Wright Park Past, Present and Future: Behind the Scenes of One of Tacoma’s Most Beloved Parks

“It is the city’s responsibility to preserve a place where the people can get recreation, where children from the congested districts can congregate without danger, and where mothers, nurses, and invalids can find a healthful resort during mid-day without being cramped for space or menaced by shows and their consequent temptations to spend their spare time within the walls of a packed building rather than in the health giving environment of trees, plants and flowers,” said the Tacoma Board of Commissioners in 1909, in response to a push for development in what was then one of the city’s only parks: Wright Park. It’s a good thing that they preserved it, because these days, Wright Park is an arboretum with over 600 trees from 145 species. The trees come from all over the world, some of which were planted by dignitaries visiting the city. 

Wright Park was founded in 1886, when Charles Wright donated 20 acres of land to the city to be used for a public park. It has since grown to 27 acres which includes walking paths, a pond, trees and the WW Seymour Botanical Conservatory, as well as amenities like playgrounds and lawn bowling. It is considered a “Level 1”, or “Signature” Park: one of the highest maintained and most trafficked parks in the massive Metro Parks system, drawing visitors from neighborhoods all over the city.

In its early days, according to Metro Parks’ Joey Furuto, horse shoes were popular at the park. “There used to be national tournaments here,” he explained. In 2017 the horse shoe pits see a little less use, but the bowling lawn has recently been seeing much more traffic: locals have revitalized a league, said Furuto, which was extremely active throughout the season.

It takes a lot of sweat to care for the high-traffic park. According to Furuto, hundreds of labor hours are spent just raking and removing the fall leaves, not to mention caring for the grass and lawns, picking up trash, etc. The conservatory’s plants are all locally grown and hundreds of plants are brought in and removed every week, with special exhibits for certain times of year. Right now, the greenhouse is growing poinsettias for the holiday exhibit.

The trees in the park are in constant rotation. Since some are over 120 years old, they become diseased and die, at which time they are replaced by younger saplings. When I spoke to Furuto, he pointed out some tiny young trees that had just been planted the day before: new additions to the park’s already impressive repertoire. Each tree bears a sign that tells us what it is and where it comes from; as we walked, we passed trees from as far away as Morocco.

Charles Wright’s vision for a breathing space for Tacoma residents to escape urban bustle seems to have far outlived him, but Wright Park is still growing and changing. The city has plans to grow and expand the conservatory, adding a flexible use space with a living roof leading down to a dome where more botanical displays can be held. On the horizon this year will be public restrooms attached to the conservatory, with the bigger changes coming throughout the next several years. Wright Park has come a long way since its founding 127 years ago, but now as then, it’s a beautiful spot for a stroll among the trees.

  1. I gave a talk on the park a few years ago. A great Park, it’s important to put the bequest in context. Giving the Park to the city was a value increasing scheme by Charles Wright and the Tacoma Land Company. Most cynically, we can see in the bequest of land to the city a plan to socialize the costs of creating and maintaining the park, while the profits that would come from its existence would be privately reaped, none more so than by the Tacoma Land Company, in which Wright had a 51% interest. One can push too far on this, for while there was a financial windfall from establishing the park that would be named after its benefactor, who was also a major beneficiary of that windfall, the public at large would enjoy the benefits of the park as well.

    Here is the language from the original document turning the land—I always find that seeing the legalize of such a bequest helps strip away some of the notion that this is a simple gift to the city and remind us that underwrite this all is a land deal (free land given to the city with conditions…)

    “from Tacoma Land Company, a corporation of the State of Pennsylvania to the Corporation of the City of Tacoma,” May 29, 1886. “…said land shall forever be exclusively used as and appropriated for the uses and purposes of a Public Park and on further conditions that the party of the second part…improve the said land” Within two years “clear and level said land” and “enclose the same with a substantial ornamental fence.”
    Within thee years “seed land with grass, and set out and plant not less than one hundred and fifty ornamental shade trees.” In four years, plant 150 more trees, and “keep and maintain the Park in good repair and care for all the trees therein planted and plant other trees in place in place of all those that may die…”

    It became city ordinance 127, July 5, 1886. Doing the right thing was also doing right by Wright. I’d say call it the people’s park instead, since it was Tacomans’ money and work that made it what it is. Better yet, call it Puyallup Park, for the Puyallup people are the ones who really cultivated these gifts of nature appropriated by the nation, turned over to the railroad and then back to the city.

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