Steepled in History

What the small town of Tacoma was lacking in the early 1870s, still stands in Old Town today, and claims fame as the oldest church in the city.

In the early 1870s, the small village of Tacoma — known by its contemporary moniker, Old Town — boasted a sawmill, various stores, hotels, saloons, a schoolhouse, and two jails. But it wasn’t until a visitor arrived that the residents realized what they were lacking.

Seattle’s neighbor to the south had been fated to eventually serve as the western terminus for the North Pacific Railroad, which would be a boon to the quiet South Sound town. Yet, Tacoma had no church — with the exception of a leaky tent for practitioners of the Presbyterian faith. It was for this reason the Right Rev. Benjamin Wister Morris, Protestant Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of Oregon and Washington rolled into town one day in 1873.

St. Peter's 1870s

Photograph from the early 1870s depicts the hastily built church structure and the original tree on top of which sits the bell donated from St. Peter’s Church in Philadelphia. Courtesy Tacoma Public Library.

St. Peter's

A postcard dated 1906 reveals the original tree, bell, and much of St. Peter’s Church completely dominated by creeping ivy. Courtesy Tacoma Public Library.

“When the bishop arrived, he was kind of regarded as a luminary,” said John Keliner, bishop of St. Peter’s Church in Old Town from the early 1960s until his retirement in 2013. “He persuaded them that they ought to build a church. He (said he) would be back in about a week or two, and he set off in a canoe for Seattle.”

And build it, they did. With lumber donated from the owner of the town mill, the people of Tacoma had built St. Peter’s Church in just seven days. At that time, the church had a partially unobstructed view of the bay and the tall wooden ships moored there. Today, the view is different, but the church still stands in its original location, on Starr Street between North 29th and 30th Streets.

Many changes have taken place over the intervening years: a renovation in the 1950s, a purchase and annexation of the building next door — later named for Keliner — and the church’s inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places in November 1974. None of these changes, however, is quite as talked about and wondered over as the church’s steeple and bell.

Passersby will find it hard to ignore the orange caution tape that currently straddles the edge of the sidewalk, the sawdust that spots the lawn, or the lonesome bell and cross that sit dejected along the fence line after the steeple was taken down several months ago.

The 965-pound bell, a gift from the Sunday school children at St. Peter’s Church in Philadelphia, arrived unannounced and unexpected in late 1874. As the church had no belfry, the people of Tacoma improvised. The top half of a large tree growing next to the church was felled and, using rigging from a ship in the bay, as well as the muscle of some of its sailors, the bell was hoisted into place.

A count of the tree’s rings at the time of the bell’s installation revealed it had been there for more than 300 years, giving St. Peter’s the bragging rights for the oldest bell tower in America for 61 years until, in 1935, a storm felled the rest of the old tree. This prompted the church to install a stand-in, or derrick, for the tree.

St. Peter's

“When I was a kid back in 1940, my father took me down to see St. Peter’s,” remembered Keliner. “At that point, the original tree had been long gone and replaced with a derrick … I remember the derrick, the front of the church, and much of the roof was entirely covered with ivy.”

Though the derrick was replaced in 1956 by a 35-foot cedar log anchored in concrete, the ivy remained. The question of who planted the ivy is a long contested debate and still remains a mystery. “That ivy took off,” Keliner said. “It grew under the church, through the church, up the walls of the church.”

Currently, St. Peter’s plans to install an 18-inch metal pole with cleats for the ivy to take over once again. Due to the cost of having to trim the ivy, St. Peters’ current reverend, Morgan Johnson, said the church almost opted for a chest-high gazebo, instead.

“(Ultimately) most of us were in favor of a long-term solution that put the bell back up in the sky where it has been watching over Tacoma’s growth during the intervening 145 years,” Johnson said.

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is an assistant editor at South Sound magazine. Email her.
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