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Swan Creek History

Local Native Americans used Swan Creek and the surrounding property for hunting and holding councils up until the mid-19th century. At one time the land was a part of the Puyallup Reservation.

In 1886, the reservation system ended and the Puyallup tribe's property was divided among tribal members.  John Swan was given title to the land along the creek thus lending his name to the creek and surrounding neighborhood for future generations. Over time Swan sold off the property to various buyers. Many of these new owners logged the ravine for the large Western Red Cedar growing there. Evidence of this early logging can still be seen in the Swan Creek canyon.

Another major impact on the Swan Creek area is the gravel quarries established on the east side of the canyon in the 20th century – Tucci, Woodworth, Lige Dickson and Pierce County. The mining activities have left their mark on the canyon – environmental damage, concrete gravel washing structures and utility pipelines.

In 1937, Congress passed the United States Housing Act which provided for the creation of local public housing authorities to provide "decent, safe, and sanitary dwellings for families" and to replace slums using Federal funds. The construction of the new housing provided employment and spurred the moribund construction industry.

On August 16, 1940, the Tacoma City Council created the Tacoma Housing Authority (THA) to implement the Housing Act, but a year later, the five-member board determined that there was no need in Tacoma for low-rent housing. The Housing Authority commissioners did recommend construction of housing for military personnel and war workers. By the summer of 1941, the U.S. was building up its defenses in anticipation of World War II. Thousands were already moving into Tacoma to work at McChord Field, the Mount Rainier Ordnance Depot, Fort Lewis, and in Commencement Bay shipyards. Rents skyrocketed as workers and military families arrived in the area.

In May 1942, the Tacoma Housing Authority accepted the Public Housing Administration commission to build 2,000 units for war workers. The planners looked for a location south of Commencement Bay in order to shift commute traffic away from the 11th Street Bridge and downtown. The first site chosen was on a hill above the Hylebos Waterway, but a property on Portland Avenue, already served by utilities, promised to be $120,000 cheaper to construct. Pierce County and approximately 30 private land owners sold to the government 465 acres east of Portland Avenue from East 38th Street to East 56th Street. This new housing development was to be named Salishan, to honor the area's Native American heritage.

Even before construction began, the THA was notified that funding for the project was not going to be adequate to build 2,000 permanent units. The THA negotiated with the Public Housing Administration resulting in the construction of 1,600 permanent housing units and 400 temporary housing units on the site. (Reports differ on the number of housing units actually constructed. Some reports list 1,600 permanent homes and others list 1,200 permanent homes. All agree that 400 temporary homes were constructed.) The temporary homes were to be torn down at the war's end. Salishan was designed to be a functional neighborhood, not just a temporary living space for war workers.

Unfortunately, due to restrictions on building materials during the war, many of the homes were built of sub-standard materials. In addition, the telephone company was prohibited by the War Production Board from using "any cable or critical materials in connecting new telephone service." No phones were installed in the units themselves. Instead, several outdoor telephone booths were installed throughout the neighborhood. Delays to critical elements of the project, such as sewer installation, threatened the timely completion of the project.

The first ten families moved into the new Salishan neighborhood on May 1, 1943 with the official dedication of the site occurring on February 20, 1944.

As families with young children moved into Salishan, they began to tax the capacity of nearby Roosevelt, Sheridan and McKinley Elementary Schools. The federal government paid for the construction of an eight-room school at East 50th Street and Sumner Avenue. Families moving into Salishan continued to boost the number of students there by about 30 children per week. By 1948, building capacity was at 200%. Students were split into morning and afternoon shifts. The School Board began using nearby housing units for additional classrooms.

In August 1948 the School District purchased 5½ acres near the center of Salishan for the construction of a new, larger elementary school. On January 19, 1950, two weeks before the new Lister Elementary School was scheduled to open, a fire raced through the structure destroying it. The ruins were quickly cleaned up and reconstruction begun. The new school was dedicated in October 1950. It was Tacoma's largest elementary school at the time. At the dedication Alfred Lister, who had served as the school district's secretary and business manager for 22 years, and his brother Ernest Lister, who served on the Tacoma City Council and as the state governor for seven years, were honored.

The old Salishan Elementary School building was converted to the Crippled Children's School in 1953. The school originally housed in the basement of the First Congregational Church at 211 South J Street, provided speech, physical and occupational therapists and teachers for primary and upper grade children with disabilities. The school closed in 1963 and the students were moved to specially constructed classrooms in the new Birney, Steward and Truman schools. In 1972, the school district deeded the property to Metro Parks Tacoma for inclusion in Swan Creek Park.

Following the end of WWII, veterans and military families continued to reside in Salishan housing.  By 1950 6,700 people lived in Salishan.

