Washington Territorial Legislature merges Tacoma City and New Tacoma to take effect on January 7, 1884.

  • By John Caldbick
  • Posted 6/10/2015
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 5062
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On January 7, 1884, the separate incorporated towns of Tacoma City and New Tacoma merge to become a single city, in accordance with a law passed by the territorial legislature the previous November. Morton Matthew McCarver (1807-1875) had platted Tacoma City in December 1869, hoping to attract the Northern Pacific Railroad to put its western terminus there. The railroad came in 1873, but thought it better to have its own town. It established the Tacoma Land Company and bought up properties south of McCarver's Tacoma City, platting New Tacoma in 1875. The two competing plats were each incorporated, so in 1883 there are two independent towns, each with its own government and officials and each using "Tacoma" in its name, sitting side by side on the shores of Commencement Bay. That November, with the Northern Pacific's transcontinental line finally completed after nearly a decade of delay, the territorial legislature steps in and consolidates the towns -- then commonly called Old Tacoma and New Tacoma -- into a single entity, to be called simply Tacoma.


The Carrs and McCarver

In the beginning there was Eureka, the name picked by Job Carr (1813-1887) for the town he hoped would grow up around his 168-acre claim on the western shore of Commencement Bay in Pierce County. Carr, a Union Army veteran of the Civil War, arrived in 1864 and was the first non-Native to put down roots there since the Indian Wars of 1855-1856 had scared off an earlier group. But Carr had neither the drive nor the skill of an entrepreneur, and his plans to build a town would come to nothing.

Morton McCarver, a more ambitious man, had been trying to make his fortune in real estate for decades, in Iowa, in Sacramento, and near Portland, Oregon. He heard rumors that the Northern Pacific Railroad was contemplating building what it hoped would be the nation's second transcontinental rail line, to terminate in the West somewhere on Puget Sound. In April 1868 McCarver traveled from Portland to Commencement Bay and immediately realized its potential. No longer a young man at 61, he saw a last chance for a crowning achievement. All he needed to do was get some suitable land, then convince the railroad to put its western terminus on that land. This would practically guarantee the development of a major city, much of it on land McCarver planned to own.

The first part was easy. Job Carr's claim was centered near where today's 30th Avenue North meets Ruston Way in Tacoma. Farther along the shore to the northwest, toward Point Defiance, the land rose to a high bluff, not suitable for maritime or rail purposes. But Carr's claim was on low land, with deep water close to shore. McCarver bought 160 of Carr's 168 acres and filed preemption claims on additional land. Whether named by him or by others, the site was initially referred to as Commencement City. Some thought the name too long, others thought it too unimaginative, many thought it both. At the suggestion of an old friend, Phillip Ritz (1827-1889), McCarver decided he would call his town Tacoma, an approximation of a local Indian name for Mount Rainier.

Plats Galore

In August 1869 McCarver and two partners from Portland, James Steel (1835-1913) and Lewis M. Starr (1824-1887), prepared a plat for the land McCarver had acquired, specifying that it was to be "the Town of Tacoma, Washington Territory" (McCarver and Tacoma, 172). For reasons that are unclear, the plat was not immediately recorded. In the meantime, Job Carr's son Anthony (1841-1923), in November of that year, recorded a plat with the Pierce County auditor for a small tract of land he held several blocks inland. He too named his plat Tacoma, and having filed first, foreclosed the use of that name by others. McCarver was advised by his attorney that he would either have to file his plat as an addition to Anthony Carr's plat or come up with a new name. The former course was unthinkable -- this was to be McCarver's town, not a mere add-on to someone else's. Showing haste but not much imagination, McCarver simply handwrote in the word "City" following the map's block-printed "Tacoma" and finally recorded the plat of Tacoma City on December 3, 1869.

More confusion would follow. To the great disappointment of overconfident Seattleites, the Northern Pacific Railroad announced in 1873 that it would build its western terminus not on Elliott Bay but on the shores of Commencement Bay. In that, McCarver was proved right, but the railroad had its own ideas, and it soon would frustrate his grand plans.

