Submitted By Blake J. Surina
Possibly the single most influential figure from the humble beginnings of University Place was George Washington Thompson (b. 1842 to d. 1898).
George was born in Illinois, and at the age of 19 served in the civil war in the 8th Illinois Calvary. He attained the rank of Captain and commanded the 29th Infantry US Colored Regiment. After he was mustered from the Union Army, he worked as a Postmaster in Iowa and established a bank in Tennessee. George had nine brothers & sisters, and six of the nine siblings eventually made their way to Tacoma.
George and Susan Thompson came to Tacoma with their 4 children Matt, Carl, Paul and Margaret by storm in 1887, eventually finding residence in the family home at 402 North I. Street.
Tacoma was seen at that time, as one of the fastest growing communities in the country, and G.W. Thompson saw the possibility of relocating there as a once in a lifetime opportunity. In his first few years in Tacoma he started G.W. Thompson Real Estate, a Sawmill Company, Washington Manufacturing Company, the G.W. Thompson Trust Company, and eventually the University Place Land Company. George’s wife Susan at one time held an interest in the Eastern Pacific Railroad as security in the event of a defaulted loan.
This was all done while still finding time to be a member of Tacoma’s Commercial Club chairing a committee to negotiate more favorable shipping rates to local farmers. He worked as a School Director, the president of the Tacoma Chamber of Commerce, worked for the County Treasurer’s Office, and was a board member of the City of Tacoma’s Law and Order Committee. He also served as a trustee of the Citizens Land Company, with the purpose of providing $60,000 capital for the Tacoma Foundry and Machine Company to create a municipal sewage disposal service. In 1889 he was one of the featured Tacoma speakers in the celebration of Washington’s Statehood.
The Streetcar Franchise
With a partner T.O. Abbott, George secured a streetcar franchise from the City of Tacoma, but because of the distraction of his busy land speculation business, he almost lost it. It was rumored through a reliable source that the Tacoma City Council was going to vote to rescind his streetcar franchise the following morning because no work improvements had been done.
In a panic George Thompson had his sawmill work all night making railway ties, placing them along the 12.2-mile route from downtown Tacoma to Steilacoom. The next morning in the council chambers, he claimed “How can you take my franchise, when we have laid out the whole streetcar line and placed the ties already?” The near disaster had been averted and he was able to keep the franchise.
One of the original landmarks still seen today is the Trolley Barn located on the southwestern corner of 12th and Proctor where the power and repairs for his trollies were made.
Years earlier both Alan C. Mason and Nelson Bennett, two prominent men in the early history of Tacoma, tried to start an electric streetcar line, but were denied by the Tacoma City Council. The council, based on the study from P.O. Bean, an Engineer, reported that electric power could not be done feasibly at a length of 3 miles or more for electrical transmission. Thompson and Abbott proved him wrong and built their streetcar line. The Thompson & Abbott Streetcar line of 1891 from Tacoma to Steilacoom, was the first truly interurban streetcar line in the United States, and the longest streetcar line in the entire world.
This historic line started at 11th and K street, (Now called Martin Luther King Dr.), went south to 13th, down the hill past Pacific Avenue to “A” street, then back over north to eleventh, up the 11th street hill across Sprague, and down 12th to Orchard, where it crossed over south to 19th. From 19th a suitable grade was found by turning south onto Mildred and east to 27th, and south on Bridgeport. From Bridgeport it turned right onto Chambers Creek Road, down the hill to Chambers creek and into Steilacoom. C.H. Purdy, the well-known conductor of the streetcar Admiral Dewey, would often provide credit to riders who were short on fare. The line was finally abandoned in 1916, after 25 years.
The accessibility to the businesses in the inner cities, were the lifelines for the newly created suburban committees. Land developers would advertise their communities, and vie for streetcar lines that would greatly increase their likelihood of success. Land Development in the South End of town was glorified and promoted by Randolph Foster Radebaugh, the North End by Allen Chase Mason, and the West End by George Washington Thompson. Thompson, as a promoter, with the completion of the Thompson Abbott streetcar line covering the west end of the peninsula gave potential property owners the ease of access to downtown Tacoma.
