Point Defiance Park (Tacoma)

  • By Ruben Casas
  • Posted 6/14/2024
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 23005
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Point Defiance Park, founded in Tacoma in 1888, is a 760-acre urban splendor featuring many natural and recreational amenities including a zoo and aquarium, gardens and lawns, Owen’s Beach and a boardwalk, an off-leash dog park, and a pagoda. Nearly 400 acres of the park contain old-growth forest, harboring flora and fauna typical of lowland Puget Sound ecosystems. The park hosts a relocated (from DuPont) Fort Nisqually, the Hudson Bay Company’s Puget Sound trading post; the Science and Math Institute (SAMi) high school; a ferry dock serving the Point Defiance-Tahlequah route; and boathouse, boat launch, and marina facilities. Point Defiance is accessible via a system of trails that traverse the park and 5-Mile Drive, a ring road that carries cyclists, runners, and pedestrians around the park. This network of trails and paths offers the park's more than 3 million yearly visitors views of Vashon Island, the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, Dalco Passage, and Gig Harbor.

Military Reserve, and Then a Park

Point Defiance was formed by the retreat and advance of ice sheets over millions of years; the resulting peninsula is now surrounded by the tidal flows of Puget Sound. These tidal flows continue to shape the landscape. During high tides and storms, waves claw at the cliffsides, causing further erosion. This is one of the reasons 5-Mile Drive was closed to cars in 2022. The name "Point Defiance" first appears on a map in 1841, and later in Charles Wilkes’s personal account of the Wilkes Expedition:

“The banks rise nearly perpendicular, and are composed of sandstone; a great variety of shrubs grow along their base. This narrow pass seems as if intended by nature to afford every means for the defense of Puget’s Sound. Point Defiance, on the east, commands all the approaches to it ... the Narrows, if strongly fortified, would bid defiance to any attack, and guard its entrance against any force" (Wilkes, 1849). 

In 1866 the peninsula was set aside by U.S. President Andrew Johnson as a military reserve, though no actual military installation or use came to Point Defiance in the 20 years it was reserved for such use. By 1888, Tacoma settlement had expanded west of downtown (now Old Town), and developers were eager to promote more growth. They thought to accommodate settlers to the west through a streetcar line, which would also serve to connect downtown residents to points west – if only there were a destination to draw them there. The idea for Point Defiance Park was born.

Isaac W. Anderson, Allen C. Mason, Hugh Wallace, and Stuart Rice – some of Tacoma’s prominent residents – petitioned the U.S. Congress to allow for the development of a park on the Point Defiance military reservation. The petition was successful in Congress but vetoed by U.S. President Grover Cleveland. A second attempt was successful, and in December 1888, Tacoma had a new park – on certain conditions: the streetcar line had to be completed, and a Board of Park Commission had to be established. Point Defiance would be Tacoma’s third park after Wright Park and Ferry Park.

Into the Forest

Except that the peninsula was far from being in a park-like state. Heavily wooded and without easy access or trails, there was little to recommend the site as a place for leisure. The forest needed to be thinned, fallen timber and underbrush removed. One of the newly formed Board of Park Commission’s tasks was to raise funds for this cleanup. Then, the board contracted with Edward O. Schwagerl to survey and map the park (Schwagerl had produced plans for Wright Park). Ebenezer R. Roberts was hired to oversee cleanup and building, including the removal of a squatter’s camp. Board-meeting minutes fail to say whether these squatters were living at Point Defiance, or if they were camping or summering, or if they may have been indigenous people who’d been living on and off the land since time immemorial. What is true is that the land on which a park was to be built was used by many before it was designated as a park. One summer pleasure for Tacomans was camping at Point Defiance, often for several days or weeks at a time. They were careful to take arms. An Indian shot a large cougar there in 1884, and bears and bobcats frequently were seen. Non-sanctioned uses of the park continued for years; board meetings document continued efforts to remove "squatters" and even nude bathers.

