Tacoma: a poem

— by Jack Sundquist

The wooded bluffs looked down upon the circling bay,
The river poured its dark brown gift through brushy flats,
The seagulls glided over or walked along the shore,
Their cries echoing in the stillness.
In the fall the multitudes of geese and ducks came and went,
And deer within the silent woods raised their heads to hear their cries.
Along the shores were myriads of clams and oysters, crabs and mussels,
And in the deepening waters fish swam lazily.
The fall brought legions of salmon fighting to ascend the rivers and streams to spawn and die and leave their bodies to the eagles.
Above them the mountain loomed,
They were waiting ….


Dark-eyed, wary, brown-skinned, pushed on by others,
From the north they came, along the wooded shores.
Seeking a place, a shelter, a home.
They stopped beneath a sheltering bluff, in a circling bay,
To spend a night or two, beside a small stream.
The women said, “It is good here …
Clams, oysters, berries in the woods, water.”
The men said, “It is good here,
Salmon so thick they crowd the river there,
Deer in the forest, ducks on the flats!
Here we are sheltered from the wind.”
So they stayed, and the men built a strong wooden house for all,
Girdling a giant patiently, talking to it as a friend,
Splitting it into wide boards with stone tools, using the surplus
For a fire to warm the families on cold wet nights,
Telling their children the story of how they came.
And so they stayed, the women gathered berries in the woods,
And wapato, potato-like, and clams along the beach,
And guided the girls in their ways, “This is the way we do this.”
And the girls listened.
And the men instructed the boys, “This is the way we catch the salmon, remember to have the ceremony of the first salmon caught,
and honor him or he will tell his brothers not to return.
And this is how to hunt the deer, remember them.”
And the children played along the beach and in the deep woods
And learned the ways of their fathers and mothers.
Generations passed, each place was named,
Ta-had-owah, welcome, for the head of the bay,
Ta-wand-sham, fording place, a later waterway,
Chu-baul-up, sheltered place, a future Old Tacoma,
Sgut-us, face sticking out, the towering point of land,
And high above on the bluff, Tak-too-sul, to make signal,
Whose towering trees would become towering buildings,
And the looming white clad mountain they called Tah-ho-mah,
The dwelling place of God.


They came in white winged houses upon the water,
Wondrous to see,
Along tree-lined shores
Light-skinned men, bearded,
With sticks that sounded like thunder,
Spouting forth smoke and fire.
They traded wondrous knives and axes, shining, smooth,
That did not break and held an edge.
All these for simple sea otter skins.
Carefully they mapped the islands and the shore,
Placing their own names in each place,
For people, Vashon, Puget, Bainbridge,
Sgut-us, face sticking out, became Point Defiance,
In the eyes of those who knew war so well,
And the looming white-clad mountain the natives revered
As the dwelling place of God they named Rainier,
For a faraway silk-clad lord of the sea.


There is money in these trees, he said to himself.
I will build a dam here, a waterwheel there, place the saw here,
And so he did, and the whine of the saw echoed through
the trees, and the deer raised their heads to this new sound.
The natives came to sit enthralled at the sound and the ease
With which the boards were made.
Men came to work in the mill,
Men came to grow food to sell to them.
Women came to help the men and ease their loneliness,
For man cannot live long alone,
And ships came to anchor in the bay awaiting the lumber.
Delin was his name, a man of vision.
Then came Swan to fill barrels with salted salmon,
To send to hungry San Francisco, and Baird to make the barrels.
Now the white man spoke of taking the native’s land,
And there were angry words and drummings and warcries.
In a driving rain the white would flee in the dark of night,
And leave the mill and buildings in solitude, untouched by natives.
Later, others would come, Job Carr, building a lean-to against
a giant fallen log at Chebaulip because it was a quiet place,
with good water, a shelter from the great war in the East.
And he sent for his sons. “This is the place,” he said.
Peter Judson planted oats at Tak-too-sul, casting eyes over the
circling bay, and his niece, Gertrude, cast eyes at Nicholas
Delin, and he at her, and they were wed.
Others came, some to stay and some to go again,
Seeking a rainbow, the Stewarts, the Steeles, the Starrs.
They cut the trees and cleared the land, and planted oats
and wheat and corn and each family built a separate house and
each man laid out the limits of his land and said, “This is mine!”
And the natives watched and wondered, “How can they take the
land that belongs to God? And they tear up the land and put
seeds in it, and so they do not have to search for the plants!”
And the looming mountain watched the torn earth and falling trees.