On May 24, 1951 the Tacoma City Council voted to convert 900 of the 1,600 housing units to low-income housing and demolish the rest of the houses. (The area of the demolished housing still contains the roads where the homes once stood and is part of Swan Creek Park.)

In 1956 the Park District received 52 acres of Salishan property from the Tacoma Housing Authority to be utilized in future park development.

1960 – City of Tacoma Public Works Department proposes using Swan Creek canyon area as a sanitary landfill. Citizens objected but it took years before the city dropped the proposal.

In the late 1950s and 1960s a citizens group called the Swan Creek Conservation and Development Committee formed. They were very interested in developing the area into a park. Public support grew and culminated with the voters of Tacoma passing a ballot issue to purchase lands in the Swan Creek area for a park. 

1965 – Pierce County Commissioners and Park Board agreed that the county and park district would jointly plan, acquire, develop and administer the proposed project with the assistance of the Swan Creek Committee and the Nature Conservancy.

February 16, 1965 – City of Tacoma and Park District are working together to seek state and federal aid to purchase Swan Creek property. The Land and Water Conservation Fund Act of 1963 made some $60 million available annually for a 50/50 matching fund program.

November 2, 1965 – Voters approved Metro Parks' request for funds for purchase Swan Creek property, including the 53 acres in the proposed Swan Creek Recreation area.

December 1965 – The $1.8 million approved by voters on the November 2nd election is not available until 1967 so the Park Board applied for special state and federal funds to allow for purchase of the land from the State Inter-Agency Committee which administers federal money applications for parks and the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation which passes on land and water conservation funds.

Park Board Meeting Minutes (PBMM): March 14, 1966 – Inter-Agency Committee approved the Park District's application for matching funds to acquire property in the Swan Creek Canyon area in the amount of $38,000.

PBMM: May 24, 1966 – Park Board voted to ask for a 90 day extension to further consider the purchase of 89 acres of land at Salishan. The property is being offered for sale by the Federal Housing Authority.

In 1966, 152 acres were purchased with funds from an ICOR grant. (Walter and Anna Sobba, Darwin and Janet Marlatt, and Canusa Development Co. properties)

June 10, 1968 – It was announced that HUD has approved the application for 50% matching funds in the amount of $38,292.00 for the acquisition of 91 acres abutting Swan Creek in Salishan.

July 21, 1968 – "Swan Creek Canyon will be opened to the public probably within 10 years," park planners said. The plan included natural woodland trails, picnic facilities, recreational area, interpretive center on the 40 acre area near the lower end of the canyon and the northern most entrances, and a large playground and recreation park constructed to serve the Salishan area. Joint city/county development was planned for the 30 acre park near the three mile long wooded canyon. A small dam would provide an ideal swimming facility near the interpretive center. Even an 18-hole golf course in the areas above the canyon with views of Mount Rainier and the Olympics was suggested.

PBMM: October 7, 1968 – Park Board discusses damage at Swan Creek with Lige Dickson Mining.
(1969, '71, '77 and'78 – The adjacent mining operations caused landslides and significant erosion to MPT's Swan Creek property. MPT sought help from the City Attorney's Office to remediate the problem and force the mining companies to alter their operations.)

PBMM: February 10, 1969 – Tucci and Sons requested a use permit to establish gravel mining operation in vicinity of East 40th abutting Swan Creek. The Park Board opposed the permit unless protective easements were added to protect the area's natural features.

1971 – Pierce County filed plans to mine the Swan Creek canyon but citizens objected and the plan was dropped.

1972 - Property acquired from Tacoma School District

1973 – Herman and Charlotte Miller property acquired

1976 – Pierce County approved the Pierce County Comprehensive Park and Recreation System Plan which called for preservation of the canyon area. That same year water pollution problems associated with the mining operations resulted in the construction of a pit water holding system to contain water used to wash the gravel.

PBMM: October 4, 1976 – Citizens request varied recreational facilities at Swan Creek. The Board asked for an Advisory Council to present ideas as a detailed development plan has not been developed.

PBMM: October 25, 1976 – Mary Haire gave the Board a report on recent developments in and around Swan Creek canyon. Gravel pit owners are endangering the environmental balance. She asked the Board to help assure compliance with state environmental protection regulations.

1977 – The pit water holding system failed during heavy rains which resulted in unclean water entering the creek and killing many fish that were part of the Puyallup Tribe's fish habitat restoration efforts. (Swan Creek's salmon run, once nearly non-existent had been reestablished through state and Puyallup Tribe enhancement programs.)

PBMM: February 8, 1977 – Board authorized trail repair in the canyon by the Sierra Club and Audubon Society personnel under Haire's direction and park staff supervision.

