Submitted by Stephen Ray Thompson
In 2012 I thought I’d write down some of our family history for the grandchildren. A reasonable task by most standards became a Pandora’s Box for me. The apparently limited subject matter quickly exposed a myriad of significant historical facts, usually generated by my great grandfather Walter J. Thompson. Much of what I knew about the subject was purely from my own vague remembrances of references made during my childhood about notable members in the family.
I had met my great aunt, Walter’s only sister Jessie Mill Drum, who lived at age ninety-four across Nyanza Road from our home. She was surely very interesting to a ten year old but didn’t really register as a historic figure in my mind. I knew so little! My youth allowed such experiences to be largely lost, and perhaps my parents saw no point in discussing my great grandfather, his notable family or his lost empire, but in any case I left Lakewood in 1966 with little knowledge of Walter James Thompson or his immediate family.
I did retain two curious and wonderful relics of Walter J’s past however: one a silver-plated Masonic sword emblazoned with Walter J. Thompson along the blade, a gift to the Grandmaster of Washington Territory in 1889; the other an ornate silver engraved flask, also dated 1889 and a gift to my great grandfather from the final standing members of the Washington Territorial Senate. These two items alone were impetus enough to begin to learn about the earliest Thompsons in Tacoma.
As is my habit, I approached the subject of history through maps, first locating the 1890 and 1891 maps of Tacoma during its Victorian prime, both held at the Library of Congress. To my great surprise, at the top of the 1890 map in prominent view, was Walter J. Thompson’s moniker, indicating his sponsorship of the publication.
More interesting still was the enormous pink zone located against Gravelly and Steilacoom Lakes and containing my childhood home. At 1500 acres it was easily the largest single tract shown on the entire map. The site was labeled: Thompson & Baker, Lake Groves. I was thoroughly hooked. The subsequent 1891 map was the coup de gras: Lake Groves, previously a blank palette, had transformed into a beaux art “garden village” labeled Lake View Town. More importantly the property had been subdivided into one of the earliest examples of new town planning in America, and it was focused firmly on my own childhood haunts in Lakewood.
In his April, 1984 Tacoma News Tribune article, the late David C. Guilbert wrote eloquently about Walter J. Thompson’s first 10 years in Tacoma, from 1883 to 1893. He outlined a prolific period of cultural and personal dynamism that made Tacoma an important turn of the century city and established Walter J. as a leading progenitor of Tacoma’s cultural growth.
Herbert Hunt chronicled Tacoma during its efflorescence in the Victorian Era*, roughly from 1885 to 1915, laying the groundwork for our current understanding of this period and when combined with contemporary local sources such as the historic Tacoma Ledger, it has been possible to document Walter J’s rise as a lawyer, suffrage advocate and businessman, to a leader in institution building across Tacoma and the Washington Territory.
A common thread in all accounts is the level of generosity and sincerity that Walter J. commanded in his every day interactions. His personal relationships with the noted characters of his era and his astounding business acumen established him as a civic and Territorial leader as well as a very wealthy capitalist. His Merchants National Bank on Pacific Avenue became the largest bank in the Territory, financing trolley lines, canal infrastructure projects and famously backing Nelson Bennett’s successful exploits to link Tacoma with the inter-continental railroad through the Cascades.
But my primary subject is the Lakes District and whence it came. The entire precinct surrounding my childhood home on Gravelly Lake was purchased by Walter J. in 1889 from Captain John C. Ainsworth, an officer of the Northern Pacific Railroad and an important Pacific coast pioneer. The property ran from the Northern Pacific rail that still borders Lakewood on the east, all the way to Gravelly and Steilacoom Lakes on the west; from Steilacoom Park on the north to American Lake on the south, a tract of 1500 acres.
What was once a pioneer’s homestead (Boatman family), then a railroad outpost and hunting cabin, became a very early example of Victorian American planning under Walter J’s keen eye. Only a handful of small sub-divisions near the lakes, such as Frank Ross’ Lake City near American Lake, provided any habitable settlement in the Lakes District and these were only for Summer-use. The original “Lake View Town” though was intended as year-round haven for upper and middle-class families away from the congestion of the burgeoning Tacoma cityscape. The excerpt from the 1891 Map of Tacoma & Environs indicates an extraordinarily sophisticated town replete with two inter-continental railroad stations, a central Territorial Fairgrounds and a remarkable dual boulevard fronting each side of a Clover Creek preserve across the entire breadth of the property. Walter J. Thompson transformed himself from a carpenter to a business man and politician, before taking on the mantle of planner.
