On August 16, 1885, the Isabel docks at Tacoma with the first cargo of tea from Asia bound for the East Coast via railroad. The Northern Pacific had gathered 200 cars at the Tacoma docks ready to load 2,000 tons of tea. The train sets out for the East Coast as an express, intending to reach New York in just over one week (the trip takes a month). Before this, the majority of ships bearing tea cargo traveled around Asia to the Suez Canal and then across the Atlantic to the United States or around Cape Horn to the East Coast. This required extra time, and the British charged fees for passage through the Suez Canal, but either route was still less expensive than shipping via railroad across North America. In 1885 the Northern Pacific lowered its rates in a bid to compete with the ocean-going routes of the tea trade. Tacoma is well-placed to benefit from the plan because it is the terminus of the Northern Pacific and is relatively close to Asian ports.
The Tea Trade
The Isabel unloaded more than 22,000 chests of tea onto 200 cars the Northern Pacific had readied for its arrival. The train departed as a special, with limited stops between Tacoma and New York. The railroad sought to highlight its ability to deliver freight to the Eastern seaboard far more quickly than ocean-going cargo. The Isabel's cargo reached New York City in just about a month. An 1893 article in The New York Times marveled that it used to take 108 days for freight from Yokohama to arrive in New York City.
In 1884, just 20 percent of the tea cargo imported into the United States came overland on trains, none of it coming through Tacoma. The remaining 80 per cent went on ships around Cape Horn, or around Asia and through the Suez Canal, then across the Atlantic to America's Eastern cities. The shipping companies chose this route even though the West Coast ports lay far closer because of the high rates charged by the railroads for transcontinental shipping. When the Northern Pacific decided to lower its rates at the start of the tea shipping season in 1885, the combination of more reasonable rates and faster shipment combined to make the railroad an attractive option, especially since it brought the business into American, rather than British, hands.
The Isabel was just the first of many ships to bring tea to Tacoma. Trade with China and Japan not only brought in ships loaded with tea and silks; those ships departed for Asia heavily laden with American goods for their return voyage.
In a 1903 summary of American-Japanese trade, The New York Times listed flour, raw cotton, tobacco, kerosene, and canned salmon among the items shipped to Japan out of Tacoma. Trade with Asian nations valued in the billions continues to pass through the Port of Tacoma today.