Thursday, January 17, 2008

Community Jewels

The town of Ruston remains hidden, tucked away at the north end of Tacoma’s waterfront between an old dark tunnel and Point Defiance Park. The tiny town stands, in many ways, as one of the last vestiges of small town Amercia. Surrounded on all sides by the big city, community connections are strong, neighbors know one another and town pride is pervasive. And yet this modest town has been the stage of major battles; big city versus small town, corporate giant versus big government, environmental perfection versus reality.

This small town hertitage is often carried in the memories of the elderly, in the stories they tell, and in the imagination of the young who allow themselves to be transported to a long ago time and place. Such stories can only be protected if told and captured. This paper attempts to preserve a few pieces of Ruston’s heritage, to tell a small number of stories gleaned from the old and wise among us and the documents they have left behind.

Ruston’s legacy is that of the Industrial Revolution, of man’s pride in taming the earth and using its riches to enhance his own life. It was that force that laid the seed for the community when Tacoma business leaders built a smelter on Commencement Bay. In its 100 years of existence, this small town has faced societal changes that devastated its economic base and encountered conflicts within and without its borders. Yet it has survived with a unique identity that only struggle and longevity can produce.

Before European settlers reached this shore, other people likely gathered around ancient campfires on Ruston beaches to tell their own stories. What visitors walked the original hillside in centuries past? History has lost such details, but clearly the neighborhood was known to the original native population. A large village existed at the entrance to Gig Harbor that appeared to have been founded by the Puyallup tribe on Hylebos Waterway in Tacoma.[1] The Ruston shoreline surely saw frequent trips between these two groups. The area was called “Cho-chu-chluth” for the maple trees that grew in the area..[2] The Puyallups used the beach for clam harvesting, and early maps refer to the entire shoreline from Point Defiance to Old Tacoma as the “Salmon Banks”.[3]

During Tacoma’s industrial boom years in the late nineteenth century, several local businessmen formed the Tacoma Milling & Smelting Company and began the process of building a lead smelter. In 1888, the group elected a wealthy St. Paul native, Dennis Ryan, as president and construction began. The first 50 employees [4] fired up the furnace on September 12, 1889 and began melting metal ores that were easily shipped by water and rail.[5] Lumber was scavenged from driftwood as much as possible, and the shoreline began to expand as the smelting byproduct of slag was poured into the bay.[6]

Housing sprang up quickly, nestled on the hillside just outside the smelter gate. The first were boarding homes for the single men who worked at the smelter. As a typical turn-of-the century mill town, the hillside also held a barber and many taverns.[7] In time, single family homes were added to accommodate married families The first was built by Marco Budinich around 1890.[8] The fledgling community considered incorporating as Swansea that same year, so named to mirror the industrial success of Swansea, Wales. But when given assurances that the larger city of Tacoma would not annex them, the idea was dropped.[9] The area was simply referred to as Smelter, or Smelterville for the next decade.

The drive for independence took shape as the smelter changed hands. Ryan was not able to make a profit, and sold the business to the manager W.R. Rust within a year. Rust added the smelting of copper, and business grew. The Guggenheim brothers bought the business in 1905 and added it to their American Smelting Company.[10] Rust continued on as manager and lead the drive to incorporate the small town in 1906, going so far as to direct smelter lawyers to draw up the petition for signatures to begin the process.[11] In the months following, meetings were held for citizens to voice their opinion. Women, who had not yet achieved the right to vote, were even invited to attend the debates.[12] The local citizens named their new town Ruston in Rust’s honor when they officially incorporated on Oct. 22, 1906.

With independence secured, November 1906 saw 121 voters register for the first municipal election. The room over Hank’s Store was designated as the official polling place.[13] Among those early citizens, seven different boarding houses were listed as residences, ranging from Smith’s Store to Point Defiance Hotel. Ohio boasted the most American-born citizens, with one voter native to Washington. Fifty-one were of foreign birth, mostly from Sweden and Norway. The majority worked at the smelter (64), with another 33 in related fields such as laborer, craneman, and foreman.[14]

The first council meeting for the young town was held on Nov. 12, 1906 in the school on the bluff overlooking the smelter. Mayor Austen presided with five new council members. G. H. Wallace was appointed clerk and L. Martin was chosen as marshal. These same officials won their seat in that first election on Dec. 7, 1906.

