TWA members and others are talking to writer Sharon Babcock about enduring inspirations, life lessons, and perspectives from their experiences on the working waterfront.
This month’s feature: Mary Bowlby, executive director of the Job Carr Cabin Museum in Old Town.
For seven years, Mary Bowlby has been executive director of the Job Carr Cabin Museum, a replica of the 19-century home of Job Carr, Tacoma’s first permanent non-native resident.
The cabin, built in 2000 and located in Old Town, is about a block away from the original site of Carr’s frontier home. Visitors to the cabin learn why those early settlers came here, how they lived, and what industries put Tacoma — and Commencement Bay — on the map.
Job Carr place in Tacoma’s history began on Christmas Day 1846. He arrived in Tacoma from Indiana and fileda land claim for 168 acres in what the Nisqually and Puyallup people called “Shubahlup” or sheltered place. This area is now part of the city’s waterfront walkway along Commencement Bay.
Carr was not the stereotypical Old West settler made famous by the movies. First, he was 51 years old when he arrived in the West by wagon train; by the standards of the day he was an old man and had already been married and had children. Wounded twice in battle, he was a veteran of the Union Army during the Civil War and came west to seek opportunities. He was an anti-war Quaker, but he abhorred slavery more than violence.
News of a transcontinental railroad fed into his thirst to reinvent himself so he set his sights on land where the railroad might eventually stop: Puget Sound. While those trains wouldn’t come for another few decades, Carr scouted sites around Puget Sound and selected his claim in what is now Old Town and Tacoma’s North Slope because it provided great fishing and had fresh water nearby. In 1868, Carr sold all but five of his original 168 acres to Matthew Morton McCarver.
Carr’s cabin would serve as the city’s post office in 1869, with Carr taking the title of postmaster. Since the post office made the cabin a governmental facility, it also became a polling station when residents found themselves voting for the formation of Tacoma. Carr was appointed the city’s first mayor.
When Tacoma was eventually selected as the terminus of the transcontinental railroad, the Northern Pacific Railroad opted for an unclaimed site below what is now Tacoma’s Stadium Bowl. In 1873, the Northern Pacific Railroad and its associates began creating “New Tacoma.” In 1881, New Tacoma merged with the settler-created “Tacoma City” thereby leaving Carr’s cabin in “Old Town.”
Q: Why did Job Carr settle on Tacoma for his destination site in the west?
A: He knew there was a planned terminus for the U.S. intercontinental railway, following President Lincoln’s signing of the order to build it. (He made) his best entrepreneurial guess of where that might be located before setting out.
This is an excerpt from a letter Job Carr dictated in 1887, maybe a month or two before he died. It illuminates why he chose Tacoma over Olympia, a place he thought nobody in their right mind would build a transcontinental railway line to:
“I arrived in Olympia on the 13th day of November of that year, never having heard of any other place on the Sound before my arrival and supposed of course that would be the terminus.
On seeing the place (then in a very dilapidated condition) I was convinced that no sane company would ever locate the terminus of a Trans-Continental Railroad there if there was any other place to go to. On making enquiry, I learned the extent of Puget Sound, and examining maps and charts at the land office, I concluded I would explore the country a little. After traveling round, about a week, I reached the Puyallup Indian Reservation, keeping my own counsel as to my ultimate designs, but telling those whom I met that I wanted a place near the water for a fruit farm, etc. On Christmas day of 1864 in company with Mr. Billings (then farmer on the Indian Reservation, and now Sheriff of Thurston County) and three or four others, I went over to Gig Harbor fishing, Mr. Billings telling me there were several nice places along the shore of the Bay. As we went along in our canoe, when we came opposite where Tacoma now stands, I raised up on my feet and exclaimed “Eureka! Eureka!” and told my companions there was my claim.
However, before making a permanent settlement I procured a canoe and spent five months in exploring up and down the sound into every bay and nook from Olympia to the Snohomish River, the shoreline facilities for wharfage, anchorage protection of harbors, inlets and outlets etc. Then I would go ashore and climb through the brush and examine the land approaches and surroundings. When becoming fully satisfied that Commencement Bay was the best harbor on the sound, had the best supply of freshwater and the best approaches and surroundings, and from twenty to twenty five miles the best geographical position, I felt certain it must become the terminus of the railroad.”
Q: What did you have to learn to be able to do what you do?
A: I took a course in Material Cultures at the University of Washington Tacoma. That is the study of artifacts and how they represent society. I studied what anthropology is and how it is applied to modern museum science. Since then, (I have studied) time management and what it means to operate in the professional world, non-profit management, and volunteer management. I have continued to learn and have had increased responsibility with every job I have held since 2000, including at the previous iteration of what was the Commencement Bay Maritime Association with its boat shop — now the Foss Waterway Seaport Museum — and at the Tacoma Historical Society.
Over the years, I became a confident museum professional. An earlier gig was at the Puget Sound Navy Museum in Bremerton where I helped to inventory the entire collection as they moved to a new location. This showed me I was equipped for new challenges and gave me confidence to make decisions. Now I can stand toe to toe with those who have more advanced degrees than I do.
Q: What got you interested in this path?
A: In 1906 my great-grandfather was hired by cargo transport Osaka Shosen Kaisha (now called the O Line), carrying people and cargo to Yokohama Japan. So, waterborne commerce is in my blood. It made me understand the importance of protecting Commencement Bay and the Foss Waterway, while also preserving its history.
I grew up in a house on the water. From it I could see to Redondo, the opening to Quartermaster Harbor, and the Calvos Passage. My dad had replaced a set of windows with one large picture window. At the end of each day, I’d come home to a quiet house and kneel on his chair to watch the water for at least 30 minutes. This, and walking down to the water, gave me an awareness of whales, tides, and what you can see from the water and from boats.
Q: What do you wish Tacoma citizens most understand about the city’s history?
A: Its complexity. Nothing moved smoothly in the development of this town. It was a settlement that started and failed because of the Indian war. What was the original Tacoma (now called Old Town) was self-sufficient with its sawmill, several grocery stores, numerous barbershops, and saloons.
I wish people understood that Tacoma has always had these inherent tensions: early white settlers and Native American rights; the lumber barons who built homes in the Stadium and North Slope districts and other classes of hard-working people in neighborhoods like Hilltop and South Tacoma. This is so evident in Tacoma architecture when you drive around town.
Q: What are the biggest challenges you face?
A: Finding a balance for funding our organization and its efforts. We used to be 70 percent dependent on our annual auction. We have learned that Tacoma now has auction fatigue. Those who attend auctions come primarily to bring their friends to a party rather than to bid on items. We have learned to spread our funding over four varied sources of income.
Another challenge is the little time that has been set aside for Social Studies in school over the past 30 years and the lack of understanding that has resulted from this. History is one aspect of it. Added to it is geography and economics. Social Studies instruction is critical to understanding the fact that an individual like Job Carr can come to a place and have a hand in forming what kind of place that could be. We live in a time when writing letters and keeping journals is no longer a habit for people, so we have lost a valuable resource of fact and insight. To meet this challenge, we wrote a curriculum for third and fourth grade classrooms—with local educators’ help–which is available to and used by schools throughout the region.
Q: What is the best part of your work?
A: People connected to history are quite amazing. In my view, history equals the simple steps that create an extraordinary result made by ordinary people. For me, it is seeing people connect with the elements of a story, for example those who see a Willits canoe and how it touches a memory deep inside. I most enjoy working with people connected to history because they understand the paradox of history–that one person can effect change in their world, but that history is bigger than just one person’s experiences.O