Our History

Posted: Nov 17, 2017


Tacoma Historical Society is a fairly young organization, founded in 1990. Our early focus was on educational opportunities via community forums and publications. 1993 brought the first Historic Homes of Tacoma Tour, which has become a community institution. In 2011 we began digitizing and cataloging our growing collection of artifacts, documents, and photos. In March 2014 we opened a museum in the historic Provident Building at 919 Pacific Avenue, fulfilling a decades-long vision. This location provides a safe, stable environment for collection items, as well as improved community access to exhibits and activities.

The new location has also helped us to retain and recruit a team of dedicated volunteers. A solid financial footing has also allowed for the hiring of paid staff. THS has established our ability to present newsworthy exhibits and will continue to promote the unique history of the city of Tacoma.

Beginnings: 1990-2009

The history of the city of Tacoma has been important to many people throughout the years since its establishment as a European-American settlement in the 1850’s. Writers with significant dedication and talent – people like Herbert Hunt, Winnifred Olsen and Murray Morgan – have labored long hours, recording the accounts and observations of Tacoma’s early residents, as well as capturing the oral histories of the native people who had called Tacoma home long before the city took shape. The Tacoma Historical Society has its roots in the work of these dedicated people.

The Society began to take shape as early as 1989, but was formally established in 1990. The Washington State Historical Society was planning to build a new facility on Pacific Ave. Tacoma historians and history buffs, realizing that Tacoma-centric artifacts would not figure prominently in plans for the new museum, formed the Society out of the need for a repository that would help Tacoma tell its story to visitors and future generations.

Though the establishment of a Museum of Tacoma History has long been a goal for the Tacoma Historical Society, the organization focused mainly on educational opportunities during its early years. Monthly forums featured speakers who focused on a wide variety of topics – all in an effort to stir excitement in the community for the many stories that were yet untold about Tacoma – its  early years through the 20th century to present-day.

In 1993, the Society held its first “Historic Homes of Tacoma” tour as a fundraiser for the future museum. That event continues today, raising critical funds to support the Society's operations. The tour enlists willing homeowners who open their homes to the visiting public for two days in May. Many who attend find inspiration for their own renovation and/or decorating projects.

In 2006, the Society took a big step toward the establishment of the long-sought museum when they opened their Exhibit Center at 747 Broadway. The Exhibit Center features the 500 square-foot Allen C. Mason Exhibit Gallery and a gift shop with an excellent selection of books on the history of the city. Exhibits in the Gallery are featured for a few months at a time. Members of the Society are actively involved in planning, researching and curating the exhibits.

In 2007, Tacoma Historical Society hosted its premier live auction fundraiser. It was held at the Landmark Convention Center on St. Helens Ave. The theme was “Going, Going, SAVED!”, and featured Architect Jim Merritt, speaking on “Elks Temple: Past & Potential”. The auction items were all about Tacoma history – some were even authentic artifacts! This inaugural event earned the Society in excess of $13,000, which was used to pay facilities costs for the Exhibit Center.

In 2008, the Society took another step toward their goal. The first Director, Mary Bowlby, was hired in January. The Director works closely with the organization’s officers and its board to continue its strategic growth. Regrettably, in late 2009 financial constraints led the board to eliminate the director’s position and close the Downtown Exhibit Center. However, the society reorganized the Cedar Street storage facility to serve as a Research Center, providing access to the Society’s large collection of bound newspapers.

Charter Members

In the Spring of 2018, we came across a 1990 list of Tacoma Historical Society's charter members. Our list may be incomplete, so if you know of other names which should be added to this list, please let us know.

Winton Read
Robert & Charlotte Medlock
William & Patricia Jylha
Robin & Judith Kipp
Brian & Donna Kamens
Phyllis Harrison
P.C. Central Labor Council, AFL-CIO
Gary Reese
Ceclia Carpenter
Paul & Margaret Raymond
Marian Rice
Wilma Snyder
Gloria Smullyan
Sally Kapphahn
Mr. & Mrs. Joseph Carman III
Donald & Muriel McKay
Chester Grimstead
John Butler
Mr. & Mrs. George Williams
Robert & Audrey Clawson
Ron Karabaich
Phil Lelli
T.R. "Tiny" Thronson
Dr. Ron Magden
Barbara Fox
Jim Fredrickson
Dr. Ella Williams
Judy Wright
Fred Haley
Donald Sleep
Karen Madden
Robert & Betty Tschida
Gloria Brewster
Roger Edwards
Mildred Baker
Mrs. A.L. Sienko
Jing Chuan Ling
Ralph Dickman II

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