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Lying along the protected waters of Puget Sound and Commencement Bay, into which the Puyallup River drains, is about midway between Seattle to the north and Olympia to the southwest. Commencement Bay, a fine natural harbor on the Sound, is recognized as one of the country’s leading ports. Few cities may boast a more beautiful setting. To the west is the sweep of Puget Sound with wooded bluffs rising from the water’s edge, and far to the northwest are the Olympic Mountains, visible in clear weather, a soft line in the haze of summer, a clear-cut jagged ridge in winter. On the landward side are the flats of the Puyallup River, the semi-wooded farming area stretching eastward to the foothills, and prairies with patches of woodland. Marking the eastern horizon are the Cascade Mountains, and looming majestically to the southeast is the snow-capped, truncated cone of Mount Rainier—serenely beautiful in midsummer, mysterious when half-shrouded in the gray mists of autumn, and unforgettable if seen at sunset of a clear midwinter day, suffused with an alpine glow that slowly gives way to blue shadows, which creep up the long snowy sides with the sinking of the sun.

Always the tang of salt water is in the air, redolent of seaweed on hot summer days, or sharp and fresh when a brisk wind sweeps inland from Puget Sound. It is not easy for the pedestrian to get an impression of the Tacoma water front as a whole; but Bayside Drive, following along the edge of Commencement Bay, permits a good over-all view of the harbor itself, the numerous docks, with an occasional freighter moored alongside, the fishermen’s docks and small fishing craft; and across, almost at a right angle with the drive, may be seen the Port of Tacoma piers and the terminals and piers owned by the various railroads and industrial concerns.

The pioneer settlement began in 1852 with a saw mill above Commencement Bay. A number of Indian names were given to the site by various peoples include Che-bau-lip, Ta-co-be, Ta-co-pe, T’kope, Ta-qo-bid, Ta-co-bud, and Tsa-la-te-litch.

Before 1868, Tacoma had several names including Commencement City, at least on paper. In that year the present name, taken from Theodore Winthrop’s book The Canoe and the Saddle, was suggested by Philip Ritz, a Northern Pacific Railway official. The name was adopted through the influence of Gen. Morton Matthew McCarver, who is considered the father of Tacoma. The name resembles many of the Indian names that were given to the site before the first settlers arrived.


Ca. 1932 aerial view of Tacoma, showing the City (Thea Foss) Waterway at center-right and Commencement Bay in the distance.

Source: Washington State Historical Society

Ca. 1913 bird’s eye view of Tacoma.

Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Historic postcard view of Tacoma and Mt. Rainier (Tahoma).

Source: Artifacts Consulting, Inc.

Historic “Carnegie Library & Pierce Co. Court House” postcard.

Source: Artifacts Consulting, Inc.

Historic postcard of Tacoma’s Stadium High School and Mt. Rainier in distance.

Source: Artifacts Consulting, Inc.