Laying New Tracks

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The new Prairie Line Trail through campus is set to open this fall, bringing an open green space to the center of UW Tacoma. The trail will connect the campus to the city – and its stories.

2017 Update: The Washington Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects presented its 2017 Award of Excellence to the landscape architecture firm PLACE for its design of UW Tacoma's Prairie Line Trail.

2015 Update: UW 360, the University of Washington magazine-style program, recently produced a segment on the Prairie Line Trail. Watch it here.

As you walk through campus this August, you might hear the sounds of construction – paving machines, backhoes, workmen yelling.

This fall, the same area will still be bustling with noise, of a different kind – bike bells, people playing catch, students passing each other on the way to class. And, whether you can hear it or not, this section of campus will tell stories.

September will mark the completion of the Prairie Line Trail section from 17th Street and Pacific Ave. to 21st Street and Hood Street, forming an artery through the University of Washington Tacoma campus.

This park follows the same path as the Northern Pacific Prairie Line railroad, which was the Northwest terminus of the Transcontinental Railroad. The park will be both a throughway and a place to gather – much like the railroad once made Tacoma a place of travel for many, but a place to stop, reflect and stay for others.  

Though it’s called a trail (and, officially, it’s called “Prairie Line Trail – UWT Station”), the space will be more of a linear, urban park, like the High Line in New York City, with grassy enclaves bordered by trees along a bike and pedestrian path.

Construction is on track (no pun intended) to finish on time in early September, before most students return for the fall quarter. It is also staying on budget; UW Tacoma’s section will cost around $2.6 million. If you are on campus this summer, please note: sections of Market Street near campus will close intermittently this August for construction.

The Northern Pacific Prairie Line railroad ran through what is now campus for 130 years and helped make Tacoma the "City of Destiny." The design of the new trail will reflect this history.

The tract that runs through campus will be the first of three sections of the Prairie Line Trail, which will travel from 26th Street in the Brewery District to Dock Street and the Thea Foss Waterway. The other two sections, the Brewery District segment and the segment from Pacific Avenue to Thea Foss Waterway, will be built by the City of Tacoma (see image below). Eventually, the Prairie Line Trail could connect with a growing regional network of trails, linking to Chambers Creek Regional Park, Point Defiance Park, Foothills Trail and more.

“The interesting thing about the Prairie Line Trail is, it’s one of those projects that is more than just the university. It’s regional. We see it that way; the city sees it that way,” said Milt Tremblay, director of planning and sustainability for UW Tacoma.

The story of the Prairie Line Trail is deeply intertwined with the story of Tacoma. Tacoma beat out other cities like Seattle, Olympia and Bellingham for this rail line, which helped make Tacoma the industrial and transportation hub of the region. The Prairie Line railroad connected the port and warehouse district to the rest of the country, and connected the United States to much of Asia. The railroad line was completed in 1873, and ran until 2003 – 130 years.

The park’s new design and features, in the UW Tacoma section and beyond, will pay tribute to that history. Train tracks will remain visible along the path, reminding users of the historic route in which they walk. (The tracks were not part of UW Tacoma’s initial design, but were incorporated after public feedback stressed the need to highlight this history.) Retaining walls along the trail visually evoke railroad ties. As the trail passes through UW Tacoma, the school’s restored warehouses will remind passersby of the neighborhood’s past use.

Artist Gerard Tsutakawa works on the Japanese Language School Memorial, which will be installed on the Prairie Line Trail at the north end of campus.

The trail will also feature a memorial to the Japanese Language School, which once stood on Tacoma Avenue on what is now UW Tacoma’s campus. It was a gathering place for the Japanese community from 1911 to 1942, many of whom lived and worked in Japantown, where UW Tacoma is today. After their internment during WWII, most did not return to the area, and the building sat unused for many years, until it was demolished in 2004. To commemorate the Japanese Language School and the community that built it, a nine-foot bronze sculpture by Gerard Tsutakawa (who designed the “Mitt” at Safeco Field in Seattle) and two plaques inlaid in granite boulders will share the story of the school. The memorial will stand at the north end of the UW Tacoma section of the Prairie Line Trail.

“Part of the message behind the memorial is this lesson in our country’s history, when we interned these people and this community that never returned,” says Mike Wark, director of external relations for UW Tacoma.

The trail also tells the story of the current work being done to build Tacoma. Regional water quality facilities along the trail will help manage storm water runoff from the Hilltop neighborhood, filtering it before it reaches the Thea Foss Waterway. These facilities, situated alongside the walking and biking trail, will help preserve the work done in the 2000s to clean the waterway. 

Even before the trail construction began, the project’s design started to gain recognition. The Prairie Line Trail won a 2014 Husky Green Award and was nominated for a 2014 Ghilarducci Award.

The section of trail between 17th Street and Dock Street will be built by the City of Tacoma. The section has been funded and is in design, and the city is preparing to construct it within the year, connecting campus to the Thea Foss Waterway. | Image courtesy of the City of Tacoma.

“That just shows the level of anticipation, that people are excited about this,” says Tremblay. “From my standpoint, we’ve done a lot of great projects. This one has gotten more publicity, before, and during, and probably after, than any other.”

Members of the school and community are already thinking about the path’s future. The Friends of the Prairie Line Trail group is organizing to think about how best to celebrate and support the space. Their next meeting is open to members of the community and college, held Aug. 7, 2014 at 4:30 p.m. in the Tacoma Room in UW Tacoma’s Garretson Woodruff & Pratt building. Community members are also enthusiastic that the trail may spark economic development.

The trail will physically connect the campus to the city of Tacoma, and eventually, the region. But with its design, location and features, UW Tacoma’s section of the Prairie Line Trail will also connect the campus to the story of Tacoma, celebrating the city and campus’s past, present and future. The Prairie Line Trail will help tell stories of Tacoma’s past; it will be a part of the modern story of the restoration and revitalization occurring downtown; and it will look toward the future, bringing UW Tacoma and the community together to build a gathering space downtown to use for many more years.

To learn more about the Prairie Line Trail visit UW Tacoma’s website for the project or follow it on Facebook. The next meeting of the Friends of the Prairie Line Trail is open to the public and will meet in GWP on Aug. 7 at 4:30 p.m.

Written by: 
Abby Rhinehart / July 31, 2014
Media contact: 
John Burkhardt, Media Relations,, 253-692-4536.