Those early months included the usual duties of the times. For example, the council instructed the “chairman of the streets and alleys committee to notify Mr. Barney Rhodeseid that he must not tear boards off of the railing on 51st Street for the purpose of getting to his chicken coop, but the council would allow him to put in a small gate which they think will be sufficient.”[15] Ordinance #14 addressed similar issues; “It shall be unlawful for any cow, cattle, horse, mule, goat, sheep, run at large between the hours of 8 am and 5 p.m.”[16] It is unclear if animals could run at night as they pleased.

In other business, The Ruston Review was designated as the official paper for the Town, with a bill paid on Dec. 31, 1906. No current resident can recall seeing this paper, and it may be that this vital record is gone forever. In keeping with the industrial nature of the community, the first three business licenses to be issued were for saloons.[17]

Major shifts in American culture are illustrated in Ordinance #10, which declared the following to be disorderly persons: “all female persons who loiter in or about saloons or other places where intoxicating liquors are sold or disposed of, making a business of drinking with men and soliciting men to purchase and drink intoxicating liquor.” Yet some concepts are reborn today. Ordinance #13 made it “unlawful for a child under 16 years of age to be upon the public streets or highways of the Town of Ruston after certain hours of the evening.”

Two years after incorporating, the local newspaper ran a headline declaring, “Ruston More Than Doubles Population and Assessed Valuation in 18 Months”. The article notes that residents had no access to Tacoma “but over a poor, ill-kept wagon road”. Most traveled to and from by boat.[18] The town boasted 125 pupils in the Ruston School, a YMCA clubhouse complete with gym, bowling alleys, pool tables and reading rooms for the smelter men, and a Town Hall with a jail cell in the basement. The mayor, Ed Austen, had recently been replaced by Ed Daley.[19]

The early criminal docket also reveals a distant time. On Jan. 12, 1912 a man was sentenced to 33 days for “giving intoxicating liquor to a habitual drunkard.” In April, five days of jail time for disorderly conduct were suspended for two men when they volunteered to leave town. Someone was given a $1 fine for “insulting and using profane language in public.”[20]

By 1920, the town was well established. The Smelter Club was bustling with indoor baseball games in the winter and dances every weekend. Warm weather saw baseball games on the smelter grounds between the refinery buildings. A new hotel was nearing completion, and furnanceman Wes Newman, who had just completed a correspondence course in detecting, was appointed as Ruston’s new Marshall. Prohibition brought complaints from residents, some of whom could not see the point in taking vacation without liquor.[21]

By 1921, the “crime wave” from Tacoma had reached Ruston, with several burglaries reported early in the year. Locks were a luxury in those days, so Jimmie Debray kept his doors blocked. When someone tried to break into his home, all they did was scare away his poor calf, who ran off dragging a large piece of wood. The calf was recovered the next day, but the wood was too heavy to carry and left in the brush.[22]

There are few residents that can boast of being born and bred within the town borders. One such treasure was Owen Gallagher, who died in 1996 at 83 years young. Owen told of two distinct neighborhoods that had developed by his childhood. Irish immigrants had settled at the north end of town, while a large Croatian population had grown up to the south. Each had their own drinking establishments and fights were common on weekends.[23]

A third generation jewel is Pete Tallman. He recalls that one of the major events for the town was the opening of the bridge on 51st Street in 1941. The bridge replaced a wooden structure and spans the gulch over the Nelson Bennett train tunnel, which had been completed in 1914.[24] The concrete bridge connects the two sides of town and bears a plaque that reads “For a Unified Community.” Pete also told of a common initiation ceremony from his teenage years; that of walking on the busy rail line below the bridge.[25] Teenager’s continue the practice today. Local police are often called to chase them from under the bridge or out of the tunnel.[26] The bridge is on the national historical register and stands closed today, awaiting funds for structural upgrades.

