McCarver, Carr & Tacoma
the afternoon of April 1, 1868, a tall, blue-eyed man with
sandy-gray hair and a face elongated by partial baldness sat
astride his worn horse and looked out at Commencement Bay from the
bluff above the southern shore, the old Judson claim.
had ridden north from Portland to study the Puget Sound country
and he liked what he saw: an Indian canoe moving across a bay
streaked by silt from the river which flowed across tide-flats
green with sea grasses; the Mountain high and white against the
eastern sky; a small sawmill in a swale of skunk cabbage to his
right; to his left a shallow cove; the forest all but unbroken,
the land undeveloped, the magnificent sheet of water awaiting
Looking out from the bluff, Morton Matthew McCarver saw not the
all-but-empty bay, nor did he smell the clean, thin scent of fir.
He envisioned a city: wharves and streets and steamships and
locomotives; a county courthouse, perhaps a state capitol; he
breathed the heady incense of coal smoke and new-sawn lumber,
heard the clang of trolleys and the wail of factory whistles.
McCarver saw cities wherever he looked. He was a boomer, one of
the nineteenth-century Americans irresistibly drawn to undeveloped
land, no more capable of resisting the impulse to look at a field
and proclaim a metropolis than other frontier types were of
foregoing a drink or a look at the hole card. Booming was his
shunned alcohol and helped circulate the Northwest's first
manifesto extolling prohibition; his language was mild, his family
life exemplary though intermittent; he was upright, god-fearing,
and a sucker for a stretch of empty waterfront or a hint of
industrial development. Though he deplored all games of chance,
his optimism about property futures was steady and unearthly. As
he lay dying, seven years after his first look at Commencement
Bay, his last requests were for someone to read him from the local
paper any stories about road building or coal mining.
McCarver was born on a farm near Lexington, Kentucky, in 1807. His
father died when he was a child; his mother, a stern woman,
brought him up within a religious philosophy that advocated
celibacy and deplored dissipation. (He was a lifelong teetotaler
but the father of ten.)
boy ran away to the Southwest at fourteen. Poor, with little
schooling and no friends, he found himself competing for work done
by slaves. The experience left him with a lifelong prejudice
against blacks. He went home, broke, only to have his mother turn
him away, saying they were "dead to each other on earth."
young man drifted west. In Illinois he found a wife but not
prosperity. He fought in the Black Hawk war and, when the treaty
was signed opening Indian land in Wisconsin to settlement, claimed
the site that became Burlington. When Wisconsin was divided into
two territories in 1838, the southern portion became Iowa and
Burlington its capital. McCarver was appointed commissary general
of the territorial militia. The pay was trivial but the honorific
"General" served him the rest of his life.
the age of thirty-five, after a decade in Burlington, McCarver was
the father of the town and of five children, but he was ten
thousand dollars in debt, his prospects poor. The price of corn
and hogs, the measure by which the farming West judged prosperity,
was at a twenty-year low. Iowa echoed with talk of greener
pastures. The great migration of 1843 was aborting. McCarver was
ready again to move on. There were greater towns to be created
beyond the Rockies.
the spring of 1843, McCarver took leave of Mary Ann, their
children, and their town, and joined the pioneers gathering at
Independence, Missouri. A man of imposing appearance, the general
was elected to the Council of Nine, which governed the wagon
office was no easy honor. Disputes among the nine hundred
travelers were frequent. Some were insoluble, some ludicrous. A
bachelor had a wagon so large it was called Noah's Ark, so
cumbersome it required the muscle of a score of men to get it up
the worst slopes. Eventually the council demanded to know what was
in it. The owner allowed as how he was transporting near a ton of
soft soap with which to woo the womenfolk out west. The unromantic
councilmen made him leave it beside the trail for the possible
benefit of puzzled Indians.
McCarver played Solomon in such cases but chaffed at the slow pace
of the cow column. What if someone else spotted the ideal site for
the great city of the West while he was listening to debate about
cow-pies in the drinking water? He had struck up an alliance with
the captain of the wagon train, a young lawyer named Peter
Burnett, who also fancied himself a town builder. After the train
reached Fort Hall, about ten miles from present Pocatello, the two
men agreed that McCarver should ride on ahead and try to outguess
site McCarver selected was near the confluence of the Willamette
and the Columbia. They called it Linnton in honor of Senator Lewis
Linn, the sponsor of much legislation promoting westward
immigration. McCarver deluged editors and other opinion makers
with letters booming the prospects of his townsite ("There is
growing in a field less than a mile from the place where I am
writing a turnip measuring four and one-half feet around but
neighboring Portland became the metropolis of Oregon.
