.)

McCarver apparently didn't like Carr's choice of Eureka as the community's name. His original choice for a name was "Commencement City," but Phillip Ritz (1827-1889), a Northern Pacific subcontractor who later founded Ritzville in Adams County, prevailed upon McCarver to change the name to "Tacoma" -- an approximation of an Indian name for Mount Rainier -- for no apparent reason other than Ritz's fondness for the word. A plat in the name of Tacoma was drawn up, but not filed immediately.

While McCarver was procrastinating, Job Carr's son Anthony (1841-1923) filed a townsite plat on land he owned, appropriating to his use the name Tacoma. Undeterred, but demonstrating a lack of imagination that would not be the last in the saga of the city's naming, McCarver changed the name of his proposed town to "Tacoma City" (by simply writing the word "City" in longhand following the printed "Tacoma" in the title) and finally filed his plat on December 3, 1869. There was still nothing approximating a town in the region, but there was a plethora of names -- Eureka, Commencement City, Tacoma, and Tacoma City. Fortunately, there were so few residents that it hardly mattered.

But it would get worse. The word "Tacoma" seemed impossible to resist. When the Northern Pacific Railroad in 1873 chose land on Commencement Bay as the site of its (eventual) western terminus, a decision was made that it would be in the corporate interest to start its own town. After the rejection of a city plan developed by famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903) in December 1873, the railroad-controlled Tacoma Land Company went back to the drawing board and on February 3, 1875, filed a long plat with the Pierce County auditor, using the name "New Tacoma." Inevitably, McCarver's Tacoma City soon became familiarly known as "Old Tacoma."

A Confusion of Laws

Until at least 1881, the laws passed by the territorial legislature were catalogued only by year of passage and page number in the published record. With no organizing principle, the territory's statute books became an ever-growing hodge-podge, with hundreds of laws scattered throughout the record of each successive legislative session, many relating to the same subject matter, often conflicting or at best redundant, and almost always without reference to one another. It was difficult in many cases to determine just exactly what the law was. The Washington State Secretary of State's office sums up the problem this way: "By 1881 hundreds of laws had been passed by the Territorial Legislature. In many cases the original laws had been amended and re-amended several times which caused a great deal of confusion" ("Territorial Timeline").

The first call for formal codification of the territorial statutes came in 1877 when the legislature directed "his excellency, the Governor of this Territory" to appoint a "code commissioner who shall be a resident practicing attorney or judge of the Supreme Court ... ." The duties to be assigned this commissioner illustrated the depth of the problem:

"to group together all corelative [sic] and similar statutes, classifying them and arranging the various subjects under appropriate titles; to bring together and correctly incorporate the various amendments into the original acts, rejecting all repealed, redundant, inoperative and obsolete sections; and furthermore, to make such alterations and amendations as shall reconcile all contradictions ... . "(Laws of the Territory of Washington - 1877, 235).

Nothing much came of it, and it is possible that the territorial governor at the time, Elisha P. Ferry (1825-1895), never got around to actually appointing a code commissioner. Perhaps this is why, in 1879, the territorial legislature again passed a codification law, in large part identical to the first, but this time specifying Ferry (still territorial governor) by name as code commissioner, rather than as merely the person charged with appointing one.

It is not entirely clear what happened next, but Governor Ferry apparently had enough other things to do, and the record supports the conclusion that the territorial legislature finally took upon itself the onerous task of cleaning up the mess it had created -- to "reduce and bring into a written, intelligible and systematic form, the statute laws of this territory" (Laws of the Territory of Washington - 1879, 90). A resolution was passed during the 1881 session (the legislature met every two years) that created a committee "to ascertain and report as soon as possible, the best method of revision and codification of the Washington Territory Statutes" ("Resolution ... "). It appears that the matter was finally put in the hands of "the joint committees on judiciary, counties, and printing" (Laws of the Territory of Washington - 1881, 256). It had been a long and complicated process, but the territory's statutory scheme finally would become comprehensible. The effort adopted an organizing template that can still be seen in today's Revised Code of Washington.

