Frank Herbert’s ‘Dune’: Tacoma’s terraformed narrative

Point Ruston is the inspiration for Dune and Dune is the inspiration for Ruston. 

Let’s think critically about the region we live in and the narratives we tell ourselves. Ruston, Washington is an awfully weird city with a storied history that directly inspired Frank Herbert’s book series “Dune.”  

Point Ruston started as a smelter, processing lead in 1888. In 1890 William Rust bought the smelter and incorporated copper smelting into the list, eventually producing almost ten percent of the nation’s copper. Rust founded Ruston as a company town for his employees, which was incorporated in 1906. Symbolic connections to the Harkonnen’s commence.    

In 1905 Rust sold his plant to the Guggenheim family which owned the American Smelting and Refining Company (ASARCO). The name Ruston has been stuck on these winding streets ever since. The wool over our eyes has been comfortable under the warm glow of industrialization.  

The initiation of the Tacoma Aroma. According to “Their Mines, Our Stories” history project, the beginning of the earth extraction, by all accounts causing immediate controversy based on damage to gardens and livestock from sulfur dioxide.   

Years of polluting smokestacks into the sky. ASARCO claimed that high stacks were the best way to deal with pollution and that Sulfur Dioxide would only cause mild discomfort in humans. The smelter ran until 1985 when the Environmental Protection Agency forced its closure and designated it as a Superfund site.   

In 2012 the Ruston town council, a group of five people, voted unanimously to change Ruston from a town to a non-charter code city, making it the smallest city in Washington, around 800 residents at the time of its inception (sitting around 1,000 residents today). This gives the local officials more autonomy, creating a status as a separate municipality.  

The pollution might be gone but what are we putting here instead? A beautiful spot for the Yacht Club. A high rise on its side, rent always going up. Ruston does not seem to want to serve Tacoma, it serves Point Ruston. Otherwise, why make the distinction for a town that makes up a singular square mile? Surrounded by Tacoma on all sides, a view of the sound and Mount Tahoma forever, a silent scream for annexation. Revel in lost profits along the sulfuric trail.  

Washington state’s Code City Handbook itself explains that “[a]s the state has urbanized, there has been a trend toward greater local self-government and a growing sentiment that municipal government needs greater powers to fulfill its new role.” 

What happens when that proposed city is essentially a private for-profit entity swimming in debt?  

The development of Point Ruston was led by Michael Cohen since 2006, continued by his son Loren Cohen after his father’s death in 2020. The project was completed and unveiled in 2019 but has yet to be paid off. Point Ruston is swamped with unpaid debt and back taxes being fought in court to this day. Despite millions of unpaid dollars Loren Cohen has decided to get involved in a new billion-dollar development in Arizona, as reported by the News Tribune. 

They want you to think it’s over, that they have solved the crisis on Commencement Bay. A brief news article from Metro Parks Tacoma published this past February details the optimistic connection between Frank Herbert’s Dune and the terraforming ideologues turning Arrakis into Caladan.  

There is still poison in this well. A sandworm statue snakes around the newly named Dune Peninsula. A sunrise can be seen every morning across the water. In the summer, kayaks and small boats will paddle into the bay to watch the colors all around them turn from pink to orange to bright blue skies. I might miss all the ways in which our future has become dystopian. Riding our optimistic narratives all the way to unholy complicity. 

Ruston Way on the waterfront. Photo by Cameron Berrens.

Dune Peninsula at Point Defiance Park in Ruston. Photo by Cameron Berrens.