A Military Reservation converted to a Public Urban Park looks precisely like the magnificent Point Defiance Park. The Park is located on a pure and essential slice of Tacoma, Washington's northwestern slope with the northern most 400 acres of the original 702 acres being preserved old growth forest. This amazing and definitive piece of land was identified in 1841 by Charles Wilkes, a naval military explorer, who visited the Puget sound to map the bays and estuaries during the Wilkes Expedition, Wilkes is thought to have noted what an ideal fortress location this would be to, "bid defiance to any attack," with a fort positioned at the point that included views of Gig Harbor and across the narrows.
In 1866, President Andrew Johnson preserved the Point as a military reservation. The Park was allowed to be developed over time to include adding a street car from Downtown Tacoma into the Park under the condition the Park could be reclaimed if needed for military use. In 1899, a permanent zoo began to take shape with the construction of the first bear pit. There were also herds of elk, deer and bison that were featured. 1903 brought a restaurant and pavilion on the waterfront, and in 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt signed ownership of Point Defiance Park over to the City of Tacoma. A giant heated saltwater pool, the Nereides Baths, created a special draw to Park enthusiasts in 1906.This was Tacoma's first indoor swimming pool, once called a natatorium, with the salt water heated to 80 degrees and rental bathing suits available for 10 cents.
When I was growing up, my Mom would take us to Point Defiance to marvel at the Beluga whales that once splashed there, absorb the sites, sounds and smells of the famous Cindy the Elephant (an Asian elephant born in 1962, spent 40 years in total at this zoo and was known for her crankiness). She would take us by the bear cages still in place and tell us stories of the great Grizzly Bear escape in the late 1930's. I can recall and visualize black bears in those concrete and metal caged areas but am not certain that there were actually still live displays in that spot any longer (a vivid imagination I had when it comes to seeing large animals).
The Park today continues to be a place of peaceful escape. Winding roads through the forest and towering trees take your breath away, all the while skirting the high bluff cliffs overlooking the Puget Sound. The gardens, picnic areas and zoo offer incredible educational exposures to all who come to visit. Fort Nisqually rims the south western edge of the Park, a great place for young and old to imagine what the fur trade era was like. As a Brownie and Girl Scout, I carry fond memories of lunches and nature walks in and around the fort. The beach, Owen Beach, is a place suited for naps in the sunshine or large picnic venues with covered and open eating spaces. During the spring and summer, you see proud displays of shiny hot rods basking in the radiance of the sloped parking area as kayaks and fishermen float by. When I was in college and worked graveyard shift, as class schedules allowed, I would frequent the sandier spots of Owen Beach to steal a nap in the warmth of the sun to refresh my soul and remind me of the beautiful place Point Defiance Park has been and is to so many.