The Tacoma Sun


Over Tacoma Then & Now: South Tacoma Railyards

By Morgan Alexander

In this series, the Sun explores the city from a thousand feet up. Drawing inspiration from a combination of the cheesy public television “Over..” series, Paul Dorpat’s long running Now & Then column in the Seattle Times, and the newly added Aerial Photography layer of the City of Tacoma’s govME mapping website, we look at different landmarks and neighborhoods to see how land use decisions have impacted our built environment.

This week: The South Tacoma Railyards

This photo from 1931, we see the old streetcar line from the previous Over Tacoma Then & Now: Trolley Court meandering vertically along the left hand side – on what is now Tyler Street – making its way from downtown to the tourist beachfront destination of Steilacoom. In the lower right-hand corner is the “Old” Tacoma Cemetery. Even by this early date, the railyards have been used for repairing trains for 40 years. Notice the smooth dark patch along the left hand side of the railyards. This is a remnant pond from earlier days when the entire area was swamp land.


This 1950 photo must have been taken during a rain spell as the pond has grown in size. The land to the right of the pond has been cleared to make way for the South Tacoma Airport which operated from 1936 to 1973. The city grid to the right above the cemetery continues to shape up as residential and commercial properties get developed.


By the time this 1973 photo was, the airport was closing. The following year found Burlington Northern Railroad closing operations. Most of the original structures, some dating to the 1890s, were demolished by 1976. Then, in the early 80s, the railyards were added to the national list of Superfund sites.

The EPA reported, “During the past 100 years, the site has been used for a variety of industrial and disposal activities. Historical industrial activities involved the manufacture and repair of railroad cars and equipment, the operation of a brass and iron wheel foundry, the maintenance of an airport runway, refueling depot and repair facility, and the construction and operation of an electric and water utility company. Large parts of the airport were used as dump sites for industrial and construction materials. Swamp and lakebed areas of the site were filled with refuse and dirt, including slag and sand from the foundry operations and dirt from the utility building foundation. Early investigations of the site suggested that past industrial and disposal activities have contributed to the contamination of soil, groundwater, surface water, and sediments at the site.”

In 1986, Burlington Northern Railroad was required to conduct an initial remedial investigation of the site. A more intensive investigation of the site was conducted by State and Federal experts from February 1991 through August 1992. In November of 1992, the EPA notified the community to avoid recreational use of the site.


Today, with the site all cleaned up and ready to go, Burlington Northern Railroad wants to put the land back in use by developing five warehouse buildings totaling approximately 1,900,000 square feet. This time though, it looks like it will be diesel semi-trucks and not trains providing the transportation.


More background:
The natural resource use associated with the South Tacoma Field site is groundwater production primarily for the city of Tacoma. Some of the wells in this field are high capacity with the potential of producing flows in excess of 3,000 gallons per minute. To the northwest, the towns of Fircrest and University Place have six production wells within 8,000 to 10,000 feet of the site. These production wells are considered upgradient of the site. Within one mile of the South Tacoma Field site, 41 residential wells also access local groundwater for domestic purposes. The nearest residential well is about 2,500 feet west of the site on South Mullen Street.

Potentially, the site can pose a public health hazard through exposure to groundwater and subsurface soil contaminants that could cause adverse health effects. Industrial development of the site may result in future exposure by workers to groundwater contaminants, should private supply wells access the shallow aquifer in areas of contamination. Additionally, should construction/excavation activities uncover contaminated subsurface soils, workers as well as recreationalists/trespassers may be exposed.

During the remedial investigation, groundwater contamination was detected in
off-site background and upgradient wells; however, the actual extent of contamination is not known. Should new public and private (residential and industrial) supply wells be installed accessing the contaminated aquifer, workers and residents could be exposed to groundwater contaminants. Exposure of workers and residents could also occur should migration of groundwater contamination impact existing public and private supply wells. Elevated concentrations of inorganic chemicals were detected in background and upgradient wells. Aluminum, chromium, cobalt, cooper, iron, lead, sodium, and vanadium detected in background wells at concentrations exceeding the range of inorganic concentrations naturally occurring in groundwater.

The initial comparison of lung cancer incidence rates between the two populations showed a higher than expected rate in residents living near the site. To determine if this higher rate was unique for the three census tracts, or caused by some other factor, it was compared to the rate for the entire Pierce County population for 1980 through 1990. This comparison revealed that the lung cancer incidence rates for residents of the three census tracts and residents of the entire county were similar. The incidence rate of lung cancer in Pierce County ranks fourth highest of 17 regions for which data are available in Washington State. The higher rate of lung cancer in the resident population when compared to the 13 northwest Washington counties population is most likely the result of the higher overall rate seen in Pierce County.

source: Department of Health and Human Services, PUBLIC HEALTH ASSESSMENT

Also, catch the related post at

published April 21st, 2008

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Dave // Apr 21, 2008 at 1:27 pm

    I think the city needs to punch 38th St across the field before letting the development go forward. Oh, and I might add… University Place should pick up the tab.

  • 2 Mofo from the Hood // Apr 22, 2008 at 12:53 am

    For all the good that has come out of Tacoma, this site along with the Foss Waterway and the former Ruston smelter formed a toxic triangle.

    Of the three sites, all which were developed for commercial use and offered workers an income sufficient to raise a family, only the former Northern Pacific/Burlington Northern shops site, which is still BNSF owned, will redevelop for commercial use and once again offer a center to benefit workers seeking earnings with potential.

    I think the site redevelopment primarily as commercial use makes sense. Displaced good paying railroad jobs will be replaced with good paying jobs.

    Without good paying jobs and an increasing local demand for housing, how could anyone expect successful redevelopment of the other two sides of the toxic triangle, Foss Waterway and the Ruston smelter site? They’re both former commercial sites redeveloping primarily residential, strange as that might be, and that raises a stranger question. If former centers of employment are increasingly displaced by residential centers, how should anyone expect to pay to live on the Foss or in Ruston…or anywhere in Tacoma?

  • 3 marco // Apr 24, 2008 at 7:28 pm

    Do any of our famed green city council members even take the bus to their council meetings? It is about time they live by what they preach!

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