In 1890, Seattle was barely larger than Tacoma, with 42,000 people compared to 36,000 living in the city 35 miles to its south. But when the Klondike Gold Rush came about in 1897, Tacoma was literally asleep at the wheel, resting on its rail links, and initially taking little interest in outfitting prospectors heading north.
There are many theories as to why these two cities, which share Puget Sound, grew in such dramatically directions. Seattle became the much larger international seaport, while Tacoma a grittier military town. But unlike Portland, Tacoma was never larger than Seattle, and much of its promise was tied to the single event of being selected over Seattle for the western terminus of the Northern Pacific Railroad, which reached Tacoma in 1887. This was the event that pushed its 1890 population close to Seattle’s.
Tacoma called itself the City of Destiny, but Seattle acted on such ambitions. It didn’t randomly become the launching point for miners during the late 1890s Klondike Gold Rush, it advertised itself heavily in eastern and midwestern newspapers as such, actively drawing visitors in. Tacoma, meanwhile, viewed this behavior as ostentatious and risky, and grew just 4% in the 1890s while Seattle nearly doubled.
Tacoma also caused problems for itself by being more hostile to outsiders than Seattle. While few cities welcomed non-Protestant immigrants with open arms, Tacoma kicked out its entire Chinese population and burned down their homes in the mid-1880s, reducing the growth impact of the coming railroad. While expelling non-Protestants didn’t hurt urban growth in the 1600s, it had a big impact in the late 1800s. The city was later so embarrassed by this event, it constructed a Chinese Reconciliation Park, but it never undid the impact this had on sending future waves of Asian immigrants to Seattle, Portland, and elsewhere on the Pacific Coast.
But trains and immigrants are only part of the story. Seattle always had a big advantage over Tacoma because of its lakes. Lake Washington wasn’t connected to Puget Sound until 1916, but Lake Union played an important role in the city’s development. It provided for additional access to Puget Sound for residents away from the Elliot Bay shoreline, and the water link between the Lake and the Sound led to the creation of Ballard, a town of Scandinavian immigrants that Seattle annexed in 1907.
Lake Union forced Seattle to innovate further because it reduced available land for development within the city’s isthmus, and forced a massive reduction in the height of the hills between it and downtown in order to have sufficient space for new homes and buildings. This land was also needed a mile away to fill in tidelands that were causing issues for the port. And very importantly, Bill Boeing, a Detroit native, started his aviation company flying seaplanes on Lake Union, where many still takeoff and land today.
After the Gold Rush, Seattle, like San Francisco, went on to building businesses based off of its experience serving miners and immigrants. San Francisco had Levi’s, and the Bank of Italy (later Bank of America) while Scandinavian immigrant John Nordstrom started his shoe store in Seattle in 1901, and Eddie Bauer started his clothing store in the city in 1920.
By 1930, Seattle was more than three times the size of Tacoma, and was growing both as a shipping port, a retail center, and the early center for aviation. Seattle has also proved itself to be a highly adaptable city, much like its original trading partner in San Francisco, replacing lost manufacturing jobs with new ones in the software and consumer goods industries. Tacoma has sustained itself as a military town, built around McChord Air Force Base, and actively competes with Seattle today for port traffic. But ultimately, the willingness to take risks, to welcome outsiders, and to take advantage of an urban lake proved far more important than a continental rail terminus.