In 2013-2014, an idea was hatched to revive the original streetcar line from Tacoma to Steilacoom as a way to get hotel guests to the US Masters Golf Championship at Chambers Bay. After many meetings with city managers from along the original Thompson Abbot line, and with administrators of Pierce Transit were made that year. The result was the purchase of buses revamped to look like streetcars, purchased by the City of Gig Harbor.
In 1888-1889 G.W. Thompson entered into land speculation and purchased the Coulter Addition, which bordered between South 12th and North 9thth Avenue, and Pine Street to Union Avenue. He donated two lots of his new addition for the creation of a new Methodist Church that was eventually relocated a few years later. This was the beginning of a long relationship with the Methodist Church.
About the same time, the Methodist Board of Bishops were calling for a Puget Sound Methodist University to be built in Tacoma. A charter was created under the direction of Reverend Charles H. Fowler, with a Board of 21 Trustees elected at the Methodists Puget Sound Annual Conference. An institution called Puget Sound University was proposed and built in 1890 on the corner of 6th and Sprague, (approximately where Jason Lee Middle School is today), and quickly outgrew its space. After numerous attempts the find a suitable location, G.W Thompson felt he had a final solution.
George Washington Thompson’s idea to solve the space limitations was to buy up 420 acres of the coastal land between Tacoma and Steilacoom. This land today makes up much of the current University Place, Day Island and Lemon Beach. Paying as much as $300 dollars per acre, G.W. Thompson created the University Land Company in 1895 with his oldest son Benjamin F. Thompson as Secretary. The plan was to sell the lots and use the profits to build a proposed 60 acre Methodist University campus, which would solve the growing pains suffered by previous institutional location attempts. The Board of Bishops favored of the idea, and plans were quickly put into motion. George Washington Thompson was appointed Secretary of the newly planned Puget Sound University.
In 1893, G.W. Thompson was elected as the fifth president of the Tacoma Chamber of Commerce. Undoubtedly familiar with the local talent at work, he decided to use Edward Otto Schwagerl for laying out his new development of University Place. Also, G.W. Thompson’s son, Matt Roy Thompson was hired to help Schwagerl develop his current project planning the conception designs of Wrights Park and Point Defiance Park.
It was a truly innovative, pre-planned, urban community was created by the talented, but radical, E.O. Schwagerl. Decades earlier, in 1869, Riverside became the first pre-planned community in the United States designed by Fredrick Law Olmsted, and this development heavily influenced the aesthetic style of Schwagerl. Referred to as the America Beautiful movement of the 1890’s, the concept involved winding boulevards, circles & malls, and public parklands. Quite revolutionary in his approach, the Schwagerl plan may have been especially well received by G. W. Thompson, having grown up less than 150 miles west of the Riverside Illinois development.
Architect George Wesley Bullard the French Gothic prepared the preliminary designs for the buildings for the newly ordained Puget Sound University.
This University Place pre-planned community design project, proposed by Schwagerl, was doomed to failure as a recession of the highest order hit the Northwest in the early to mid 1890’s.
Debts finally forced the University Land Company to sell the property planned for the new community and University at a loss. 160 acres, which were purchased for $300 an acre ten years earlier, was now fetching $15,000 for the whole lot. In late 1896, gold was discovered in Alaska and G.W. Thompson looking for a way to re-build his fortune, went to Ketchikan. He died at the age of 56 in 1898.
The year of Thompson’s death, Governor Rodgers of Washington State appointed G.W. Thompson to represent the State of Washington in the World Fair held in Omaha, Nebraska in 1898. The only element that survived G.W. Thompson’s original dream community was the name University Place. Ironically, in later years, the Joe Peyton Football field and the main Athletics Field House of the Methodist backed University of Puget Sound would be located in the G.W. Thompson’s Coulter addition.
America Beautiful Movement Realized
In 1873, Tacoma was provided with a pre-planned community design provided by Fredrick Law Olmsted and G.K. Radford. Charles Wright had cast the deciding vote to select Tacoma as the terminus of the Northern route of the transcontinental railroad, and had worked with Olmsted in the past. Impressed by his genius, Wright requested his services to design the “City of Destiny”. Although never setting foot in Tacoma, F.L. Olmsted obtained the best contour and plat maps available, and created a plan that was only warmly received by the business community.
