Prairie Line to Tacoma is rushed to completion on December 16, 1873.

  • By Russell Holter
  • Posted 5/08/2024
  • Essay 22934
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On December 16, 1873, workers bolt together the final rail ends to complete the Northern Pacific Railroad's connection from Tenino to the Tacoma waterfront. This 39-mile stretch of track will be known informally as the Prairie Line. "While the name refers to the direct, expedient route of the line across the 'burnt prairie' east of the Nisqually River delta, it is most commonly associated with the original path of the railroad through downtown Tacoma" ("Prairie Line Terminal Section"). 

New Tacoma

Nestled upon the steep banks of Commencement Bay, a group of brave entrepreneurs wrestled a city from the wilds of Washington Territory. Visionaries such as Job Carr (1813-1887) prophesied a great city of industry as natives of the Puyallup tribe paddled nearby. Much to the amusement of naysayers, monied men tossed aside conventional wisdom to risk the necessary capital to spark pioneer ambition. But the breath that brought life to Tacoma came from a telegram from the Northern Pacific Railroad dated July 14, 1873, when the railroad chose Commencement Bay – and not Seattle – as its Puget Sound terminus.

Orders for milled lumber soon overwhelmed the capacity of the Hansen Ackerman Mill, the only large-scale commercial enterprise Tacoma had at the time. Opportunists such as Edward "Skookum" Smith immediately disassembled their sawmills and relocated to Commencement Bay to take full advantage of the construction boom. The railroad was hungry for track ties, pier pilings, and bridge and trestle timbers.

Upon claiming Commencement Bay as the terminus, the Northern Pacific took possession of 13,000 acres of prime waterfront property it dubbed New Tacoma. The land claim stretched northward from the Puyallup River to the bluffs of the present Stadium District, with a smattering of upland sections tossed in for good measure. With the nation teetering on economic collapse, the Northern Pacific found itself in the unenviable position of being land-rich but cash-poor. The quickest way to add value to raw land is to divide and develop. Within a week of the announcement, the Northern Pacific dispatched an army of more than 500 civil engineers and construction workers to do just that. The workers arrived on a flotilla of craft ranging from lumber schooners towing rafts of logs to lumber barges and piledrivers. Commencement Bay was suddenly abuzz with activity from Halfmoon Bay to the Head-of-Bay at the mouth of the Puyallup River. The workers drove pilings, built wharves, and banged together crude buildings. Meanwhile, a company of skilled Chinese laborers using only picks, shovels, and buckets borne on shoulder poles worked from sun-up to sundown leveling the land to accommodate railyards, warehouses, and freight-forwarding facilities. According to author Kurt Armbruster, the undertaking was the largest in Washington’s short history.

The Northern Pacific had pushed construction northward from the Columbia River at Kalama headlong through virgin forests and lush prairies. As far as the railroad was concerned, the last major obstacle before reaching Puget Sound was the Nisqually River crossing near McKenna. But other dynamics would bring the construction to a grinding halt. By the fall of 1873, the nation was gripped with an economic panic that bankrupted the Northern Pacific. This panic could have been called the "railroad panic," since it was precipitated by the unscrupulous dealings of the Union Pacific and by the enormous debt load shouldered by the Northern Pacific’s construction costs.

Although the streets of Tacoma were still conceptual, by the middle of November 1873, a depot took shape at the corner of 17th and Jefferson Street. The first construction train rolled down the grade, only to pile up in a heap near the depot. A small group of astonished onlookers watched as Engineer Ed McCall and Conductor Nicholas Lawson busted a hole in the roof of the camp car that flopped on its side to extract a bewildered cook named Pete Bracken. Later that week, the first through train from Kalama arrived. William and Alice Blackwell were the first passengers to arrive at Tacoma via train. The Blackwells were greeted by railroad superintendent General John Sprague (1817-1893), who escorted them to their new facilities on the waterfront. Alice Blackwell was crestfallen to find their new hotel only half-finished. The only refuge the couple had was inside the cab of a steam-powered piledriver. That evening, they slept on a mattress on the floor of the contraption located next to the wharf where their empty hotel stood.

Strapped for Cash

Strapped for cash, the Northern Pacific leaned upon the good graces of its employees by electing not to pay them for their work. The unpaid workers struck instead. Bent on recouping back wages, the striking workers laid down their tools and seized corporate assets located on, or near, their camp at Clover Creek. The stakes were high. If the railroad did not reach Commencement Bay by December 19, it would forfeit an enormous grant of federally controlled land. Railroad executives dug deep into their pockets to alleviate the railroad's cash shortage and issued barter tokens and promissory notes to workers to make up the balance.

