Let’s say, for a moment, that you are relaxing comfortably in your favorite chair, armed with a blank crossword puzzle and a hot mug of jasmine tea, when someone approaches and asks if you would be interested in joining them in an outing to the Port of Tacoma Observation Tower…what thoughts come to mind? Would you see yourself in our bustling entrepôt standing in front of a welcoming and impressive tower, from which you can see incredible views of the country’s sixth largest seaport?

If this scene doesn’t exactly describe the first things that come to mind when an afternoon jaunt to the Port of Tacoma is mentioned, fear not, you are not alone. Most are surprised to learn the Port of Tacoma has an Observation Tower, let alone have had the opportunity to climb its concrete steps and gaze up the Sitcum Waterway and out into Commencement Bay.

Port of Tacoma Observation Tower
The view of the Port of Tacoma Observation Tower, as seen from the parking area. Photo credit: Fred Tu

As is the case with any good outing, getting there can be half the adventure, with roads crisscrossing the tapestry of the port that range in condition from “heavily worn” to “gadzooks!” Signage, rules of the road and even the streets themselves seem to cease their normal, logical flow for a time, instead taking on a casual and beguiling life all their own, twisting, turning, starting and stopping in a bit of a confused and stuttered rush. Finally, fueled by your favorite playlist, your adventurous spirit and your trusty GPS, you arrive safely in the spacious parking area. You can save your center consul quarters and dimes for other pressing needs; there is plenty of free parking available year-round at the Observation Tower, day or night. 

Upon arriving, the first thing you notice of the more than 30-year-old structure is its unique shape. Designed by Merritt-Pardini and constructed by Hoffcon, Inc., the structure consists of a masonry tower approximately 30 feet tall with a wraparound staircase connecting four distinct levels, each with ample signage. It has a large circular open space in its center, providing superior views from the lower levels as well as supplementing the tower’s unique style.

Port of Tacoma Observation Tower
Port of Tacoma Commissioner John McCarthy (L) and Port of Tacoma Senior Manager of Communications Rod Koon (R) taking a moment to take in the view from the ground level of the Observation Tower. Photo credit: Fred Tu

The Port of Tacoma Observation Tower was first inaugurated on a cold and drizzly morning on November 21, 1988. According to Rod Koon, Senior Manager of Communications for the Port of Tacoma, the tower was: “Designed and built as a thank you to the people of Pierce County for the creation of the Port of Tacoma 70 years prior.” Mr. Koon was present at the inauguration ceremony, and in fact wrote all of the original signage for the tower documenting the history of the Port, of which there is an impressive collection.

Also present on the Observation Tower’s inauguration day was Port of Tacoma Commissioner John McCarthy, who stated that the Observation Tower allowed the public to “Let people come and see the waterfront at work.”

While the Observation Tower is not fully ADA accessible, having three flights of stairs and no elevator, Mr. Koon stated that, “We wanted to make it as accessible as possible, with as much signage and views as possible from the ground level.” There are indeed informational signs on each level, with several located on the first and top levels. In addition, there is a complimentary observation telescope on the top level. While the swivel-style telescope may lack the crystal-clear focus of yesteryear, it is free to use and does provide a unique opportunity to view the port’s comings and goings up close. According to Mr. Koon, they “wanted to make sure it was free so that everyone has a chance to use it.” A fitting sentiment for this unique local landmark, constructed as a “thank you” to the citizens of Pierce County. 

Port Observation Tower riboon cutting dedication
Inauguration Day: November 22, 1988. from L to R, Port Commissioners Jack Fabulich, John McCarthy, Ned Shera, Pat O’Malley and Tacoma Mayor Doug Sutherland. Photo courtesy: Port of Tacoma

The Port of Tacoma Observation Tower is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year and is located at 1 Sitcum Plaza, Tacoma, WA 98421. The Port of Tacoma offers complimentary monthly bus tours (approximately 75 minutes long) of the Port of Tacoma, including the Observation Tower. For more information, call 253-383-5841, or email bustours@portoftacoma.com. More information can be found at the Port of Tacoma Travel Tacoma page.