Some of the park's first amenities were boat stands, fruit vendor stands, and a streetcar waiting area. Soon, a fountain and lake would be added, and gardens planted. An area for music concerts was installed. A proto-zoo was on display, featuring elk, deer, a monkey, and a black bear. The Lodge, designed by C. A. Darmer, was built in 1898 as the home of Ebenezer Roberts, the once-foreman and now first superintendent. The Lodge, built of peeled logs and featuring a colonial-style veranda, would serve as the home to superintendents and MetroParks directors through 1980.

A greenhouse was installed at Point Defiance Park in 1901. It was used for the propagation of flora and as a display house for exotic plants. Eventually, the display of exotic plants would move to Seymour Conservatory at Wright Park, which opened in 1908. 1901 was also the year that a bandstand was installed at the park. Point Defiance hosted Sunday concerts in the summer, making it a regional destination. Visitors were accommodated at a restaurant and pavilion built by Edwin D. Ferris. Together, these two amenities drew so many visitors that in 1903 an additional track was added to the Point Defiance streetcar line.

Point Defiance Park’s next phase of growth and planning started in 1910 when the Board of Park Commission retained a landscape architecture firm headed by father and son Sidney J. Hare and S. Herbert Hare. Hare & Hare delivered a plan for the park in 1911, a plan which put the views available from the park on par with those one gets "in Italy and the Mediterranean" ("Hare & Hare ..."). The Hare & Hare plan called for the installation of an athletic field, a playground, and a swimming pool. It also called for a zoo, a pagoda, and a Japanese garden, amenities which remain popular today. Aside from these amenities, it is the Hare & Hare plan that carved the park into the four main regions Tacoma residents and visitors knew through 2018, when a new area was added, Dune Peninsula. The areas designated by the Hare & Hare plan were the Waterfront, the Formal Park, the Zoo and Aquarium, and the Forest.

Zoo and Aquarium

The animal encounters offered to visitors from the turn of the century onward were both rudimentary and less than humane. The park’s original collection, which was first on display in 1891, was comprised of no more than a pair of deer and a single possum, both species put behind bars. Deer, elk, and bison came soon after. Bears came in 1905. In 1910 bears, monkeys, lions, and kangaroos were added. Oxen came in 1913. Lions came in the 1920s, as did more visitors, who now brought their cars with them.

A trail aquarium was installed in 1933, separate from the zoo. A larger one was installed three years later, and it would eventually house more than 100 specimens. Early residents included an octopus and a hair seal. The seal, named Dub Dub, can still be seen in the form of a bronze statue near the existing tide pool. Elephants came to the zoo in 1965. Red wolves came in 1969. In 1973 a captive breeding effort was started in collaboration with the Tacoma Zoological Society, just as wolves were facing extinction. These efforts earned the zoo the Edward H. Bean Award, the highest conservation honor awarded to zoos and aquariums, and the red wolf was successfully reintroduced into the wild.

A major and expensive effort was put into motion in 1977 to grow the size of the zoo and rebuild its exhibits. Not only were the zoo’s facilities old and in disrepair, but they were also unsafe and reflective of an antiquated way of keeping animals in captivity. A voter-approved bond of $7 million was issued, resulting in a bigger zoo focused on animals from Pacific Rim countries on display in more humane, uncaged exhibits that allowed most animals to roam. Another set of investments and improvements came in 1986 when another $10 million was allotted as part of another voter-approved bond. Through these improvements, the aquarium was able to establish one of the largest shark collections on the West Coast. In 2004, through another bond, the zoo created an Asian Forestry Sanctuary, adding Sumatran tigers, a Malayan tapir, and other rare specimens to the collection.

Fort Nisqually

The original Fort Nisqually was established near DuPont in 1833. Fort Nisqually was the Hudson Bay Company’s base of operation in the region. The structures that remained at the original site were held by the DuPont Company until 1933, when the Tacoma Young Men’s Club and the Metropolitan Park Board joined efforts to have these buildings move and then restore two of the surviving structures. The Granary and the Factor’s House were moved to Point Defiance Park in 1934, to a section of the forest that had been partly cleared through the harvesting of firewood. Restoration of the buildings was completed in part through the effort of Works Progress Administration workers. Some structures were even reconstructed, including the trade store and the blacksmith shop.

