Prairie Line Trail
The Prairie Line was the name given to the section of the Northern Pacific Railroad that ran from Tenino, Washington, to the terminal city of Tacoma. Laid in 1873, this section of tracks brought the northern transcontinental railroad to its western terminus. 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 original railroad line through downtown Tacoma. The Prairie Line cuts diagonally across a one-mile stretch of Tacoma’s downtown on the bottom of the hill overlooking Commencement Bay. It is an important trace of the history of the northern transcontinental railroad and the opening of the American far west to settlers and commerce.
In 1864 President Lincoln signed legislation that chartered the Northern Pacific Railroad to build a transcontinental rail connection between the Great Lakes and the Pacific Ocean at Puget Sound. In the far western sections, the Northern Pacific employed Chinese contract laborers, miners, and Civil War veterans to overcome major topographical obstacles like the Columbia River and Cascade Mountains. The line also faced a variety of fiscal and time constraints set by the land grant charter but it was completed in December 1873.
Once in operation, the terminal section of the Prairie Line served as a trunk for the development of Tacoma, sprouting rail sidings that served industrial and shipping facilities all along the line. It also connected with steamship and passenger lines serving the entire Pacific Rim. At the time of the railroad’s completion Tacoma was a small settlement of about 400; the waterfront was still quite rugged, stands of old growth timber surrounded the area, and wood-framed buildings dotted the landscape. By 1887, Tacoma’s population had reached about 9,000, and exploded to 36,000 in 1890. During a building boom that lasted from 1888 to 1892, the wholesale business developed near the Prairie Line, beginning along Pacific Avenue between 15th and 17th streets. In the warehouse district (now the University of Washington campus), brick warehouses, loading docks, and freight yards were built. Tacoma’s first passenger station sat on the west side of the line just above Pacific Avenue but was relocated in 1892 to the site of the 1911 Union Depot.
During the Great Depression, as industry and business declined, many lines and stations along the western railroads closed. The Northern Pacific, Great Northern, Milwaukee Road, and Union Pacific all reduced services and routes; in 1933, each company was down to one passenger train each way between Seattle and Portland. The Great Northern continued to use the Prairie Line for its passenger trains through the 1930s. Traffic increased on the Prairie Line during World War II as troop trains traveled to Fort Lewis. Although a significant amount of rail traffic had been routed off the Prairie Line through downtown Tacoma, Fort Lewis utilized the Prairie Line (Kalama Branch) of the Northern Pacific. After the war, Tacoma’s population grew as soldiers returned and started families. By 1950 the city’s population was 143,673. As cars and trucks increasingly became the primary mode of transportation, railway service decreased. Tacoma’s warehouse district declined throughout the late 1960s and 1970s.
Citizens became concerned with the preservation of the district. The City of Tacoma adopted a historic preservation ordinance and formed the Tacoma Landmarks Preservation Commission in the 1970s. In 1979, the Historic American Building Survey program surveyed the warehouse district and Union Depot. In 1980, the Union Depot Warehouse District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The National Park Service published a rehabilitation study on the district, drawing from the 1979 survey work.
Over the years, rail traffic on the Prairie Line continued to decrease. Through-freight traffic, like that between Seattle and Portland, ceased in 1973. In 1986, the Prairie Line between Yelm and Tenino was abandoned. Union Depot underwent restoration in 1989 and was repurposed as a federal courthouse. The Union Depot-Warehouse Historic District was included in the National Register of Historic Places in 1980 and the Tacoma Register of Historic Places in 1983. In 2003, the last section of the Prairie Line through downtown Tacoma was removed from service to accommodate light rail service on Pacific Avenue.
The Prairie Line would soon experience new life. In the mid-1990s, the Thurston County Parks and Recreation Department purchased the right-of-way from Yelm to Tenino to expand their “Rails-to-Trails” system. The Park Department removed the rails and ties to accommodate this new use. When the University of Washington (UW) established a branch campus in Tacoma in 1990, the school rehabilitated the vacant and underused buildings of the former warehouse district to house its facilities.
In 2011 UW campus planners began the process of enhancing and re-interpreting the Prairie Line Trail as a central open space for the expanding urban campus. Together, the university and the city developed an interpretive trail along the historic rail corridor that passes through southern downtown and connects with the central waterfront. This project transforms the historic Prairie Line railroad right-of-way through downtown Tacoma into a signature public space and urban campus, integrating a multi-use trail with historic/cultural interpretation, public art, multimedia, and green features. The trail corridor begins just south of South 25th Street, parallel with Hood Street, immediately adjacent to the Tacoma Cold Storage Building. The trail corridor continues north next to Hood Street, passing through the Union Depot-Warehouse Historic District, Union Station Conservation District, and the University of Washington Tacoma campus. UW Tacoma completed construction on their portion of the trail in 2014 and the City of Tacoma completed its work in 2019.
Artifacts Consulting, Inc. “Prairie Line Rail Corridor: Historic and Cultural Assessment Report.” Report for the City of Tacoma, December 2016.
City of Tacoma and Artifacts Consulting, Inc. “Prairie Line Trail Interpretive Plan.” Report funded by the Washington State 2015-2017 Heritage Capital Projects Fund, 2016.
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