The Northern Pacific, burdened with mounting debt and facing bankruptcy, formed the Tacoma Land Company later in 1873, the primary purpose of which was to purchase property on and around Commencement Bay, plat a town, and sell off lots to raise money. It was clear that the railroad wanted no part of McCarver's Tacoma City. The company retained famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903) and by December 1873 he had completed a plat design for a town that, despite Anthony Carr's prior use of the name, was called simply "City of Tacoma." As things turned out, the name hardly mattered. Olmsted's plan, put on display at the land company's headquarters, was innovative but not well received. Many thought it would make a lovely large park, but not a commercially workable city. The plat was never recorded and OImsted was notified of its rejection in late January of 1874.

It was back to the drawing board, and a more traditional town layout was quickly prepared. The Tacoma Land Company kept buying up property and tried to create some goodwill by allotting land free of charge to religious organizations and by subsidizing business enterprises of various kinds. On February 3, 1875, the company filed a long plat with the Pierce County auditor. The seemingly irresistible lure of the word "Tacoma" still had force. With plats of Tacoma (Anthony Carr) and Tacoma City (McCarver, et al.) already on the books, the best that the best minds of the land company would come up with was "New Tacoma." The company recorded its plat, and almost immediately Tacoma City to the north, which barely existed in any physical sense, quite prematurely came to be called "Old Tacoma." (Any hurt feelings have long since dissipated, and in the twenty-first century what was Tacoma City is proudly known as "Old Town.")

Incorporations Aplenty

McCarver's Tacoma City, platted in late 1869, had been granted incorporation by the Pierce County Board of Commissioners on May 21, 1874. Reflecting the unsettled state of municipal-incorporation laws of the era, it was incorporated again the following year, on November 12, 1875, by an act of the territorial legislature. The latter date is generally accepted as the official incorporation.

More than four years later, in February 1880, the Tacoma Land Company's New Tacoma was incorporated, also by the Pierce County commissioners. The following year the territorial legislature again felt moved to get involved and passed "An Act to Confer a City Government upon New Tacoma" (Laws of the Territory of Washington -- 1881, 66). There were now two towns, both incorporated twice over, sitting side by side on the shores of Commencement Bay and using the word "Tacoma" in their respective names. Only the railroad-controlled Tacoma Land Company seemed completely happy with the way things were. It undermined all attempts by Old Tacoma to infiltrate or influence its New Tacoma, even blocking the building of roads that would connect the two. Each town had its own post office, and the only cooperative activity appears to have been a short-lived amateur baseball team that played one game.

The 1880 census counted only 1,008 residents in what it called Tacoma (the boundaries used by the census bureau to define the area are not clear). Other sources indicate that most people were then in McCarver's Old Tacoma, but this would soon change. To many of those who lived in either place, the naming situation seemed unduly complicated and more than a little absurd. One early resident, Alice Blackwell, recalled:

"We were practically three communities at this time. There were Old Tacoma, Wharf, and new Tacoma, or 'on the hill,' as we said, meaning Pacific Avenue from where the city hall was built to about Twelfth Street; A Street from Eighth to the same distance, a few scattered shanty houses a little farther up. There was much feeling between the Tacomas about the name. We would call the old part 'Old,' while we wanted to be called 'Tacoma' (they insisted that we were not Tacoma proper and called us 'New'). All business was at the wharf -- the railroad and express offices, telegraph, two small stores, and later a printing office" (Puget's Sound, 179).

Morton McCarver died in 1875. By 1880 his dream of developing a city that would be the crowning achievement of his eventful life seemed nearly as dead as he was. At least he was spared the additional disappointment of having to wait until 1883 for the Northern Pacific's transcontinental line to finally be completed.