Some of the well known Olmsted design projects were New Yorks Central Park, and Niagra Falls State Park, and the campus of University of Washington (created in preparation for the 1906 Alaska-Yukon Pacific Exposition Worlds Fair). The entrance and walkways of Lakewold Gardens was a local northwest project taken on by the Olmsted’s sons who continued their father’s work.
The Tacoma plan designed the cities travel routes based on the contours of the land. They contained designated parks, and wide boulevards, with a noted absence of intersections. With the merging streets, and the large switchbacks up the Tacoma hills, the plat map designed by Fredrick Law Olmsted looked like a bowl of fruit, and was sarcastically referred to by some as “The Peach Basket Plan”. Business owners of the time wanted something quick and safe, and favored intersecting corners for future business locations. Slowly, the gridded pattern crept into Tacoma’s urban future.
Charles Wright was aware this could happen, so with the donations of parklands to the city of Tacoma, he wisely put conditions and timelines on their development. Fredrick Law Olmsted was not available to come out west, so the renowned local landscape architect, E.O. Schwagerl, was the perfect fit. Charles Wright was also aware of his previous work, and he was brought to Tacoma to work on the creating and presenting a concept for the new “Wright’s Park.” The Tacoma park board wholeheartedly endorsed the Schwagerl plan, and the grading and landscaping started in the summer of 1890.
George Washington Thompson’s son Matt Roy Thompson (b. 1874 to d. 1964) studied under both of these American Beautiful Movement visionaries. He attended Fredrick Law Olmsted’s newly designed Stanford Universities Campus, majoring in Landscape Architecture, and when out of school, Matt worked with E.O. Schwagerl designing and building Tacoma’s Wright’s Park and Point Defiance Park, while living just a few blocks away.
Major Bowes and Regent’s Park
When Edward J. Bowes and his group of investors came to the Puget Sound as land speculators in 1906, Tacoma was one of the hottest real estate markets in the country. Traveling down the Thompson/Abbott streetcar line on the way to Steilacoom, it was noted that property was still available to buy approximately 4 miles west of downtown Tacoma. A deal was made to purchase a new development where the City of Fircrest stands today, for a sum of $500,000 dollars from the Narrows Land Company. Many older residents remember the name Edward J. Bowes, known as the creator of the Major Bowes Amateur Hour. The popular radio program of the 1930’s and 40’s discovered such later stars as Robert Merrill, Beverly Sills, Pat Boone, and Frank Sinatra lead for the Hoboken Five singing group.
Major Bowes hired young Matt Roy Thompson to plat out the new development and Matt sold the idea of a preplanned community. M. R. Thompson was coming into his own as a community leader, learning the importance of community service from his father (who had been elected the president of the Tacoma Chamber of Commerce shortly before his passing). Matt Roy Thompson became a founding member of the Tacoma Boosters in 1905 whose mission was to “Boost Not Knock” in building and creating Tacoma’s community spirit.
A major concept of Matt’s mentors, Schwagerl and Olmsted, was the dramatic effect a sound urban plan would have on building community. The shared spaces for all citizens in the form of parklands, natures beauty, the infusion of places where a community could congregate & interact with one another strengthening citizenship, and while at the same time providing an aesthetically pleasing landscape design.
The name Regents Park was selected for the first pre-planned community in Washington State, surely in honor of his father’s concept of University Place. Street names were taken from leading educational institutions of the day including Harvard, Yale, Vasser, Stanford, etc… Streets running perpendicular were alphabetically named after counties in California, i.e. Alameda, Berkeley, Contra Costa, etc… The focal point of the pre-planned utopian community, was Spring Lake, where the Fircrest Park stands today. Spring Lake closely mimicked the style of Schwagerl’s Bird Lake in Wrights Park, complete with small hut like gazebos, Lion sculptures, a zoo with monkeys, parrots and even a kangaroo. G.W. Thompson’s vision of University Place was able to find a place to rest.