Incorporations -- Old Tacoma (Tacoma City)

Tacoma's incorporation history is scarcely less confused than its naming, but that mostly was the fault of the legislature and its failure for nearly three decade to impose some logic on the organization of the laws it passed. Fortunately for historians, Henry C. Beach (1853-1922), an attorney who compiled and revised Tacoma's charter and ordinances in 1898, thought it wise to detail just how things had unwound over the years, and to trace the corporate history of both McCarver's Tacoma City (or Old Tacoma) and the New Tacoma that had been established by the Northern Pacific Railroad as its western terminus. (No attempt was made to incorporate Anthony Carr's original "Tacoma" plat.)

In 1871, the territorial legislature passed a law entitled "An Act to Provide for the Incorporation of Towns." Under its provisions, a "town or village" could incorporate if a majority of the voting population presented a petition to incorporate to "the court of county commissioners," setting forth "the metes and bounds of the town, with a plat of the same, and praying to be incorporated and a police established for their local government" (Statutes of the Territory of Washington - 1871, 51-52). The law also set out the required form of government -- a board of trustees consisting of five members, elected each year in May.

In its first stab at incorporation, and pursuant to this statute, the requisite majority of eligible voters (all men, as women did not then have the vote) in Tacoma City (Old Tacoma), the town platted by McCarver, presented a petition for incorporation to the Pierce County commissioners on May 21, 1874. It was immediately accepted, and on that same day the commissioners ordered an election to select the five trustees, to be held on June 8, 1874. Those elected were identified by Beach as Job Carr, A. Walters, J. W. Chambers, A. C. Campbell, and S. C. Howes. Perhaps in recognition of his pioneering role, Carr was chosen as president by his fellow trustees.

But what has come to be accepted as Tacoma's official incorporation did not come until the next year, when, on November 12, 1875, the territorial legislature, for reasons that are not entirely apparent, decided that it should get directly involved. It did so through a statute titled "An Act to Incorporate the City of Tacoma." This too pertained to McCarver's Old Tacoma, and its wording was almost identical to the 1871 statute authorizing incorporation by county commissioners, but with the addition of a description of metes and bounds which differed somewhat from that established by the previous year's petition for incorporation. The statute stated:

"The inhabitants within such bounds shall be a body politic, and incorporated by the name and style of 'The inhabitants of the City of Tacoma' and by that name they and their successors shall be known in law and have perpetual succession ... " ("An Act to Incorporate the City of Tacoma," Sec. 1).

In 1877 the legislature muddied things further, passing "An Act for the Incorporation of Cities," which now vested in district-court judges the power to receive petitions for incorporation and to appoint five "commissioners," who in turn would organize an election at which the voters could approve or reject incorporation. There were now, in the statute books, evidence of at least three methods of incorporating a town or city -- through county commissioners under the 1871 law; by direct action of the legislature, as had happened with Tacoma in 1875; and through the district courts under the 1877 act.

Incorporations -- New Tacoma

Perhaps as an early result of the new clarity provided by the codification of the territorial statutes, a process that finally was accomplished in 1881, the legislature that same year thought better of its 1877 action and repealed the law vesting incorporation authority in the district courts. The organizers of New Tacoma seem to have foreseen this action, and on February 2, 1880, they sought incorporation under the terms of the 1871 law that vested that power in the county commissioners. Incorporation was granted and only two days later an election was held at which five trustees to govern the new entity were voted in.