He had dreams, this man, to build a city, at the end of the rainbow that was the railroad. Delin sang the praises of the bay and he came to see,
He saw upon the wooded hills a city of tree-lined streets,
homes, stores, churches, and crowds of people where only
trees stood silently and the only sound was the encement City
across the face until Ritz said, “Why not Tacoma, I like the
sound and meaning?” And so it was.
Griggs, Hewitt, Weyerhaeuser, looked upon the endless forests
and visioned them as timbers and houses and ships. Wheeler
and Osgood looked upon the trees and visioned them as doors
and windows for the world. Allen Mason looked upon the trees
and visioned them as houses to put upon the lots that he would
sell. He drew more lines and separated the land again and again.
And visionaries sought out the black rocks in the surrounding
hills and bought the land and brought the men to pierce the
hills to bring out the rock to send out into the world.
And men drew lines upon the maps and other men built steel
rails to join the new Tacoma to the world. And men planned
together to bring the ships from the world to come and leave
the products and take other products, and men came to the load the
ships and unload them, and women came to help the men and take
care of the houses and write down on paper the things that were needed.
And the mills and factories devoured the forests
And belched forth timbers and doors and furniture
And smoke rolled forth so the streets were darkened at noon.
And men built ships to go forth and net the salmon
And other men dug deep tunnels into the mountains for hidden ores
And the call went out; “We need more men to work in the mills,
And in the fields, and in the mines, and on the ships!”


They heard the call around the world and spoke to each other, around
The dinner table, outside the church, resting in the fields,
A man speaking to his wife in the dark of the night,
“Can we better ourselves? To go so far we risk so much!
To leave our home and friends forever?”
And some said yes and some said no, and some said, “I will go and make
some money and return and buy a farm here.”
The Welsh said, “I can work in the mines here as at home
And make much more money and I can send for my family.” And they did.
The Dalmatian said, “I can fish here as I did at home
and make more money and I can send for my parents.” And he did.
The Norwegian said, “I can farm here as I did at home,
or work in the woods or on ships, and I can make much more money.
And I can send for my brothers and sisters.” And he did.
The Greek said, “It is cooler here but the ground is rich and the air
is freer and I can work at many jobs and make much money and I will
send for my family.” And he did.
And their names were legion: Johnson, Matsui, Martinolich, Jones, Wing, O’Brien, Polish, Italian, Greek,
And they clustered together so the women could talk over the fence
as they hung their wash and the men could talk in the cool of the evening.
And they built their churches for their marriages and funerals, St. Rita’s, St. Nicholas, St. Patrick’s, the Swedish Lutheran.
And horses pulled jangling wagons where deer once made their silent way,
The giant trees fell, dragged to whining saws,
No longer were they spoken to as friends, and asked to give their woods.
Mills sprang up along the shores,
And logs poured in from the hills,
And lumber flowed out.
To return to the hills as houses painted red and green and brown,
And men came to work in the mills.
And women came to ease their loneliness
And bear their children and make the houses homes.
And schools were built,
And stores
And docks
And warehouses
And factories to build doors and windows and furniture,
And railroads came
And ships
To bring new people
And carry away the new products.
And Tacoma grew
Built by those who sought a better life,
From New York and Boston,
Kansas and Minnesota,
Germany and Wales,
Japan and Sweden,
Italy and China.
From the far-flung world they came
To build Tacoma
By the circling bay
Where once deer stood silently
Listening to the calls of wild ducks.

Jack L. Sundquist was born on March 18, 1922 and passed away on March 27, 2007. He graduated from Stadium High School and had degrees from the University of Puget Sound and Pacific Lutheran University. After serving in WWII, he worked as an elementary teacher with Tacoma Public Schools from 1950 – 1980. He also served as President of the Tacoma Association of Classroom Teachers. He was an avid saltwater fisherman, member of the Tacoma Writers Group, and a contributor to the Washington State Historical Society’s book, Memories of Tacoma. 

Sundquist was a contributor to Volumes 1 and 2 of “Tacoma: Voices of the Past.” This poem was published in Volume 2 and also shared in the Winter 2001 edition of Tacoma Historical Society’s City of Destiny Newsletter.

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