Fort Nisqually at Point Defiance Park hosts a collection of artifacts and offers educational programs for children and adults. Today, the site is maintained and preserved through a joint effort that includes MetroParks Tacoma, local, state, and federal government, as well as private foundations. The Granary is a National Historic Landmark, and the Granary and Factor’s House are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Never Never Land

Point Defiance was home to an interactive fantasy playground for nearly 50 years. Never Never Land opened in 1964, offering visitors an opportunity to walk through oversized versions of favorite childhood fairytales. There was an 8-foot Humpty Dumpty; visitors could walk through the stack of books on which the egg-man sat. Or they could walk up to Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater and his house-sized pumpkin. Mary Mary Quite Contrary could be seen watering her flowers. You could see the Three Little Pigs, Jack and Jill, and Goldilocks and the Three Bears. The forested setting made Never Never Land all the more magical.

In time, the wet Northwest weather took a toll on the statues. MetroParks took over Never Never Land in 1985 and ran it through 2001. By then, many of the status and structures were less than magical; they had been vandalized and many were badly deteriorated. The surviving statues were removed and stored in the park's Pagoda until April 15, 2011, when the Pagoda was destroyed in an early-morning arson fire. It reopened in January 2013 after undergoing $2.5 million in repairs. 

Originally built in 1914, the Pagoda is a replica of a seventeenth-century Japanese lodge. The landscaping surrounding the Pagoda is also meant to reflect Japanese ways with plants and water. With the collaboration of the local Japanese community, authentic features were added, including pools, cherry trees, azaleas, rhododendrons, a footbridge, and a waterfall. A Shinto shrine and Torii gate, gifts from Tacoma’s sister city Kitakyushu, Japan, were added in 1961. In its original iteration, the Pagoda served as a waiting room for streetcar passengers. It was restored in 1988, and the elements making it a streetcar waiting area were removed. Now, it is available to rent for events. The Pagoda was a recommended amenity of the 1911 Hare & Hare plan, in which it was referred to as "the Car Station" (where "car" referred to streetcar). 

Point Defiance Lodge

Originally designated as "the Keeper’s Lodge," the Lodge at Point Defiance was erected to serve as the home of Ebenezer R. Roberts, the first Superintendent of the Park. Designed by Tacoma architect C. A. Darmer, the lodge was meant to fit its surroundings. Trillium Roberts, writing in The News Tribune in 1967, said of the lodge:

"The beautiful maple paneling of the 'front parlor' and the library was a distinctive background for the fine furnishings and rare pieces of bric-a-brac so beloved as home decoration in those days ... The décor of the dining room was a combination of handsome wallpaper and panels of royal-blue burlap. A grooved, polished plate rail held a collection of hand-painted souvenir plates from every state in the Union" ("An Inside Story ..."). 

Ebenezer Roberts and his family took residence there to facilitate Roberts's caretaking work. It would serve as the home of future park superintendents and executive directors until 1980. From 1980 through 2012, the lodge was rented out for private events. In 2012 it was turned into the park visitors center, and today [2024] it houses staff offices.

Dune Peninsula

Point Defiance Park gained a new section, Dune Peninsula, in 2018. The 11-acre park-within-a-park sits atop a former Superfund site, the former location of the American Smelter and Refining Company (ASARCO), which operated for nearly 100 years. During this time, the smelting plant belched toxins into Tacoma’s air; the byproduct of its processes, slag, was dumped into the nearby waters. Over time, a landmass formed, creating a new breakwater peninsula, on which Dune Peninsula Park was built.

The peninsula and park were named after Frank Herbert’s famous science-fiction novel Dune, which tells the story of a planet made barren through the mining of coveted "spice." It is a story about humanity’s capacity to degrade and destroy environments, as well as the unyielding hope that this capacity can be turned toward environmental justice. Dune Peninsula does not hide this from visitors. Instead, it offers insight into the site’s history and invites Herbert’s story (which he purportedly was inspired to write in part because he grew up in Tacoma and near the ASARCO plant), into the park through its design. The site’s history of environmental degradation is contrasted against the beauty of the region – Commencement Bay, the Olympic and Cascade mountain ranges, and Mount Rainier are all within sight and deliberately framed as one makes one’s way through the park.