America’s first great depression, the Panic of 1893, stalled much of Walter J’s vision and only small remnants remain. The Northern Pacific road still runs through the property, but no station remains; the other proposed line, the Union Pacific Railroad, fell in the 1893 Panic and never thrust itself between Gravelly and Steilacoom Lakes on its way to Olympia. Instead Gravelly Lake Drive wraps our old family store, the Clover Park Shops and runs north past the Villa Plaza. The strongest remaining street imprint is Nyanza Road, named by Walter J. and referring to the “road to the great lake”, a clear reference to American Lake.
The Territorial Fairgrounds were of course, lost to Puyallup and the land became the Lakewood Tennis Club, several churches and a residential subdivision. Clover Creek is subsumed by residential properties and the grand boulevards have given way to the meandering thoroughfares of today. ‘Town center’ has migrated northward, the result of Colonial Center and the Villa Plaza success, but unfortunately the overall organization of Walter J’s “village” has been lost and the district has become fully privatized, leaving little or no public access to the three primary resources in the area: Gravelly Lake, Steilacoom Lake and Clover Creek.
After the Panic Walter J. lost most of his fortune, save his 1500 acre Lake View Town. He was forced to leave his home on Saint Helen’s boulevard in Tacoma (the Drum family, right next door, was also dislocated to the Lakes District), only to build his first lake home, historically dubbed “Nyanza Farm” by locals. Completed in 1895 this house, my birthplace and the oldest house on Gravelly Lake, became a refuge through a very difficult time for Walter J., his second wife Amaryllis, son Ray, and my great great grandparents, Thomas J. and Barbara J. Thompson. Eventually Walter J. regrouped, donated property for Clover Park High School, set aside the commercial zone that became Villa Plaza and sold the first residential lots on Gravelly Lake.
In 1929 he completed his final architectural project: the ‘lake house’ below Nyanza Farm on Gravelly Lake. Perhaps it was not as grand as Villa Carman just to the north, but it was every bit as interesting. This home became the locus of the Thompson family for twenty-five years as Walter J’s son Ray took ownership in 1940 upon his death. The multi-level assemblage of old English manor rooms had an enormous brick fireplace and sweeping views of Gravelly Lake just twenty feet below the house. It was Walter J’s extraordinary creativity and personal craftsmanship, deployed here and on my Nyanza Farm home, that became clear influences on my own sensibility as an architect. Most revealing to me, the discovery of his 1891 Lake View Town, indicates the breadth of my patriarch’s talent and motivations.
Throughout his lifetime Walter J. never lost sight of his primary goal: to build community through inspired planning, architecture and critical public institutions. The true testament to his genius is in the range of public institutions he co-founded, sponsored or built himself. While the historic structures that housed Walter J’s banking empire have long since disappeared, a few structures like the Old City Hall remain. Originally planned as the Tacoma Chamber of Commerce, the City occupied the structure after a land swap. Of those venues originally planned here by Walter J. and his cohorts, only the Public Library would remain. This would stay intact under Walter J’s direction through the years prior to the Carnegie Library (1919). But the memories fade, become overlaid by ill-advised additions or fall to the wrecking ball. I feel fortunate indeed that I can still visit the Old Tacoma Cemetery to recapture some of the history and glamour of Tacoma’s Victorian period, intact in its natural state. Some things remain sacred. Scattered here in Victorian splendor are the men and women who shaped life in the early West. My family plot includes all the Thompsons and Drums, beginning with Walter J’s first wife Clara Ann who died in 1888 and thus far concluding with my father William, who died in 1997.
It has been somewhat melancholy revisiting of my childhood habitat, but my newly acquired thirst for information and the fortunate happenstance of family (my great grandfather accomplished more than could have reasonably been expected of a first generation American thrust into the void of pioneer America) have left me engaged. Walter J’s legacy will remain, underlying the fabric of Tacoma, South Tacoma and Lakewood, mostly buried but still palpable in the grand scheme of things. A rebuilding Tacoma, the historic Pacific Coast Highway strip and a suburban Lakewood, all shifting and shaping themselves into newer forms of community as they once again adjust to the realities of the economy. Despite what has been lost, I’m left hopeful by what I see as I revisit the area after half a century.