Elected to the provisional legislature in May of 1844, McCarver
was chosen Speaker. His influence and prejudices were reflected in
two of the measures passed that year. One banned the distillation
or sale of ardent spirits "lest they bring withering ruin
upon the prosperity and prospects of this interesting and rising
community." The other threatened black immigrants with the
lash if they stayed in Oregon.
Giving up on Linnton, McCarver bought out a settler who had land
near the falls of the Willamette. He farmed, planted an apple
orchard, and sought political appointment. Mary Ann brought the
children west but died the following year. McCarver soon married
Julia Ann Buckalew, a twenty-two-year-old widow who had lost her
husband on the trail. She brought one child to the marriage and
bore McCarver five others. When gold was found in California,
McCarver joined the stampede south.
few days of panning on the Feather River convinced him that he
would do better at promoting than at prospecting. He persuaded
John Sutter, Jr., to put him in charge of laying out a town at the
juncture of the Sacramento and American rivers, but the elder
Sutter overruled young John and assigned the work to a lawyer who
had just arrived from Oregon. Thus McCarver found himself
displaced by his former partner, Peter Burnett, who made one
hundred thousand dollars from the arrangement and went on to
become California's first governor.
McCarver bought land in Sacramento, built a store, invested in a
river schooner (though even a river trip made him seasick),
brought his family south, and entered politics. He won election to
the town council, the territorial legislature, and the California
constitutional convention. At Monterey, where the state
constitution was drafted, McCarver wasted his influence and
oratory on a bigoted attempt to win acceptance of an article
barring free blacks from California ("They are idle in their
habits, difficult to be governed by the laws, thriftless and
uneducated"). While he was thus fruitlessly engaged, floods
ruined his Sacramento property.
McCarver gave up on California and went back to Oregon to tend his
apple orchard. It did well.
Big Red Apples" were noted for beauty and flavor. He bought a
bark, Ocean Bird, and shipped some apples to Hawaii but sold her
after discovering that going to sea was no cure for seasickness.
He invested in a river steamer but it blew up. During the Indian
War he served as commissary general of the Oregon militia, and as
spokesman for civilian opposition to General Wool.
When Isaac Stevens resigned as governor of Washington Territory,
McCarver sought the appointment but lost to a Virginia lawyer,
Fayette McMullen, who wanted the job because the territorial
legislature had the power to grant divorces. (McMullen stayed in
Washington only long enough to get a bill of divorcement.)
McCarver joined in the gold rush to the Fraser River and the
silver rush to Idaho, where he ran a general store in Bannock City
only to lose it in a fire.
Time was running out on the old boomer in 1868 when he heard that
the Northern Pacific planned to end its transcontinental on Puget
Sound. He was a grandfather now. He had left scratch marks on the
continent but had not created the city of his vision. Here was one
last great chance. Securing the promise of financial backing from
Lewis Starr and James Steel, president and cashier of the First
National Bank of Portland, he rode north alone to try to
anticipate the site of the terminus.
the map Commencement Bay, accessible to Snoqualmie and Naches
passes and offering deep water close to shore with protection
against all but north winds, looked promising. He went there
first. The reality was even better than the promise, and he did
not bother to look at other locations. Instead he rode to the
Puyallup Reservation and far into the night studied the land
office maps and talked to the government people.
They told him the head of the bay, where Milas Galliher had
started up the old Delin mill only to find the foundations so
uncertain that boards came out as wedges, afforded poor anchorage
and was silting up. The old Judson claim was high bluff. But at
Shubahlup there was deep water close to a gentle slope. The next
day McCarver went over to meet Job Carr.
Morton Matthew McCarver at sixty-one was a promoter, a salesman,
an optimist. Job Carr at fifty-five was a man of hope and good
will rather than driving ambition. McCarver was dissatisfied with
his achievements, sure that destiny had intended him to do more.
Carr thought a railroad should come to Shubahlup but had been
content to wait for others to recognize the merits of the site,
meanwhile working at the mill, or painting and papering the houses
of other settlers.
McCarver talked of the terminal city that would transform the
gentle slope into Manhattan, of capitalists ready to build a
steam-powered sawmill on Commencement Bay and run a railroad north
from Portland even before the Northern Pacific came across the
continent. Carr listened to this heady stuff, and to the role he
could play in tying together east and west of the nation that had
so nearly blown itself apart north and south. He did not hesitate.
He would not stand in the way of progress.
McCarver's company needed the Shubahlup waterfront to bring in the
railroad, he would not stand in their way. They could have all but
the five acres immediately around his cabin. The other 163 3/4
acres he agreed to sell for $1,600, of which $600 was to be cash,
the rest in land McCarver owned in Oregon City, a 100 acre plot
that Carr eventually sold for $724, making the payment actually
$1,324, or $8.08 an acre. Job retained a claim farther west which
included the Puget Gulch.
