All Over The Map: Hidden history in names of Tacoma’s waterways

Apr 15, 2022, 10:24 AM | Updated: Oct 25, 2022, 4:21 pm

Detail of a Tacoma nautical chart from 1948 shows the names of waterways in the industrial portion of Commencement Bay; some names have changed - City Waterway becam Foss Waterway, for example - but most remain. (NOAA Archives) Detail from 1888 nautical chart of barely altered Commencement Bay, showing "The Boot" - future site of St. Paul and Tacoma Lumber Company, and St. Paul Waterway. (NOAA Archives)

In Tacoma’s Commencement Bay, the names applied to industrial waterways over the past 130 years or so reveal a dizzying number of layers of Northwest history.

Through Elliott Bay in Seattle, there are just two industrial waterways where the mouth of the Duwamish River splits into narrow channels around Harbor Island. One is called the East Waterway, and the other? Yes, that’s right – the West Waterway.

Long before Harbor Island was built from Seattle’s regrades — and before European settlers arrived around 1850 — the Duwamish River had a broad natural estuary which had changed only gradually over thousands of years. The river channel fluctuated naturally over time and there were all kinds of curves and meanders – and places like Kellogg Island – throughout the Duwamish Valley.

In 19th century Tacoma on Commencement Bay – named in 1841 by the U.S. Navy’s Wilkes Expedition, because that was where they “commenced” their survey – the area around the mouth of the Puyallup River looked very similar. However, instead of creating two dedicated river channels built around an artificial island, the Puyallup estuary ultimately became home to a series of industrial waterways – mapped out, dredged, and named beginning around 1890.

Though some have only been changed recently, the resulting mix of waterway names dating back to Tacoma’s earliest days reflects eclectic layers of history and historic influences.

Here are Commencement Bay waterway names from southwest to northeast:

Thea Foss Waterway

Foss Waterway is probably the best known waterway in Tacoma. It’s named for Foss Maritime founder Thea Foss. But that name only dates to the Foss centennial and the state centennial which were both in 1989. When it was first established in the 1890s in what was likely once the main channel of the Puyallup River, it was called, simply, City Waterway.

Middle Waterway

In his 1989 book Origins of Pierce County Place Names, author Gary Fuller Reese wrote:

“The Middle Waterway is half-way between the City Waterway and the Puyallup Waterway in the Tacoma Tideflats. The Puyallup River once ran west of the waterway but has been rechanneled to discharge into Commencement Bay through the Puyallup Waterway.”

A search through newspaper archives indicates that creation (and naming) of the Middle Waterway was first proposed in May 1901.

St. Paul Waterway

St. Paul Waterway is named for the Saint Paul and Tacoma Lumber Company, which was incorporated in the late 1880s and built a mill on “The Boot” – as a patch of dryland in the Tacoma tideflats was known (and which was the inspiration for legendary historian Murray Morgan’s book, The Mill On The Boot). The mill was sold to St. Regis Paper Company around 1930 and then to Simpson Lumber around 1950 – and, more recently, to a company called WestRock, but the St. Paul name remains indelibly on the waterway.

Puyallup Waterway

Puyallup Waterway is the industrialized and artificially permanent channel of the once-wild Puyallup River. Regarding the meaning of the word “Puyallup,” Amber Hayward, Program Director of the Puyallup Tribal Language Program, said in an email that Puyallup Tribe oral histories include “many quotes referencing our people as ‘the generous and welcoming people.’”

Hayward also provided the literal translation from Lushootseed, the indigenous language:

puyaləp – ‘bend at the bottom’

Linguistic breakdown:

puy      -aləp

bend    bottom

spuyaləpabš – ‘people at the bend at the bottom’

Before the Puyallup River was rechanneled and industrialized, the natural river – not unlike the Duwamish – curved around a lot. Thus, Puyallup means “bend at the bottom” and the Puyallup Tribe are the “people at the bend at the bottom.”

Milwaukee Waterway

The Milwaukee Waterway was named around 1907 before it even existed. That was when the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad first planned a major railyard and port facility in Tacoma, their western terminus. The facility opened for business on July 1, 1909 and was in operation until the 1980s after the Milwaukee Road had earlier hit a patch of financial distress prior to ultimately shutting down for good. Port of Tacoma bought the land and filled in much of it to create a cargo facility, but the Milwaukee name remains.

Sitcum Waterway

The name Sitcum Avenue was first applied to a street that was surveyed in 1895, not far from Commencement Bay, along the Pierce-King county line. It’s likely that this is where the waterway got its name. Half of the roadway, which apparently was never built, would have been in each county, with the county boundary running down the centerline. Newspaper accounts at the time said Sitcum was “an Indian name denoting dividing line.”

