Dickman Mill Park Expansion and Head Saw Restoration
Metro Parks Tacoma
The Dickman Mill Park expansion connects the public to Tacoma’s past, integrating historical and ecological restoration while enhancing recreational opportunities along Ruston Way. The Anchor QEA team led the effort to return the restored head saw to the park in 2021, building off the earlier Master Planning and Phase 1 work led by Anchor QEA staff in 2001.
Challenges and Solutions
This public space incorporates authentic historical artifacts, public art, native plantings, and coastal resiliency design strategies to create an evocative and accessible visitor experience. The design reflects thoughtful research into Dickman Lumber Mill’s history and mechanical processes, offering opportunities to explore the massive head saw and carriage placed in its original location with a backdrop of Commencement Bay views. At first sight, the head saw appears as a sculptural object. When approached, a story of Tacoma’s working industrial waterfront unfolds.
A Douglas fir-decked plaza and stacks of fir planks, which serve as benches, evoke the sawmill floor and lumberyard. A narrow overwater catwalk runs parallel to the 45-foot-long by 7-foot-diameter Ghost Log representing the thousands of old-growth trees processed at the site of Dickman Lumber Mill, Tacoma’s longest-running sawmill. The weathering steel sculpture by artist Mary Cross strengthens the site’s story, representing old-growth timber alongside traditional basket weave and cedar boughs, sacred to the Puyallup Tribe. As Ruston Way shifted from industrial to recreational use, the expanded Dickman Mill Park contextualizes Tacoma’s timber industry and Native American history in the landscape. This project seeks to make the complex legacies of Indigenous and settler relationships to the waterfront more legible—many tribal members also worked in the lumber mills along Ruston Way.
There is a varied design approach to help visitors engage with the scale and significance of this place: preservation of on-site foundations, elevated circulation around the industrial objects, and integration of art and interpretive signage. New riparian plantings include native dune grass (Elymus mollis) and gumweed (Grindelia integrifolia) and enhance the coastal marsh and shoreline habitat buffers. To increase tidal exchange and fish passage within and between the existing relic mill concrete foundation’s walls, a section of vertical wall was removed in the nearshore area. Overwater decking in the nearshore area is grated to maximize light penetration to the habitat below. Industrial debris (including bricks and concrete from the beach area) was removed, and select bricks were reused around the head saw foundation. The plaza and catwalk are raised 3 feet or more above the park’s ground level to accommodate the dynamic shoreline environment and sea level rise. Selected materials carefully considered the sensitive shoreline setting. All steel is stainless or has a marine coating to avoid the use of galvanized steel, which contains zinc, an element harmful to salmon.
Dickman Mill Park offers an inclusive experience to interpret a historic lumber mill. Cambia Health Solutions (Cambia), the parent company of Regence BlueShield, made a significant gift to Metro Parks Tacoma, allowing the head saw to return to the site. Cambia’s first clients were workers in Tacoma’s timber industry, and this gift was a way to give back to the community. Interpretive signage with detailed diagrams of historic mill processes provides additional context and includes QR codes that link to the voices of people who lived and worked at the mill site. The design provides Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)-compliant ramps to the plaza and beach, connecting visitors to the surrounding park and head saw. The interpretation, research, and understanding of the historic mill industry and processes drove decision-making from concept through implementation, resulting in a unique and accessible public space.
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