History of the Prairie Line

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Prairie Line Terminal Section - Catalog of Character-Defining Features

In 1864 President Lincoln signed legislation which chartered the Northern Pacific (NP) Railroad to complete connect mid-west, Washington, and Oregon. The NP was built by Chinese contract laborers and faced a variety of fiscal and time constraints. Completed in 1873, Tacoma became the terminus of the Northern Pacific Railroad that linked the Great Lakes to the Puget Sound. Lines of the Northern Pacific included the Prairie Line, a stretch of track spanning Tacoma, Washington and Tenino, Washington. The name refers to the “burnt prairie” route across the Nisqually Delta from Tenino.

The Prairie Line

The Prairie Line became a development trunk for the growth of Tacoma, sprouting rail sidings to serve industrial and shipping facilities in what is now the warehouse and brewery district, including UWT. In 1885 a major fire devastated downtown Tacoma, prompting the first building codes, which called for brick and stone permanent structures. The area has been a constantly changing web of rail spurs and sidings served by brick warehouses, loading docks and freight yards that gave form to these districts. As additional railroad companies laid down tracks and the NP merged with other railroads to form the Burlington Northern Railroad, the Prairie Line’s usefulness began to disappear, culminating with the closure of the line in 2003.

Finding the Prairie Line Today

The first passenger depot was located on the Milgard property. The depot was physically moved in 1892 to the site of what is now Union Station. Many of the dock spaces found along the corridor are actual rail sidings for loading and freight car access to buildings/cranes. The corridor through the UWT campus was primarily fronted by cabins, modest hotels/rooms for rent, and small dwellings, as well as coal and wood bunkers.