Old St. Peter's Church - Atlas Obscura

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Old St. Peter's Church

The oldest remaining building in Tacoma was once the home of the "oldest bell tower" in America. 

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Tacoma’s oldest existing building is a small wooden church with a once-famous cedar wood bell tower. Although the original bell tower has been removed, Old St. Peter’s Church still stands as a reminder of civic life in the pre-statehood American West.

Old St. Peter’s Church dates back to 1873 and the decision to make Tacoma the endpoint of the Northern Pacific Railway. Many civic institutions were built around this time, and Rev. Benjamin W. Morris, the Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of Oregon and of Washington Territory, paid the new city a visit. He believed that Tacoma needed a church, and when challenged, he pointed out that it already had two jails, four brothels, and 13 saloons.

The church was built in a week, after sawmill owner George Atkinson threatened the city’s liquor supplies. The interior remains much the same as its founding. Visitors can find a pump organ that dates to 1874. It was purchased by the church with a promissory note, and the debt was worked off through piano lessons and concerts offered by Anna Wolf, a young Jewish woman who happened to be the only person in Tacoma who could play the organ. There is also a potbelly stove, which kept the churchgoers warm, but would also blow smoke back into the church. After trying to fix it for years, the church roof would eventually be painted gray as a concession.

But the most unique item is an 965-pound bell, paid for by the school children of Philadelphia’s St. Peter’s parish, and shipped to Tacoma in October 1874. The only challenge was that, at the time, there was no place to put it. Atkinson, who again, was a saw mill owner, saw an opportunity. A cedar tree near the church was felled, and the bell was placed on top. This enormous old-growth tree’s age varied, but it was at least 300 to 400 years old, and it earned the church the title of “The Oldest Bell Tower in America.” Bell ropes were no match for Tacoma’s soggy weather, so to ring the bell, parishioners would have to climb to the church’s roof, then traverse a wooden plank to reach the bell tower.

The massive bell tower would become a symbol of Tacoma’s lumber industry and rough-and-tumble image for the next half century. English Ivy was planted soon after the bell tower was erected, and it quickly overtook the tower and even began to impact the church. By the 1930s, the bell tower was leaning, and the bell was removed for safety. In the 1950s, the cedar tower was replaced by a new log, however, it too was removed in 2017. Today, the bell stands on a metal tower, and ivy is beginning to climb once again. One day in the near future, the ivy will again reach the belfry, and the view of Tacoma’s oldest building will once again appear as it has for more than 150 years.

Know Before You Go

These days, the Anglican church is led by a volunteer pastor. Check the church's website or call for information about services or tours.

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