Specifically, the word is from Chinuk Wawa, a trading language in use across wide areas of the Northwest beginning in the 19th century (which has often been called “Chinook Jargon”).

“[S]itkum (Sitcum) is originally from the Chinookan language, meaning half, part of, fraction,” wrote Dr. Janne Underriner, Associate Professor of Research at the Northwest Indian Language Institute in Eugene, Oregon, in an email. She suggested contacting Dr. Henry Zenk, an expert on Chinuk Wawa with the Confederated Tribes of Grande Ronde.

“I would guess that in this context the name may refer to a place in between or halfway or part-way from one place to another,” Dr. Zenk wrote. “In our Chinuk Wawa language programs at the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, Oregon, we spell the word ‘sitkum,’ with the dictionary definition: 1) part of; 2) half. As Janne says, the word is originally from the Chinookan family of tribal languages, where it is recorded as šítkum with the usual meaning ‘half.’”

This is, perhaps, where the notion of “dividing line” came from for the roadway proposed in 1895. And while “Sitcum” looks and sounds similar to the surname “Satiacum,” Amber Hayward says there’s no connection.

“The Satiacum name is an ancestral Lushootseed name that does not share the same meaning as the Chinook Wawa word for Sitcum,” Hayward wrote.

Blair Waterway

Blair Waterway was formerly known as Wapato Waterway – for Wapato Creek which flows into it – but it was also known, for a time, as Port Industrial Waterway.

Its current name is in honor of Port of Tacoma Commissioner A.E. “Archie” Blair. Blair was an attorney and civic leader involved in all kinds of Pierce County area projects from the 1930s to through the 1960s. While serving as Port Commissioner, was also a big proponent of maintaining and expanding the waterways of Commencement Bay.

Blair took ill for several months in late 1969. The waterway was renamed for him by vote of the Port Commission on November 5, 1969. Blair died four days later, but apparently had been told about the renaming before he passed away.

Hylebos Waterway

Creating Hylebos Waterway – pronounced “HIGH-luh-boce” – from the natural bed of Hylebos Creek was first proposed in 1893 by James Wintermute, who also proposed creating Puyallup Waterway (see above) and Gallagher Gulch Waterway (which apparently was never built).

The early 1890s was the prime era when much of the industrial waterfront of Commencement Bay was taking shape. The name for the creek and the waterway comes from Father Peter Francis Hylebos, a Catholic priest from Belgium who came to Washington Territory in 1870; Father Hylebos died of influenza during the so-called Spanish Flu pandemic in November 1918.

He also led the effort to build the former St. Georges Indian Boarding School in the late 1880s, which was located at what’s now Gethsemane Cemetery in Federal Way (which has its disturbing own history worthy of further exploration). The creek flowing past the school construction site was named for Father Hylebos by surveyors. Incidentally, in a 1988 column in The News Tribune, writer C.R. Roberts reported that when Father Hylebos’ relatives from Belgium visited Tacoma in the 1980s, they pronounced their name “HEE-luh-boce.”

Amber Hayward says that the Lushootseed place name for Hylebos Creek is: x̌ax̌ƛ’ – ‘brushy’

Naturalist David B. Williams, who last year published a book about Puget Sound called Homewaters, says that what took place in Tacoma in the late 19th century was not an exception.

“As happened throughout Puget Sound, Tacomites heavily modified their port by converting what had been the dynamic Puyallup River delta to an industrialized hardscape,” Williams wrote in an email. “The result: a change from an ecosystem rich in life and diversity, to one of concrete, steel, and wood, home to few species. In addition, the change destroyed an area that had been culturally important and a source of food to Native people for thousands of years.”

“The loss of resiliency is another often overlooked aspect in the industrialization of river deltas,” Williams continued. “Because deltas and their association wetlands are protean places, they are adapted to change brought about by large scale events, such as earthquakes, tsunamis, and sea level rise. And, finally, the docks, piers, and wharves, which required hundreds, if not thousands, of pilings to support the structures, have led to damaging pollutants from the creosote and other toxins used to treat the wood.”

Several sites on Commencement Bay have undergone Superfund cleanup, and much more work remains. Those long-ago industrial changes can ultimately be mitigated or even reversed – and, as recent developments clearly show, place-names are not set in stone either.

But those current and former names – and maybe future names, too – offer an abstract glimpse back into history if you take the time to look and think. Pairing those stories and those names with an in-person visit is a priceless opportunity to get to know and understand the Puyallup River and Commencement Bay, and the same is true for any part of the Northwest we all care about.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea or a question about Northwest history, please email Feliks here.

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All Over The Map: Hidden history in names of Tacoma’s waterways