This Is What It Looks Like When Nature Reclaims a Piece of Tacoma

Have you ever wondered how long it would take nature to reclaim a neighborhood if everyone just got up and left? It’s hard to say how long an average house would last, but if you wiped the neighborhood off the map and left the ground bare, 67 years is, evidently, more than enough time to blend the land back into the surrounding wilderness.

We know this because that’s what happened to 700 houses in the Old Salishan neighborhood in 1951. Aside from the paved roads and moss covered sidewalks, the 50 acres of land near the east end of 48th St. bears very few signs that anyone ever lived here at all.

The neighborhood was once part of a massive 2,000-home housing project created in 1942-43. 1,600 homes were designed to be permanent while 400 were only temporary. They were built to house the tens of thousands of military personnel and workers moving to Tacoma as wartime production ramped up.

The main employers in the area were McChord Field, Fort Lewis, the Mount Rainier Ordnance Depot, and shipyards around Commencement Bay. With people coming in from all over to populate the new development, Salishan became one of Tacoma’s first racially integrated neighborhoods.

The land that would eventually become Swan Creek Park traded hands a number of times through the years. At the end of the 1800s the title to the land was given to John Swan, a member of the Puyallup Tribe.*

It was eventually sold off to a number of different buyers, including lumber companies who logged most of the cedars in the area. In 1942 the federal government bought 465 acres from Pierce County and other private owners and named the new development Salishan, in honor of the region’s native heritage.

At the end of WWII, the 400 temporary houses were demolished. Of the 1,600 others, 900 were converted to low-income housing in 1951. These were eventually torn down and replaced by the houses you see today. The 700 remaining houses were vacated one by one until that portion, now known as Old Salishan, was slated for demolition, leaving only the cross hatched roads behind.

For much of the ‘60s the City of Tacoma wanted to use the area as a landfill. The proposal was eventually abandoned after strong objections from Tacoma’s citizens. In 1968 there was a plan to convert the area to a mixed use park, complete with an 18-hole golf course and a swimming facility created by a dam in Swan Creek. In the late ‘70s, the vacant roads around Old Salishan were used by the Tacoma Police Department for simulated firearms and driving exercises.

The ‘80s and ‘90s saw massive changes to the land around Old Salishan. Trails were built, Swan Creek restoration cleaned up years of pollution and debris from nearby industry, and rumors of an epic mountain bike park were confirmed. All the while, the footprints of WWII-era houses were being replaced by thriving native plants, utility poles overshadowed by fir trees, and sidewalks slowly eaten by thick blankets of moss. In another few decades it’s conceivable that even the roads will eventually be broken down and taken over by forest.

*History is confusing sometimes. As it turns out, there were two John Swans who lived in the same area around the same time. One was a white settler and Indian agent who worked mostly with coastal tribes, one was a Puyallup native. Based on evidence uncovered by Justi Pfutzenreuter, we believe the later is where the name came from.

Historic photos courtesy of Tacoma Public Library’s Northwest Room

1947 Tacoma Road Map courtesy of Rob Ketcherside

  1. You mention that John Swan was a member of the Puyallup Tribe. My understanding is that he was a white businessman and settler, but also Indian Agent for the Puyallup Tribe. Can you provide a reference? I’d like to know more. Thanks for highlighting the park.

    1. Thanks for mentioning that Matt! You’re right. I misread the information I first came across. The following is from

      “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.”

      I found a couple other references to him and it seems he did a lot of business with the Puyallup people and, like you said, eventually got involved in the renegotiations of the reservation agreement. Thanks again for the heads up. I’ll edit the story to reflect this information.

  2. You forgot to mention the period of the 80s – early 2000s that it was a low income housing project that was riddled in crime and gang violence.

  3. Salishan in the 1980’s and early 1990’s was the most violent part of tacoma averaging more violent crime then even Hilltop. But shhh don’t tell all the new Seattle folks moving here the real history of the “Shan”.

  4. I bought the heart of the ‘Shan’. The place was used as a dump until 2015 when I acquired it. I cleaned it all up and it’s now 100+ FIR trees and other types, on an acre of beautiful park land. Since the 60’s it was going to be a huge backyard for the neighborhood, but went bankrupt and then was held by Pierce County and abandoned by them. So, there was a lot of trash and gangs did drug deals there, fights, homeless camping… the usual. I just wanted a mini-forest to build a home on, so that’s the plan so far. I have an even larger parcel in Fircrest… same thing, with an active creek. Elitists have grown a very expensive neighborhood on its border, so it went from near worthless to $$$$$. Nothing like acquiring old ‘indian’ land, that no one wanted. P.S. The county tried twice to sell that Swan Creek land to the neighbors, but there was so much junk, all of them said, “NO!”. Their loss, my gain.

  5. My family lived in Salishan during the war.
    I have tried to locate the address of our home. It is shown on Ration cards as 131
    Chedali or Chikalia. Not clear about the street name just that it was Salishan. My parents worked at the ship yards. I can remember a bus stop in that area but have been unable to locate a street even close to the above spellings. Maybe some one might remember or have a good map from
    1943. Perhaps it was one of the demolished houses. Thanks for any help

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