Why One Eccentric Man Named Tacoma 'The City Of Destiny'

Apr 23, 2016

Tacoma has been known as the “City of Destiny” for more than 140 years. While the city’s slogan has had a unique longevity (when was the last time you heard Seattle referred to as "Jet City?"), the slogan's originator is even more extraordinary.

George Francis Train is often credited with naming Tacoma the “City of Destiny.” At the very least, he popularized the slogan, using it over and over in his bombastic syndicated newspaper column called, inexplicably, “Train’s Vander-Billion Psychos.”

While he was a genuine national celebrity of his day, most accounts also describe him as being more than a little wacky. He was fabulously wealthy, from a family of shipbuilders, but fancied himself a poet and philosopher. Train once spent an entire year speaking only to children because he decided adults had nothing to say. Plus, he promoted all sorts of strange fads including a diet of only fruit and chocolate.

For whatever reason, after visiting in Tacoma in 1869, Train embraced the town with all his heart and vowed to do everything he could to help it become the Manhattan of the West. At the same time, Northern Pacific was deciding where to locate the terminus for its transcontinental rail line. The stakes were huge. Not only did it mean people and jobs, but with the railroad came the telegraph. That would mean newspapers could get updates from around the world and banks could wire money.

Tacoma was chosen for the rail line. And Train, who was known to exaggerate, took credit. Thereafter, Train would claim that he “made Tacoma the City of Destiny.” Having lost out to Tacoma, Seattle sulked. Seattle city leaders, including Arthur Denny, tried to convince Northern Pacific to change its mind. It wouldn’t. A rivalry and mutual dislike between the two cities was born and George Francis Train did everything he could to encourage it.

But Seattle had the last laugh. It became the big, prosperous city, known around the world, not Tacoma. KPLU reporter Paula Wissel shares the bizarre history of the "City of Destiny" and talks to Sound Effect host Gabriel Spitzer about why it didn't live up to its promise.