Celebrating 130 years of Tacoma Public Utilities and 70 years of a Public Utility Board

This summer, Tacoma Public Utilities is celebrating its 130th year of providing essential services to the greater Tacoma community, while our governing body, the Public Utility Board, is marking its 70th anniversary. Tacoma Public Utilities used to be run by a commissioner back when Tacoma was run by elected commissioners. After the City changed its governance structure to a council and mayor, the Public Utility Board was formed. As explained in the video, the newly formed Board made many major decisions in a short period of time, including the construction of several hydroelectric projects that the Tacoma Power service area still benefits from today. 


When Tacoma was first settled by European Americans in 1852, settlers obtained water directly from springs and shallow wells. Several small distribution systems were developed beginning in 1873. Many of those systems took water from larger springs and tunnels driven into a hillside and transmitted the water to their destinations using bored-log pipes. 

In 1884, Charles B. Wright obtained a franchise for light and water systems and incorporated the Tacoma Light & Water Company. During the next five years, he built a system that drew water from the Galliher and Tacoma Eastern gulches, Tule and Spanaway lakes, and Clover Creek. Tacoma residents were generally dissatisfied with the quality of water and electrical service provided by Tacoma Light & Water. The City Council began negotiating with Wright in 1890 to buy the water and light plants. 

After much political wrangling, the City Council and Wright agreed to a price of $1.75 million and put the issue before the voters. The vote was 3,195 in favor of purchase and 1,956 against — 104 votes more than the three-fifths majority needed. On July 1, 1893, the City of Tacoma became the proud owner of a suspect water system and the meager beginnings of an electric utility. 


Residents believed that public ownership and local control would give them a higher caliber of services than was being offered through the private utility while maintaining the ability to control them. That decision paved the way for TPU to build one of the finest and most reliable electric systems in the United States. 

Today, Tacoma Power, a division of Tacoma Public Utilities, is a community-owned, not-for-profit energy provider. For over a century, our City of Tacoma and Pierce County customers have depended on us for safe and reliable energy. 


Meanwhile, increasing population and poor water quality created a strong demand for additional water. The first expansion was the lease of additional water from an industrial well in South Tacoma for fire protection. After the initial lease in 1903, Tacoma Water began developing its own air lift wells: two or three in 1903 and 16 more (11 successful) in 1906-07. 

In 1910 the City Council authorized construction of the Green River gravity supply system. This line, running 30 miles from the west slope of the Cascade Mountains to Tacoma, was completed May 8, 1913. Clearing the site for McMillin Reservoir required horsepower as well as human power. 

Over the years, Tacoma Water has continued to make many system improvements including completing a second pipeline in 2006 and building the Green River Filtration Facility in 2015. However, the original gravity-based system remains the principal water delivery method to meet the needs of Tacoma. 


Tacoma Public Utilities may be the only utility in the country that owns and operates a railroad. It all began in June of 1925 when a Tacoma City Charter amendment transferred control of the “Tacoma Municipal Belt Line Railway” (now known as Tacoma Rail) from the City’s General Government to Tacoma Public Utilities. 

Some believe that the successful management of two of the city’s largest municipal services, power and water, justified moving the struggling railroad into utility hands. At the time, the railroad provided passenger service and shuttled people to and from work in the Port of Tacoma. 

Today, Tacoma Rail moves freight (no passengers) primarily through the Port of Tacoma. As a public agency, Tacoma Rail can operate at cost or very close to it, making the Port more competitive. 

Tacoma Rail has proven itself as an economic engine for Tacoma and Pierce County, and Tacoma Public Utilities prides itself on being a one-of-a-kind utility that can count a short-line railroad as one of the great services it provides. 

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