Not content to leave well enough alone, when the territorial legislature met in 1881, in addition to divesting district courts of incorporation authority generally, it passed "An Act to Confer a City Government upon New Tacoma." This law declared that the inhabitants of the town "are hereby constituted and declared to be a city corporation by the name and style of New Tacoma ... " (Laws of the Territory of Washington - 1881, 66). Departing from the board-of-trustees model, the legislature decreed that New Tacoma would be governed by a mayor and a common council. The first municipal election under the new law was held on May 3, 1882, and Theodore Hosmer (formerly with the Northern Pacific Railroad's site-selection committee, then with the railroad-controlled Tacoma Land Company) was elected mayor.

Now, cheek by jowl on Commencement Bay stood two incorporated cities, Tacoma and New Tacoma. New Tacoma was by far the larger, having a population in 1883 of approximately 4,000, 10 times that of "Old Tacoma." Each had its own post office, there were no finished roads connecting them, and the only overt sign of cooperation was a joint baseball team, which lasted one game. This state of affairs was soon recognized as not only awkward, but rather silly.

Clarity at Last

When the legislature met in 1883 it passed "An Act to Consolidate the Cities of Tacoma and New Tacoma, under the Name of Tacoma." The law, with uncharacteristic clarity, stated "That on and after the first Monday of January, 1884, the city of Tacoma, incorporated on November 12, 1875, and New Tacoma, incorporated on November 5, 1881, shall be consolidated under one city government, to be known as Tacoma" ("An Act to Consolidate ... ").

It had been almost 20 years since Job Carr settled on Commencement Bay. Finally, from many -- Eureka, Commencement City, Tacoma City, Old Tacoma, New Tacoma -- had come one, Tacoma. After all that had transpired, all the confusion and competition, the name first chosen by Carr's son Anthony had won out.


Murray C. Morgan, Puget's Sound (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1979), 144-153; "An Act to Provide for the Incorporation of Towns," Statutes of the Territory of Washington Made and Passed, 1871 (Olympia: Prosch & McElroy, Printers, 1871), 51-58; "An Act to Incorporate the City of Tacoma," Laws of the Territory of Washington Enacted by the Legislative Assembly in the Year 1875 (Olympia: C. B. Bagley, Public Printer, 1875), 166-172; "An Act to Provide for the Codification of the Laws of Washington Territory," Laws of the Territory of Washington Enacted by the Legislative Assembly in the Year 1877 (Olympia: C. B. Bagley, Public Printer, 1877), 235-237; "An Act to Provide for the Codification of the Laws of Washington Territory," Laws of the Territory of Washington Enacted by the Legislative Assembly in the Year 1879 (Olympia: C. B. Bagley, Public Printer, 1879) 90-92; "An Act for the Relief of the Clerks of the Code Committee," p. 244, "An Act to Confer a City Government upon New Tacoma," p. 66, "Resolution Relevant to the Revision and Codification of Washington Territory Statutes," p. 248, and "Resolution Relative to a Revenue Bill and a Roads Law," p. 256, Laws of the Territory of Washington Enacted by the Legislative Assembly in the Year 1881 (Olympia: C. B. Bagley, Public Printer, 1881); "An Act to Consolidate the Cities of Tacoma and New Tacoma, under the Name of Tacoma," Laws of the Territory of Washington Enacted by the Legislative Assembly in the Year 1883 (Olympia: C. B. Bagley, Public Printer, 1883), 310; Henry C. Beach, Revised Charter Amendments and Revised Ordinances of the City of Tacoma, Washington (Tacoma: Western Blank Book Co., 1898), 17-21; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Tacoma -- Thumbnail History" (by David Wilma and Walt Crowley), "Job Carr arrives at future site of Tacoma on Commencement Bay on December 25, 1864" (by David Wilma), and "Promoter Morton Matthew McCarver arrives at Eureka, later Tacoma, on April 1, 1868" (by David Wilma), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed April 29, 2015); "Territorial Timeline: The Territorial Legislature passed the Code of 1881," Washington State Secretary of State website accessed April 29, 2015 (https://www.sos.wa.gov/legacy/timeline/detail.aspx?id=110).

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both HistoryLink.org and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for HistoryLink.org Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You