One plus One Equals One

There appears to be virtually no record of exactly why the territorial legislature in its 1883 session decided to put an end to Tacoma's naming nonsense and enact a law merging Old Tacoma (Tacoma City) and New Tacoma. The keeping of detailed accounts of legislative history in Washington is a relatively recent development, and tracing the origins and birth pangs of territorial laws is, in all but the rarest cases, impossible. Debates and speeches were not written down and preserved, rejected amendments were not noted, bill sponsors were left unidentified, and votes on bills were not disclosed in the public record. Every two years hundreds of pages of new enactments were added to the territory's statute books with not a word written about how they actually got there.

It is possible that a group of frustrated citizens petitioned the legislature to do something about the two Tacomas, or it just may have reached a point where a merger made commercial sense to all financially interested parties. The record is pretty much limited to the language of the enactment itself, which is densely written and unrevealing of just why the legislature was moved to intervene or at whose behest.

The law was passed on November 28, 1883, and stated its purpose clearly:

"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 ... ").

The statute had 95 sections distributed through 10 chapters spread over 25 pages. It set out with great particularity the boundaries, offices, powers, procedures, and political structure of a unified Tacoma. All earlier incorporations were explicitly repealed, but all actions taken by the earlier governments of New Tacoma and Tacoma City "not inconsistent with this act" were explicitly left in full force ("An Act to Consolidate ... ," Ch. 14, Sec. 94).

One of the statute's most interesting sections had to do with establishing the city's electoral process. The demands of democracy had to be met, and this would require some initial accommodation of fundamental differences between Old Tacoma and New Tacoma. The former was governed by an elected board of trustees, the latter by an elected mayor and common council. New Tacoma had by now far outstripped Old Tacoma in population, by some accounts by as much as ten to one. The legislature reconciled matters by designating Old Tacoma as a single electoral ward and dividing New Tacoma into two wards. A special election was then scheduled, with the procedures of each town to be used within their respective boundaries:

"[A] special election shall be held on the second Monday in December, 1883, for mayor, city marshal and three councilmen for each ward, as designated in this act. The qualifications for electors of the first ward at such special election shall be as prescribed in the city charter of Tacoma city; and for the electors of the second ward, as prescribed in the city charter of New Tacoma ... . The board of trustees of Tacoma shall designate the place of voting in the first ward, and appoint the officers to conduct such special election. The common council of New Tacoma shall designate the place of voting in the second and third wards and appoint the officers to conduct such special elections. Except as herein modified said election shall be conducted in the respective wards in the manner prescribed by the respective city charters ... . ("An Act to Consolidate ... ," Ch. 14, Sec. 92).

Those elected would be interim leaders, ready to take office on January 7, 1884 (when the consolidated city came into being as prescribed in the statute), and prepared to surrender it five months later, in May:

"The mayor, marshal, and councilmen so elected shall qualify on or before the first Monday in January. 1884 ... and shall continue in office until the municipal election in May 1884, or until their successors elected at such election shall duly qualify" ("An Act to Consolidate ... ," Ch. 14, Sec. 92).

At this first election, the much-respected John Wilson Sprague (1817-1893), a former Northern Pacific official and a leader of Tacoma's business community, who refused to campaign but agreed to serve if elected anyway, was chosen as interim mayor of the consolidated city. Councilmen elected from the first ward (Old Tacoma) were George E. Atkinson (1837-1904), Howard Carr (d. 1905), and John N. Fuller (1844-1904). Those from the second ward (New Tacoma) were C. A. Richardson (1836-?), George O. Kelley, and George B. Kandle (1851-1926). From the third ward, also in New Tacoma, came John E. Burns (1834-?), F. W. Bashford (1839-1892), and R. Jacob Weisbach (1832-1889). These ten men would be the first to govern the consolidated Tacoma and would do so until the election of their permanent successors the following May.

This election was of historic significance for other reasons. In the same session of the legislature that mandated the towns' consolidation, an act extending the vote to women was also approved. In the December 1883 interim election in Tacoma, 191 ballots were cast by women, the first time in the 30-year history of Washington Territory that members of their sex had voted. Unfortunately, they would lose the right three years later when the state Supreme Court ruled the suffrage law unconstitutional, and Washington women would not regain the vote until 1910.

