All Over The Map: Explore layers of history at Tacoma’s Swan Creek Park

Apr 29, 2022, 7:23 AM | Updated: Oct 25, 2022, 4:21 pm

The wartime housing project Salishan, as it appears on a 1961 topographic map revised in 1968. (USGS Archives) Swan Creek, as it appears on a 1944 topographic map. (USGS Archives) Exploring Swan Creek Park turns up the occasional utility pole left over from the old Salishan wartime housing project. (MetroParks Tacoma) Old sidewalks and other artifacts from the wartime housing development Salishan still remain in Swan Creek Park. (MetroParks Tacoma) Drawing of the original Lister Elementary, built for kids of defense workers at sprawling Salishan development at what's now Swan Creek Park in Tacoma. (Tacoma Public Library)
Salishan, a housing development originally built for defense workers and their families, under construction in 1943 in Tacoma. (Tacoma Public Library)

If you visit Swan Creek Park in Tacoma, says Claire Keller-Scholz of MetroParks Tacoma, you’re likely to stumble across some surprising artifacts, some dating to World War II.

“There are some telephone poles that are still there,” Keller-Scholz told KIRO Newsradio. “There are some concrete steps leading up to what had been homes. The homes are long gone, but you might be able to see some of the steps there. Even some of the sidewalk is also still there from when it was a part of the neighborhood.”

And this weekend is a particularly good time to visit the old “neighborhood” hidden within the 373-acre park.

MetroParks invites community members to celebrate a number of recent improvements to Swan Creek Park with a big public event on Saturday, April 30 from 10:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. The event will feature free food, guided nature walks, free bike rides, and other activities for all ages. It all happens next to the picnic shelter adjacent to Lister Elementary.

History is underfoot or nearby almost everywhere you look in and around Swan Creek Park, which was first envisioned as early as the 1950s and was first developed in the 1960s.

How about Lister Elementary, for instance? The school, which has been rebuilt since it originally opened more than 70 years ago, is named for two Listers: Alfred Lister, a City of Tacoma and Tacoma School District official, and his brother Ernest Lister. Ernest was no slouch; he was a Tacoma City Councilmember and was then elected governor of the Evergreen State. Governor Lister, history know-it-alls will tell you, died in office in June 1919, possibly from the Spanish Flu, and he has a “backwards town” named for him near Bremerton.

Swan Creek Park is named for Swan Creek, of course, which runs through the park. Claire Keller-Scholz has done a fair amount of research and she says that the creek name may come from three potential sources. The first is what that area was called before European Americans and other settlers arrived. In an email, Keller-Scholz wrote that the word in the Indigenous language Lushootseed that was applied to the area is “Bəsxʷuqid, meaning ‘A place that has swans.’”

However, Keller-Scholz says that in the late 19th century there was also a man from the Puyallup Tribe whose anglicized name was John Swan, and he and his wife lived on land that’s now part of Swan Creek Park. It’s not clear if John Swan’s anglicized name was inspired by the creek or if he came by that name some other way. “John Swan’s Puyallup name was Cai-zicht-cannum, and his wife was Jane Sasticum Swan,” wrote Keller-Scholz.

To further deepen the possibilities of name origins for Swan Creek, Keller-Scholz says there was a European-American settler – a white guy – living in the Tacoma area around the turn of the 20th century who was also named John Swan.

The land at what’s now Swan Creek Park was home to the Indigenous Puyallup people since time immemorial, and Claire Keller-Scholz says that MetroParks works closely with the Puyallup Tribe to tell the full story of Swan Creek Park and to inform projects such as creating interpretive signage.

“We’ve been really fortunate to be able to build on the work that’s already been done, especially in terms of our relationship with the Puyallup Tribe,” Keller-Scholz said.

When the first Puyallup Indian Reservation was created around 1860 – after the convoluted treaty process and violent Treaty War – it encompassed Swan Creek. But those original boundaries were fluid, and somewhere along the line – it’s not exactly clear when or how – the land became privately owned.

Fast forward about 40 years, and the source of those telephone poles and other remaining neighborhood artifacts began taking shape not long after the U.S. entered World War II following Pearl Harbor.

That was when much of what’s now Swan Creek Park was chosen as the site of a wartime housing development, with multiple parcels purchased from dozens of private owners by the Tacoma Housing Authority. From around 1940 as America prepared to fight by ramping up production of ships, planes, and other materiel, housing was hard to find for people moving to the Northwest from all over the country for jobs at shipyards on Commencement Bay and other defense-related work in the area. The first 10 families moved into the brand-new development 79 years ago this Sunday – May 1, 1943 – and ultimately 2,000 homes were built there, housing 6,700 residents.

The homes, along with amenities such as a community recreation center, were known while they were being planned as the “Portland Avenue Defense Housing Project.”

Fortunately, in 1942 a librarian named Warren Perry at what’s now the University of Puget Sound suggested calling the development “Salishan” to honor the Coast Salish people of the Northwest. According to the Burke Museum, “The term ‘Coast Salish’ refers to a language family, including two dozen distinct languages and many dialects, and is used to indicate the cultural group of indigenous peoples who speak or spoke these languages.”

Not much is known about librarian Warren Perry, but his suggestion – and the fact it was accepted by the Tacoma Housing Authority – both seem pretty far ahead of their time for 1942.

It’s also worth noting that the word “Salishan” is pronounced a few different ways. To describe the language family which includes Indigenous languages spoken in much of the Northwest, it would be pronounced “SAY-lishun” (with slight emphasis on the first syllable). For the housing development near Swan Creek Park, it’s mostly heard as “sali-shan” or sometimes “sally-shan” (with equal emphasis on both syllables).

However you say it, Salishan was completely re-developed on land adjacent to Swan Creek Park in 2001. Where those old houses – many originally built for wartime workers – had stood for nearly 60 years is now part of the park. The old roadways, sidewalks, and staircases – as well as the occasional telephone pole – remain as inadvertent silent monuments to the civilian workers and those who built homes for them and their families – all of whom were vital to Allied victory nearly 80 years ago.

IF YOU GO: The event at Swan Lake Park is Saturday, April 30, 2022, from 10:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. and is free to the public.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News and read more from him here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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All Over The Map: Explore layers of history at Tacoma’s Swan Creek Park