1978 – The situation which caused the wash out in 1977 was remedied after negotiation with Mr. Dickson. Holding ponds were created and rip-rap was installed at the point of water discharge into the creeks. An understanding was reached with Lige Dickson and the MPD that any damage to Swan Creek and MPD properties would be corrected by Lige Dickson at their expense.

PBMM: May 8, 1978 – Citizens protested use of Old Salishan by the police for driving exercises and discharging simulated firearms Police responded and said the contract only called for using the site eight weeks of the year for training. The Park Board agreed to allow the police to continue using the property for training.

1979 – Vere Harr property acquired

1979 – The Swan Creek Park Action Committee urged Pierce County to close their gravel pit operation (31.9 acres/ B-53) and transfer the property from the Pierce County Public Works Department to the Parks and Recreation Department. This property borders the MPT property.

At this same time the Lige Dickson Company agreed to sell or donate 7.09 acres adjacent to B-53 in September 1988 or when all usable gravel and sand was removed.

PBMM: January 11, 1982 – Park Board establishes the Swan Creek Advisory Committee made up of two representatives from the park board, the city, the county and two citizens. The Committee is given the task of preparing recommendations for the development of Swan Creek Park. (copy of recommendations has not been located)

PBMM: May 23, 1983 – Metro Parks gave the Department of Public Works permission to install test speed bumps at Swan Creek Park in the old Salishan area. The city wanted to throughout test the bumps for installing them on city streets.

1985 – Park District receives notice of possible loss of 40 acres to the Puyallup Tribe to resolve property claims of the tribe. Litigation was ongoing throughout the year.

September 1985 –Trail Project at Swan Creek Park completed.

PBMM: October 27, 1986 – The Park Board approved a permit for the Olympus Rally at Swan Creek Park. The event was sponsored by the Northwest Auto Cross Association. Vehicles were not to exceed 35 miles per hour.

PBMM: August 10, 1987 – Throughout the summer there were numerous fires in Swan Creek Park. Haire asked about a comprehensive management plan for Swan Creek. PET crew staff has been spending more time in Swan Creek since the fires began in an effort to clear debris.

PBMM: February 8, 1988 – Park Board approves purchase of Vera Harr property at 2730 Pioneer Way for $27,287.00.

PBMM: June 13, 1988 – Metro Parks begins work on Swan Creek Forestry Management and Fire Protection Plan (a copy of this plan has not been located)

PBMM: June 12, 1989 – Model aircraft organization asks for permission to use Swan Creek to fly radio controlled planes.

PBMM: September 24, 1990 – Citizens ask about rumor of planned mountain bike trail in Swan Creek. Board assures them that it is under discussion but no plans yet.

PBMM: December 17, 1990 – Board grants Narrows Radio Control permission to use Swan Creek for flying remote controlled aircraft for six months with an option to extend for six more months.

February 1991 –Washouts at Swan Creek reported to the Park Board

PBMM: May 26, 1992 – Board authorizes IAC grant application for Swan Creek property acquisition

September 27, 1993 – Cascadia Peace Trees program finished at Swan Creek.

PBMM: October 25, 1993 – Master Planning process begins for Swan Creek Park. Plan is funded with money from the 1986 Bond Issue. Recommendations include having zones for different activities, preserving natural areas and passive and active recreational opportunities.

July 25, 1994 – Swan Creek Park is chosen for Americorp Work Project.

1995 – Metro Parks drafted the Swan Creek Management Plan. The plan was challenged in court. Judge Azinga ruled that the Determination of Non-Significance checklist for the plan was not adequate. The plan was not adopted.

May 13, 1996 – Americorp Swan Creek Program won the American Rivers 1996 Urban River Restoration award.

May 1996 – Park District received funds from Pierce County Conservation Futures to purchase 1.8 acre parcel: the Issac's property.

1997 – Americorps workers built trails and cleared debris caused by a ice storm

PBMM: December 8, 1997 – Swan Creek Farm proposal: Steven Garrett of Tahoma Food System explained the projects intent is to work with families that are trained farmers and then provide them with training in organic farming and assist them in the development of consumer direct and niche marketing. Longer term goal is to provide the markets and experience to the farmers and then seek the means for some of them to begin small family farms in the Puyallup Valley.

PBMM: October 12, 1998 – Sue Bernstein received an award for her work on various community park projects and the most recent "Gathering Place" in Swan Creek Park. Sue thanked Windemere Real Estate for their involvement in the project.

April 27, 2001 the THA received a $35 million HOPE Grant to revitalize the Salishan neighborhood. All the old houses were to be torn down and replaced with quality, attractive new housing.

November 22, 2010 – Swan Creek Master Plan development contract awarded to MIG