Learn the past to Improve the Future at the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma, Washington

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” stated Philosopher George Santayana.

You hear it from time to time being thrown around, but I prefer reversing it. Perhaps something like, “those who can remember the past are destined to improve the future.” It has a much more positive and inspiring feel to it.

In Washington State, the best place to look towards the past and improve the future is at the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma, Washington.

An early resident of the City of Tacoma Thea Foss bought a rowboat, repaired it, painted it and sold it while her husband was away for two months. By the time he returned, she had a small fleet of rowboats and a burgeoning business. Her husband returned to discover his wife made more money than he had while he was away working. It seems appropriate that the museum itself, perched above the Thea Foss Waterway, was a major part of the revitalization of Tacoma.

Before Tacoma’s founding, native tribes settled the area 9 to 13 thousand years ago. To put that into perspective the Pyramids were built 5,500 years ago and the last of the Wooly mammoths died out 3,600 years go. England and Ireland were attached to mainland Europe during the same time frame that people were making the Thea Foss Waterway their home. 

You can get a bit closer to that history when walking through the Great Hall of the Washington History Exhibit. There is everything from a mastodon tooth on display to Clovis Points, arrows and spearheads from the earliest people known to have settled in the western hemisphere, to a recreation of the traditional homes of the natives to shanty’s lived in during the Great depression.

An exhibit I found particularly moving was the Washington My Home Exhibit. It details the stories of various people from the 1840s on. I moved here from Texas on a whim 14 years ago in a car that I bought for 100 dollars that I wasn’t sure would make the trip and it was the single best decision I’ve ever made. Take some time to listen to the stories in the “Step Into My Shoes” exhibit, it’s worth every minute.

At the far end of the second floor is my favorite exhibit. There is the Model Train Exhibit, the largest permanent one in the state, that features intricately detailed recreations of many familiar places around the state. My daughters were amazed by it, running to push the button every time the trains stopped and back to hop on the pedestal so they could watch them go by. I showed them the people in the passenger train as it passed by and their minds were blown.

Just outside of the train exhibit is an exhibit featuring toys over the past few decades. It was kind of cool seeing toys that I played with growing up, but also kind of strange telling my three-year-old, “That toy hasn’t been made in fifty years, we can’t just go to Target and pick one up.”

Did you know that Washington State was originally going to be named Columbia state, but it was changed because congressmen thought people would confuse it with the District of Columbia? I for one am grateful for their foresight and feel lucky that I don’t have to consistently tell people or refine my google searches to Columbia State instead of the District of Columbia. Congress hit the nail on the head with that call.

While researching Thea Foss, I read from a handful of sources that she was well known in the community as a problem solver and that she would act as a sort of arbitrator, helping local businessmen in the area come to agreements over a cup of coffee. After leaving, it’s worth stepping into Anthem Coffee just across the courtyard, sit outside for a bit and enjoy the view of the Thea Foss Waterway, the sailboats resting in its waters, and if it’s clear, Mt. Rainier.

The train set was pretty insanely detailed, It was kind of fun to photograph it. Here are some of the shots I took.


Written by Corey Dembeck

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