Under an hour southwest of Seattle, Tacoma is a relatively drab place, dominated by its huge container port, by the I-5 freeway and by heavy military jets taking off and landing, but it does have its attractions and a proud, if short, history. The Northern Pacific Railway chose Tacoma, not Seattle, as the western terminal of its transcontinental line, which opened in 1883 (the first transcontinental line had reached Oakland, near San Francisco, in 1869, and the Canadian Pacific route to Vancouver opened in 1886), even though it’s further from the open sea. In fact, if Seattle continues to develop as it is doing, the two cities will join up within a few decades, enveloping Sea-Tac Airport.
Tacoma’s main current claim to fame is the excellent Museum of Glass, created by celebrity glass artist Dale Chihuly (born in Tacoma in 1941) and designed by the splendid Vancouver architect Arthur Erickson – you can see some of Chihuly’s perhaps overblown, but very imaginative and colourful, works on the Bridge of Glass, leading across the railway to the museum. In fact Washington state, and the whole of the Pacific Northwest, have been very important in the development of modern glass art, and there are lots of galleries in Seattle too, including Chihuly Garden & Glass and Pilchuck Seattle, a gallery linked to the Pilchuck Glass School, 50 miles north of Seattle – both were co-founded by Chihuly.
On the town side of the Bridge of Glass are the former Union Station (1911, now a courthouse), which has some of his larger works on display, and the Washington State History Museum, designed to match the former station. This gives an impressive overview of the state’s history in a suitably non-Seattlecentric way, from the first native cultures to the establishment of the Hudson Bay Company’s trading post at Fort Nisqually (yes, this could have been part of Canada), the arrival of the railways and modern industrial development. On the other (north) side of the former station is the Tacoma Art Museum, which of course has more glass by Chihuly plus European and (western) American paintings and a striking collection of Japanese woodblock prints.
There’s good craft beer here, naturally (glass… beer… of course they go together), notably Seven Seas Brewing, quite near the museums at 2101 Jefferson Avenue, and others just north of downtown including Odd Otter Brewing and Parkway Tavern, which is close to Hank’s Bar & Grill, where you can soak it up with good pizza.
Buses from Seattle and further afield, and Sounder and Amtrak trains, halt near the Tacoma Dome, a largely wooden concert/sports arena on the southern edge of the city, from where the Tacoma Link streetcar runs into downtown – this is currently free, with fares paid by the Downtown Business Improvement Area (an industry grouping). However an extension is under construction, which will loop around to the left past the main hospital, and when this opens in 2022 fares will be charged. Currently Amtrak uses a station a couple of hundred yards away from the Dome, but a second platform at the Freighthouse Square station (used by Sounder commuter services to Seattle) should have been ready by the end of 2017, allowing Amtrak to move here. However it’s running late so in January 2018 I caught my train at the old station to take the slow coastal route past Point Defiance Park (the second largest urban park in the US, containing a replica of Fort Nisqually, not on its original site) and the Tacoma Narrows suspension bridge (rebuilt after it famously twisted itself apart in 1940); the freight line from the Sounder station has been fettled for 80mph running and Amtrak trains will go this way as soon as the new station opens. However the new route was launched in December 2017 with a publicity run that went horribly wrong, via the new station – the driver (engineer, as they say in the US) seems to have forgotten about the 30mph curves where the new line swerves across the I-5 freeway and the train left the tracks, killing three passengers. Amtrak is having a bad run of accidents at the moment, even as train travel is becoming ever safer elsewhere in the world; at the end of January 2018 a truck driver was killed by a train which, bizarrely, was carrying most of the Republican members of Congress (not known for their generosity to Amtrak) to a retreat, and four days later two Amtrak crewmen died when their train took the wrong track and hit a freight train. And then a few days later the entire Baltimore metro was closed to allow emergency repairs. Maintenance and lack of infrastructure are crucial, of course, but because Amtrak’s lines, outside the Washington-New York-Boston corridor, are owned by freight companies there’s been a huge reluctance to install the PTC (Positive Train Control) system which would prevent most of these accidents. It’s hardly new technology, and it definitely works.