Located on the highest point of the city, the slope of McKinley Hill has traditionally provided the topographic north and east boundaries of the neighborhood. The traditional edge of the neighborhood to the east is Portland Avenue E, which is located at the foot of the hill. Prior to the construction of Highway WA-7 and I-5 (both in the 1960s), the boundaries of the McKinley Hill neighborhood were E 25th and 26th Streets, E 38th Street, Portland Avenue, and the Milwaukee Gulch, as outlined in the 1947 Master Plan. Long-time residents of the neighborhood still refer to the western edge of the neighborhood as “the Gulch.”
The McKinley Hill neighborhood is one of the oldest in Tacoma, with plats dating from at least 1857. Development was sparse, however, until the end of the decade, when several factors spurred construction. In 1883, Northern Pacific Railroad’s terminus of the transcontinental railway was completed. This was located at the head of Commencement Bay, less than a mile from McKinley Hill.
The Tacoma Land Company subsequently platted a large swath of land, which extended from Commencement Bay to E Division Lane (the city’s southern border) and from west of Pacific Avenue to the eastern edge of the city, near East R Street, where it abutted land belonging to the Puyallup Tribe. This street grid followed the slightly askew rail lines in the tideflats, whereas the later, southern School Addition lies on a true north-south grid. This transition is still clearly visible today both in maps and in person.
J.F. Hart & Company built a logging railroad in 1886 at the base of McKinley Hill, which was followed by Tacoma’s first sawmill in the late 1890s. Later, the Tacoma Eastern Railroad would connect this sawmill to Bismark, a logging town located near what is now S 64th Street and McKinley Avenue, which had a railcar fabrication plant. This rail line was later used to transport passengers further southeast to Mt. Rainier, an excursion that gained popularity after the mountain became America’s fifth National Park in 1899.
Through the end of the 19th century, there was little development on McKinley Hill. Sanborn maps from 1896 show only about four developed parcels, although some small commercial buildings were located near E G Street and S 35th Street. Around this time, the area was logged to supply neighboring sawmills. The apparent wooded nature of the neighborhood likely contributed to the sparse development.
In 1901, the Tacoma Land and Improvement Company gifted the city 26.7 acres near the northwest ridge of the hill, which became McKinley Park, a defining feature of the neighborhood. According to the Sanborn maps, it appears as early as 1896 there was already a park (noted on the maps as “East Park”). The neighborhood was named after President McKinley shortly after his assassination in 1901.
Residential and commercial development of McKinley Hill began in earnest in 1903 after the Tacoma Railway and Power Company built streetcar lines throughout Tacoma. The McKinley Park Line ran up McKinley Hill, initially terminating at S 30th Street and McKinley Avenue. It was later extended to S 36th Street, and eventually terminated at S 64th Street, in Bismarck. Prior to the streetcar line, McKinley Avenue (then known as H Street) was a dirt road with wooden sidewalks. Rapid development followed the McKinley streetcar line as the area attracted workers from the nearby freight, lumber, and shipyards.
Development was further increased in 1905, when the Northern Pacific Railroad constructed the Northern Pacific Beneficiary Association Hospital for their employees. Located east of McKinley Avenue on E Wright Street, the hospital operated until 1968. Doctors and nurses employed at the hospital also moved to the area.
The first church on McKinley Hill was constructed in ca. 1906, on E G Street. Originally the Gospel Hall Church, it has gone through multiple owners and most recently served as the Tacoma Indian Baptist Church. The following year, in ca. 1907, the First Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran congregation built a church a block away to serve the large number of Scandinavians who lived in the neighborhood. McKinley Public School, at E 37th Street and McKinley Avenue, was constructed in 1908, presumably to serve the growing younger generation.
By 1912, the McKinley neighborhood had considerably changed. Sanborn maps of that year show very few vacant parcels — most unbuilt property appears to be due to the topography. The vast majority of the buildings were wooden, and residential. At this time, most, if not all of the roads were unpaved. South of McKinley Hill, in Bismarck, sawmills were still active. On July 10, 1914, the area experienced a significant fire that began at the Comly-Kirk Planing Mill. The blaze could be seen for miles, and extra streetcars were even placed on the McKinley Park Line to transport hundreds of spectators to the blaze.