With a mere 72 hours to spare, the three-week-old strike ended on Tuesday, December 16, with the arrival of a construction train at the Tacoma depot. The track crew hastily spiked down the final mile of track between the depot and the newly finished Blackwell’s Hotel on the waterfront. An estimated crowd of 200 people followed the construction progress. Joining the onlookers was a group of dignitaries. At 3 p.m., the track crews bolted the last two rail ends together. Sprague took the maul and drove the final spike into the freshly sawn railroad tie. Sprague then honored Tacoma pioneers Morton McCarver (1807-1875) and Job Carr as they tapped the ceremonial spike with a maul.

Watching the activities from the comfort of the warm cab of locomotive No. 11 were senior engineer Mike Craig and conductor Harry Alger. Others in attendance included Skookum Smith, Northern Pacific construction manager John Bolander, Joseph Ralston, and Colonel Hibbard. Ezra Meeker (1830-1928), his wife, and 5-year-old daughter Olive attended the ceremonies. Meeker noted several other faces in the crowd, including Mr. and Mrs. Hosmer and brothers Harry and Pitt Cooke. The Cooke brothers were nephews of financier Jay Cooke and had traveled from Philadelphia to witness the historic occasion.

Scheduled Service Begins

The first scheduled train arrived from Tenino later that afternoon. The following morning, General Sprague personally invited several remaining dignitaries to ride the first train from Tacoma bound for Kalama. Mr. and Mrs. Hosmer, the Meeker family, and the Cooke brothers eagerly accepted the invitation. The mixed freight and passenger train also included a boxcar bearing valuable fur pelts and cases of canned salmon.

Although the years 1874 through 1877 were particularly lean, the Northern Pacific managed to generate sufficient income from passenger tickets and freight revenues to construct a branch line from the Tacoma tideflats to Puyallup, Orting, South Prairie, Wilkeson, and Carbonado. These towns, on the flanks of Mount Rainier, were vital due to lucrative coal shipments. Other commodities the Northern Pacific shipped during these formative years included beef cattle, burled maple, cedar shingles, lumber, hops, sheep, and telegraph wire.

Seattleites, insulted by the establishment of Tacoma as the western terminus, were further snubbed by the construction of the branch line. Titans of enterprise in Seattle started a competing railroad. They then attempted to block the Northern Pacific from gaining entrance to Elliott Bay or acquiring any congressional land grants in King County. For a time, these actions were damaging to the Northern Pacific. Tottering on insolvency, it remained operational by cutting expenses to the bone. Only 200 employees were kept on the payroll. Of these, half were Chinese-born laborers who maintained the track for less than a dollar daily to keep the industry moving. Eventually, the line between Kalama and Tacoma would be linked with the main branch of the Northern Pacific to Seattle in January 1882. Only then did the Northern Pacific become an actual transcontinental railroad.


Kurt E. Armbruster, Orphan Road. The Railroad Comes to Seattle, 1853-1911. (Pullman: WSU Press, 1999); Kurt Armbruster and Russell Holter, “Terminal City: The Northern Pacific and Tacoma," The Mainstreeter, Vol. 42, No. 2, Summer 2023 edition; Herbert Hunt, History of Tacoma, Vol 1. (Chicago: J.S. Clarke, 1916); Dennis M. Lawsen, Hop King: Ezra Meeker’s Boom Years. (Pullman: WSU Press, 2016); John M. Lubetkin, Jay Cooke’s Gamble: The Northern Pacific Railroad, The Sioux, and the Panic of 1873 (Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 2006); Ezra Meeker, Seventy Years of Progress in Washington (Tacoma: Alstrum Publishing, 1921); Charles Miles and O. B. Sperlin, Building a State: Washington 1889-1939 (Tacoma: Washington State Historical Society, 1940); Murray Morgan, Puget’s Sound: A Narrative of Early Tacoma and the Southern Sound (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1981); "Prairie Line Terminal Section," Artifacts Architectural Consulting for the University of Washington, Tacoma, accessed March 5, 2024 ( Arts/Prairie%20Line%20Trail%20Historic%20Plan/Alaria/PLT/PLT--INTERN/PrairieLineTerminalSectionDocumentation_email.pdf).

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