Shout hosannas to all the listening of the earth!" Anthony
wrote in his diary after his brother came up to Steilacoom with
news of the deal. "Great cause for rejoicing have I. Long
will I sing paeans of joy for this day's news. The Spring of Youth
has been found. Now will I live, aha!" Later he added, "Bully
for Shubollop. It's going to come out after all."
Howard was less euphoric: M. M. McCarver bought Father out 600
coin and 100 acres land in Oregon. . . . Bully for the company. We
may iscum talla alki [get rich byandby." He set to work
finishing the cabin on his claim.
McCarver hurried back to Portland to check with his backers before
signing any papers. When he returned to Shubahlup he brought with
him Lewis Starr, the bank president, himself no tower of financial
strength, and two friends from Oregon City, David Canfield and
They camped for a night below the Stadium Way cliff near the foot
of Seventh Street, beside an Indian burial canoe and a boulder
marked with hieroglyphs (a treasure casually buried under debris
from the grading of Pacific Avenue a few years later). Starr was
so impressed he claimed the site, using his brother's name lest he
antagonize bank clients in Portland.
McCarver filed a preemption claim on adjoining land to the west,
where Stadium High School and the Stadium Bowl were later built.
Hood and Canfield took contiguous claims on the high land behind
the Judson claim.
solitude of Shubahlup ended. The rhythm of axes striking living
wood, the screech and thud of falling timber, the clang of sledge
on wedge, the beat of hammer on nail echoed across the bay as
claimants worked on the cabins they needed for shelter and to
prove up. Tom Hood was first to finish and in June moved into a
cabin at what is now M and South Ninth.
McCarver hired Anthony Carr to build a log cabin for him on the
curve below the cliff just east of Stadium High; he called his
place Pin Hook and early in August brought his wife and their
three youngest daughters, Virginia, Bettie, and Naomi up from
Portland, to the delight of bachelors as far away as Olympia and
Once back on the scene, McCarver hired a civil engineer from
Olympia to survey the former Job Carr property, on which he
planned to create a town which he called Commencement City. Howard
and Anthony ran the lines. The survey was completed on August 13.
It was foggy that morning and to everyone's surprise a steamer
began whistling from out in the bay, where no steamer had been
Anthony, who happened to have his rifle, fired a shot to answer
each whistle. Crewmen from the Eliza Anderson used the sounds to
guide them through the fog to the shore with the first passengers
to land from a steamer on Commencement Bay. They were Mr. and Mrs.
Clinton P. Ferry, who had come to join the McCarvers, Mrs. Ferry
being one of Mrs. McCarver's daughters by her first marriage.
Territorial Governor Marshall Moore, a lawyer from Yale who had
risen to the rank of major general during the Civil War, paid a
visit soon afterwards. On leaving he asked McCarver to find him
some property. McCarver told Anthony Carr that the governor's
presence would benefit the entire community. Anthony borrowed
McCarver's beloved old gray, galloped to Olympia, and sold Moore
With some of the proceeds Anthony bought a load of sawed boards
from the Galliher mill, rafted them to Shubahlup, and started a
big frame house. He was working up nerve to propose to Josie Byrd,
the daughter of the owner of the gristmill.
Dreams were coming true and more were aborning. There were happy
rumors everywhere. "Whether construction of the Northern
Pacific Railroad is delayed longer or not," said a story in
the Seattle Intelligencer, "coming next after that in
importance is the projected railroad from Portland to Commencement
or Puyallup Bay, and the laying out of a new town on that Bay.
is of great significance, as showing the estimation in which our
country and the Sound are held by capitalists abroad; it is of
further significance in the warrant it gives of increase of
business. Backed as the originators of this new town are by
immense capital, with the charter of a railroad behind, the hope
is reasonable that an impetus will be given to business on the
Sound which will never be withdrawn."
Such talk, especially the references to the nonexistent charter
and the inflated capitalists, reflected McCarver's talent as a
promoter of empty acres. He was booming the new town with every
trick of the land-development trade. He showered friends,
acquaintances, and especially editors with effusions about the
bounties of the bay ("I can frequently with my bare hands
throw out enough smelt to supply a camp of fifty men").
contributed to out-of-town papers a history of railroading in
which he started by taking credit for originating the idea of a
transcontinental line and ended with the terminus at Commencement
plugged away even in letters to his backers ("My family say
that they have never lived in a new place they liked so well").
And he put every bit of money and energy he possessed behind his
words. He bought another 280 acres from the owners of nearby
claims. He went prospecting for minerals that would add to the
economic base of the terminus.
With Howard Carr and Dan Canfield, McCarver started up the
Puyallup Valley in late August to check out reports of iron and
coal. The rumored iron proved to be a deposit of inferior bog ore.
McCarver returned to town, but the younger men rode on.
They camped the night of September 1 on the North Fork of the
Puyallup. "Went on up the mountain 6 or 8 miles," says
Howard's journal for the next day, "when we struck a 12 foot
vein of coal and turned back. Camp on South Prairie Creek."
