Tacoma — It’s the little church that helped put Tacoma on the map.
Old St. Peter’s Church in Tacoma’s Old Town celebrated its 150th anniversary Saturday. It’s not only Tacoma’s first church but its oldest still existing building.
Famous for its towering old growth cedar bell tower, the church was an icon of the city and, by extension, the Wild West of the 19th century.
Today, the independent Christian church that worships in the Anglican tradition has a small but devoted congregation and a volunteer pastor.
The church was built after Episcopalian Bishop Benjamin Morris arrived in Tacoma in 1873.
“He said any town that has two jails, a Chinese laundry, a school house, 13 saloons and four bawdy houses (brothels) ought to have a church,” St. Peter’s pastor, the Rt. Rev. Morgan Johnson, told The News Tribune on Thursday.
Morris chose St. Peter’s as the new church’s name. Johnson thinks a certain Tacoma pioneer influenced that decision.
In 1873, Charles Wright was president of the Northern Pacific Railway and one of the men who decided Tacoma should be the railroad’s terminus. The Pennsylvania native’s family attended St. Peter’s Church in Philadelphia.
One of the most powerful men in Tacoma was appointed to oversee the church’s construction: sawmill owner George Atkinson.
“The sawmill imported all the liquor, all the beer, all the food products and clothing, furniture and everything,” Johnson said. “So George went around all the saloons and let them know if enough people don’t show up to volunteer and help build a church there’s not going to be any alcohol.
“So they built the church in seven days.”
In October 1874, a 965-pound bell was shipped around South America’s Cape Horn and delivered to Tacoma. It was a gift from the Pennsylvania church’s school children.
“The children supposedly collected their pennies and saved up and bought us the 1,000-pound bell,” Johnson said.
At first, according to a history provided by Old St. Peter’s, the congregation didn’t know what to do with it as the church had no belfry. But a cedar adjacent to the church gave saw mill owner Atkinson an idea. He hired two men to top the tree and the bell was soon hoisted to the top.
The age of the tree remains in dispute. Some accounts peg it at 400 years old, others at 900. Whatever its age, it soon became known as the oldest bell tower in the United States.
The bell tower reinforced the West’s rough and pioneering spirit in the minds of easterners. Its image was replicated for decades on postcards, plates, spoons, cups and any number of items popular with tourists.
The June 20, 1891, issue of Harper’s Weekly has a two-page spread titled, “The City of Tacoma and its Environs,” with drawings of the city’s notable buildings, “Mount Tacoma” (Mount Rainier) and “The Oldest Bell Tower in America”.
Drawings and photos from the era also show a plank walkway ascending from the church’s roof to the bell. It was the only way to ring the bell, Johnson explained, because ropes would soon rot away.
Truly invasive ivy
In 1874, congregant Jane Walters planted ivy at the base of the tree. It soon grew to cover the trunk. But it didn’t stop there.
Historic photos show the ivy vines inside the church climbing on its walls and ceiling. The congregation liked the look of it, Johnson said, until they realized the power ivy has.
“It was just tearing the church apart from the inside out,” Johnson.
Today, the ivy still thrives where it was planted but it’s kept outside the building like a pet that hasn’t been house trained. It now has a 1-foot-wide trunk.
When the original cedar bell tower began leaning in the 1930s, the bell was removed. In the 1950s, the tree was replaced with a new log and the bell was reinstalled. That trunk remained until 2017 when it, too, rotted to where it became unsafe.
A metal tower now stands-in for the log. One day, Johnson said, the ivy will once again reach the bell and need to be cut back.
Some congregants still dispute who planted the ivy, Johnson said. It’s a long-standing historical feud. Walters was the wife of Augustus Walters, who succeeded Tacoma founder Job Carr as the city’s postmaster. Other histories cite Elizabeth McCarver Harris and Mrs. A. R. Mann.
Links to the past
Predating even the state of Washington, the church is believed to be the city’s oldest building. Carr’s cabin, a few blocks to the west, and Fort Nisqually are replicas.