A Rather Disgraceful Start

By all accounts the interim government of unified Tacoma performed its duties well, and on May 5, 1884, a total of 974 votes were cast to choose the city's first unified government elected under a single set of rules. Mayor Sprague declined to run for a full term and third-ward councilman R. Jacob Weisbach was elected mayor. He would prove to be the wrong man at the wrong time. When public sentiment turned against the city's Chinese residents in 1885, Mayor Weisbach, rather than calling for calm, became chairman of the Anti-Chinese League. This group was dedicated to the sordid goal of ridding the city of its Chinese residents, who were thought at least partly responsible for ongoing economic difficulties. (It should be noted that this prejudice was not limited to Tacoma; anti-Chinese disturbances in these years, many of them violent, ranged up and down the West Coast, including in Seattle.)

At crowded public meetings, the league debated ways to drive the Chinese out. Business owners were urged to fire Chinese employees and threats of physical harm were made against the city's Chinese residents. The efforts escalated, and in October 1885 the league set a November 1 deadline for all Chinese residents to leave, threatening dire consequences if they did not. About 100 of them abandoned their homes in Tacoma before time ran out, many fleeing to Oregon and Canada.

During the upheaval, several Chinese visited the former interim mayor, John Wilson Sprague, who had expressed sympathy for their plight. He assured them that they would be protected, but he had badly misread the public mood. On November 3, 1885, a mob went door to door in the Chinese neighborhood of Tacoma, wrecking homes and forcibly escorting about 200 people to railroad stations. Seventy-seven who were able to do so purchased coach tickets to Portland and the rest were loaded onto freight cars, also bound for Portland. As popular and respected as he was, Sprague was powerless to intervene. A Chinese grocer, Lum May, later testified that during the November 3 roundup he had invoked Sprague's name to Mayor Weisbach, a leader of the mob, to no effect:

"I spoke to him, [and told him] that Mr. Sprague had said the Chinese had a right to stay and would be protected. He answered me, 'General Sprague has nothing to say. If he says anything we will hang him or kick him. You get out of here!'" (Driven Out ... ).

It was not an auspicious or enlightened start, but Tacoma would nonetheless grow at an astonishing rate, ballooning from the barely 1,000 residents counted in 1880 to 36,006 in 1890. It was, for a little more than 10 years, the second-most populous city in Washington after Seattle. The Northern Pacific finished its transcontinental line to Tacoma in 1883 (still requiring a train-barge across the Columbia at Kalama), but within a very few years railroad officials realized that Seattle had become the center of regional commerce and relocated the terminus there. But the rail and shipping facilities that had been built at Commencement Bay continued to ship and receive vast amounts of cargo to and from the far reaches of the globe, and the local timber industry thrived. Just 20 years after Job Carr decided to settle on Commencement Bay, the first non-Native presence in nearly 10 years, the unified city of Tacoma was on the map to stay, bearing the name his son Anthony had given it in 1869.


Murray Morgan, Puget's Sound: A Narrative of Early Tacoma and the Southern Sound (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1979); Thomas W. Prosch, McCarver and Tacoma (Seattle: Lowman & Hanford Stationery and Printing Company, 1906), 184-186; Jean Pfaelzer, Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), xvii; "Washington: Crusade in the Northwest," Women of the West Museum website accessed May 11, 2015 (http://theautry.org/explore/exhibits/suffrage/suffrage_wa.html); "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); "An Act to Confer a City Government upon New Tacoma," Laws of the Territory of Washington Enacted by the Legislative Assembly in the Year 1881 (Olympia: C. B. Bagley, Public Printer, 1881); 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), "Promoter Morton Matthew McCarver arrives at Eureka, later Tacoma, on April 1, 1868" (by David Wilma), "Territorial legislature incorporates Tacoma on November 12, 1875" (by John Caldbick), and "Sprague, John Wilson (1817-1893)" (by Duane Colt Denfeld), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed May 5, 2015).
Note: This essay replaces a prior essay on the subject.

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