Nothing came of their discovery for several years, and neither
Carr nor Canfield benefited from it, but reports of a bituminous
bed up the valley boosted interest in the town.
the end of August all the land on the south side of the bay from
the waterfront to the crest of the hill had been claimed. Prices
were going up. Job Carr had received eight dollars an acre for
land that included waterfront. In August Howard sold two acres
back from the water for forty dollars, but lost the money out of
his pocket while paddling back to Shubahlup from Steilacoom. "Lost
two lots overboard from the canoe," was the way he put it.
mid-September, to everyone's delight, Philip Ritz of Walla Walla
came down on the steamer from Olympia. Ritz was a handsome and
cultivated man, a scientific farmer, a contributor of learned
letters to assorted editors, a member of a group of Washingtonians
who werevainly, it developedseeking a franchise from Congress to
build a railroad from Portland to Puget Sound. He was also thought
to be an agent for the Northern Pacific on an inspection trip.
After spending a night with McCarver, Ritz expressed enough
enthusiasm that the old boomer tried to sell him one-fourth
interest in the entire development project, on condition that Ritz
devote his full attention to its promotion. Howard Carr later rode
down to Olympia to offer to sell him forty acres.
Nothing came of either proposition, but Ritz's visit did put a new
name on the map. Ritz was enthusiastic about The Canoe and the
Saddle, a humorous account by Theodore Winthrop, scion of the
Massachusetts Winthrops, about a visit to Washington Territory in
1853. Winthrop wrote the book in 1859, but it was not published
until after he attracted considerable attention by becoming the
first Union officer killed in battle in the Civil War.
then became immensely popular. In one of his humorous efforts,
Winthrop deplored the "sibilantous gutturality" of the
Salish languages but proclaimed Tacoma melodious. He admired the
Mountain, too. "Of all the peaks from California to Fraser's
River," he said of the view from Commencement Bay, "this
one before me was royalest. Mount Regnier Christians have dubbed
it, in stupid nomenclature, perpetuating the name of somebody or
nobody. More melodiously the Siwashes call it Tacoma, a generic
name also applied to all snow peaks."
far as is known, W. H. Cushman brought the first copy of The Canoe
and The Saddle (and four other books by Winthrop) to Washington
Territory shortly after the war. Cushman settled in Olympia, and
it is probably no coincidence that a Tacoma Lodge of the Good
Templars was organized there on September 2, 1866, and a hotel
called the Tacomah House opened for business in the capital eight
During Ritz's visit to Olympia, he read Winthrop's book and was
struck by the beauty of the Indian word. While he was visiting
McCarver and Job Carr he marveled at the loveliness of the
Mountain and spoke glowingly of the aboriginal word. About a month
later, after a series of conversations involving McCarver, the
Carrs, John W. Ackerson of the Hanson, Ackerson and Co. Mill, and
McCarver's Portland partners, Lewis Starr and James Steel, there
was general agreement that Tacoma would be a better name than
Commencement City for the city they were planning.
McCarver always credited Ritz with the suggestion; Ackerson later
claimed he was first to suggest the name, having heard it from a
Puyallup whom the whites called Chief Spot. Steel's version was
that Ackerson favored naming the town after another Puyallup "chief,"
Sitwell. Job Carr had favored Eureka but switched to Tacoma after
Late in October, McCarver and his secretary C. P. Ferry were in
the offices of the First National Bank in Portland. After
discussion with his backers, the old boomer told Ferry, whose
handwriting was handsome, to cross out "Commencement City"
on the survey map that had been drawn in August, and write in "Tacoma."
This was done but McCarver did not immediately have the plat filed
with thePierce County auditor.
Anthony Carr had decided to create a separate town on his claim.
On November 30 he appeared in the auditor's office in Steilacoom
with a plat for a small community which he called "Tacoma."
Three days later General McCarver showed up with his papers, only
to find that Pierce County already had a Tacoma. So he called his
site "Tacoma City." (Five years later the Northern
Pacific platted "New Tacoma." Eventually they
The first newspaper to mention Tacoma was the Portland
Commercial on November 16, 1868, before either McCarver or Carr
had filed their plats. The Commercial spoke in terms of the new
community's threat to Portland and warned that construction of a
Tacoma and Vancouver railroad would sap the life blood of Oregon.
Seattle Intelligencer on November 23 spoke in a more friendly vein
about the new community. In a story obviously based on a letter
from McCarver, the Intelligencer declared: "The name of the
new town laid off by General McCarver and known as Commencement
City, has been changed to Tacoma after the Indian name for Mount
Rainier. It is reported to us that great progress is making in
erecting houses on the site, and the building of roads has
was almost the last friendly word from Seattle.