Construction continued into the following decades. The Trinity Methodist Church (1913 – 1915, figure 10), designed by Heath and Gove, was located at E F and E 35th Streets and appears to be the first church in the area with a belltower. Later additions included community buildings, which provided daily activities. The congregation remained in the building until 2007; it was vacant until the Cavalry Methodist Church purchased it in 2008. It underwent rehabilitation and was reopened as the Calvary United Methodist Church in 2009 to serve the local Samoan population.
McKinley Avenue formed the commercial center of the neighborhood. The business district is a narrow spine located between E 34th Street and E Division Lane. Small grocery stores were found on almost every block, along with barber shops, variety stores, confectioners, drug stores, and bakeries ran the length of the street. The Park Theatre (1922, figure 12), located on McKinley Avenue between E 35th and E Harrison Streets, was also a popular destination. McKinley Avenue was paved in the early 1920s, in response to the increasing availability of automobiles. However, streetcars remained the dominant mode of transportation into the 1930s.
Gault Intermediate School, at E Division Lane and E K Street was built in 1926 by the firm Hill & Mock (the school was closed in 2007). What is now the Mottet Branch of the Tacoma Public Library was constructed in 1930 and designed by Silas E. Nelsen (1894 – 1987). Nelsen worked for Heath, Gove, and Bell from 1912 – 1917, at which time he started his own firm. Largely a residential architect, some of his most significant projects included the Tacoma Mausoleum (1910; he is credited along with George Gove), the Collins Memorial Library on the University of Puget Sound Campus, the McCormick branch of the Tacoma Public Library, and the Johnson Candy Company Building (1949).
The East 34th Street Bridge was opened in 1937 and spanned the gulch between Pacific Avenue and A Street. During this decade, the city began investing in buses, which were smoother, quieter, and more flexible than trolleys. The trolleys were abolished in 1937, and the WPA began tearing up tracks that year. All 96 miles of track in the city were removed by April of 1938.
The first segment of I-5 constructed through Tacoma opened in December of 1960, with subsequent construction occurring through the decade. WA-7 was constructed in 1964 and geographically followed the Milwaukee Gulch. Residents had known about the possibility of the freeway as early as 1948, but it is unlikely they knew the dramatic changes it would bring to the neighborhood. McKinley Park is only about half a mile from Commencement Bay, but the construction of the interstate cut off the neighborhood from downtown. Early maps show that the street grid was uninterrupted by the gulch, but after WA-7 was built (generally right over the gulch) the McKinley neighborhood was further isolated from the rest of the city. (Due to topography, currently the easiest access to the area is from the south.) Prior to I-5, the neighborhood was a midpoint between the railroads along the water and lumber mills farther south, and served as a convenient residential area to both. After the interstate construction, however, it was almost completely cut off.
In the 1960s and 1970s, McKinley Hill experienced a period of urban decline. The hospital was closed in 1968 and demolished in 1972. The Tacoma-Pierce County Opportunity & Development Inc had proposed purchasing it and converting it into offices for the company, as well as housing a narcotics center in the building, in 1969, but the proposal was rejected by McKinley residents. A Safeway was constructed on McKinley Avenue in 1961, but closed in the mid-1990s. It was later purchased by the Tacoma Christian Center. In more recent years, the neighborhood has begun to see a revival with an influx of new residents.
Community groups have long been active in the neighborhood, and recent projects are highly varied. The McKinley Boosters have been an active community group for many decades, engaged in neighborhood improvement projects and maintaining the history. On August 19, 1982 they staged the McKinley Hill Recognition Festival, celebrating the first “block party” on McKinley Avenue. The McKinley Festival and Street Dance begin in 1988 and has occurred every year since. Currently, the grassroots Dometop Neighborhood Alliance meets monthly, and is actively working on organizing the community to create a safer, cleaner neighborhood environment. Accomplishments include developing a walking tour, park and street cleanup, graffiti removal, and hosting a neighborhood breakfast. In 2010, McKinley Hill was featured on “This Old House” as one of the country’s best places to buy an old house.