Dune Peninsula is connected to the rest of Point Defiance Park via the Wilson Way Bridge. One traverses the park via the Frank Herbert Trail. Visitors can see a slag pot at the park’s entrance, and slag piles scattered about the park. Two art installations, Alluvion and Little Makers, help make the park’s environmental point.

Parks and People

Point Defiance Park arrived in Tacoma at a time when parks were being premised as a social engineering tool – as a means of creating harmony in a rapidly urbanizing nation characterized by racial, ethnic, and socio-economic differences. Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903) was one of the originators and proponents of this social-harmony-through-urban-parks philosophy, and while Olmstead did not design Point Defiance, this philosophy is still present in the shape and form of Point Defiance Park today.

Through its formal gardens, lawns, the promenade along Owen’s Beach – and by how it brings people to specific sites to get the best view of the surrounding beauty – Point Defiance continues its work, which is to bring us in contact with an idealized way of life and living. In the 1800s, a park’s purpose was also to bring people of lower classes into contact, or at least close enough to see, those of higher classes so that their ways might rub off on those considered to be lesser.

Later additions in amenities to Point Defiance, primarily those recommended by Hare & Hare, also reflect philosophies about people and parks that were en vogue at the time. The Pleasure Ground philosophy into which the original idea for Point Defiance Park was born had been replaced by a sense that parks could be used to support reforms that were underway in other parts of social life in the U.S. The nation had become urban, and more and more people were adopting cars as their primary mode of transportation. Cities took on new rhythms dictated by the workday and the workweek. Everything was run by the clock.

It's no wonder, then, that Hare & Hare divided the Point Defiance Park according to uses, active, passive, and social. As park historian Galen Cranz explains, park planning during this era was characterized by divisions reflective of other divisions in daily life: physical, social, aesthetic, and civic. It’s no wonder that Hare & Hare recommended playfields, a swimming pool, gardens, a playground a zoo, and an expanded role for 5 Mile Drive. The park in 1911 was responsive to and reflective of the rhythms common in urban life.

The addition of Dune Peninsula Park marks yet another shift in the social role the public city park plays: We shape our environment, and the environment shapes us.


Charles Wilkes U.S.N., Western America, Including California and Oregon, with Maps of Those Regions and of The Sacramento Valley (Philadelphia: Lea and Blanchard, 1849): Trillium Roberts, “An Inside Story of Point Defiance Park,” The News Tribune, March 5, 1967 (www.thenewstribune.com); Metro Parks Tacoma, Point Defiance Park Centennial 1905-2005 (www.metroparkstacoma.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/11/PDP-Narrative-History-of-Point-Defiance-Park1.pdf.); “Point Defiance Park History - Metro Parks Tacoma,” Metro Parks Tacoma, April 2, 2024, (http://www.metroparkstacoma.org/point-defiance-park-history); Tacoma Historical Society, “Remembering Never Never Land,” Tales of Tacoma, January 19, 2021 (www.tacomatales.org/2021/01/19/remembering-never-never-land); “Year in Review: Point Defiance Park Pagoda Arson,” Tacoma Daily Index - Tacoma’s Source for Legal Notices and Business News Since 1890, December 20, 2011 (www.tacomadailyindex.com/blog/year-in-review-point-defiance-park-pagoda-arson/2085860); Anne Winters, “Tacoma’s Real-Life ‘Dune’ - Metro Parks Tacoma,” Metro Parks Tacoma, May 7, 2024 (www.metroparkstacoma.org/tacomas-real-life-dune); "Tacoma Smelter - Washington State Department of Ecology" (www.ecology.wa.gov/Spills-Cleanup/Contamination-cleanup/Cleanup-sites/Tacoma-smelter); Melissa McGinnis and Doreen Beard Simpkins, Tacoma’s Point Defiance Park (Arcadia Publishing, 2012); Hare & Hare Plan of 1911 (including report, photographs, map, and planting guides), Metropolitan Park District of Tacoma miscellaneous papers, Tacoma Public Library Northwest Room; Galen Cranz, The Politics of Park Design: A History of Urban Parks in America (MIT Press, 1982).

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