As with Tacoma, World War II was a busy time for Ruston. The council meetings were held in the school gym and each meeting included time to put the names of any young men who were fighting on a display board, adding a star if they were killed in action. That display is still at the town hall today. Neighboring Point Defiance Park and Funland Amusement area were busy recreation destinations for soldiers from Fort Lewis. There were even soldiers and crash boats, used to respond to military plane crashes in the water, permanently stationed at the park during the war.[27] In the interest of national defense, the federal government took over operation of the smelter for a time.[28] By this time, the copper company was named American Smelting and Refining Company, or Asarco.

Ruston had at least one Japanese family that was interned during the war. They operated a laundry on Winnifred Street. The family asked Georgeanne Gallagher to store their belongings in her basement, but her mother had advised against taking on the responsibility. The family apparently did not return after the war.[29]

Ruston’s municipal staff has shown longevity in their positions. Ford Downie served as judge and clerk for 40 years.[30] In 1964, Loretta Prettyman took over as clerk and stayed until 1990.[31] Even though the town elected positions are volunteer, the same principle of longevity has held true for many faithful citizens like Gallager, who served as councilmember and mayor for 32 years, and Mary Joyce, another born and bred treasure, who still holds a council seat after more than 25 years.[32] Incidentally, Owen was of Irish decent and, although they remained friends, was often at political odds over the years with Mary, of Croatian decent.

One of Ruston’s oldest surviving businesses is Ruston Market. The family market began with a bakery near the first school building on Shirley Street. A fire in 1917 burned the entire block and the market moved to its current location at N. 51st and Winnifred Streets. [33] The school was rebuilt and expanded to include the entire block on Shirley Street.

Ruston has always fiercely held to its independence, even though Tacoma had grown to surround it by mid-century. One threat to the smaller town’s identity arose in 1966 when the state cut off special aid to Ruston school because it was no longer considered “remote and necessary”.[34] The school was eventually incorporated into the Tacoma School District, who shut its doors in 1985. There is hope that Asarco will be able to upgrade the building and use it for office space during the environmental clean up of the smelter site.[35]

On the other side of town, the Unicorn Tavern endures as another long-standing Ruston icon. Known as “The Brick” for most of its years due to its brick construction, the business served as a watering hole for smelter workers for many decades. Just down the street, the Krillich Brothers Grocery operated for much of the century. The building still stands, used as living space now, but its story is symbolic of Ruston’s journey.

George was the first Krillich to arrive in Ruston in 1902. He set up a small grocery and eventually brought his wife and brothers from Yugoslavia. He and his three brothers built a boarding house and grocery store upon returning. It opened in 1912. When George died just six years later, his family carried on the business.[36]

Each morning, smelter men would gather in the basement dining room of the store to eat a meal and gather lunch before heading off to work. English as well as native Eastern European tongues were spoken. During the day, the local housewives would visit the grocery on the main floor. The men would gather again on their way home, sometimes a bit unsteady after a respite at The Brick. Several would head upstairs to bed in the cots provided in the boarding section of the building, while others would head home to families housed close by.

The 1950’s brought the use of automobiles and forever changed the face of American culture. No longer were small, local stores needed within walking distance. Krillich Brother’s Grocery closed and laid dormant for three decades. The only activity for the store was in 1971 when the town government ordered the building to be upgraded or demolished.[37] The owner remodeled and sold it in 1985. The doors were opened once again, this time to auction off the contents of the building. Along with groceries still sporting 30-year-old price tags, an antique bean counter and other pieces of history, the dining table that has served so many was sold.[38]

Many of the Krillich family remained close by. George’s son Charlie was born in 1908. At age 70, his routine included a stop each morning at The Brick to cash a check and buy candy, then he wandered the streets of Ruston, passing out treats to local children. His brother Ned was on the Metropolitan Park Board for a time.[39] Mary Joyce is the daughter of one of the Krillich brothers, and spent much of her childhood delivering groceries for the family business.[40]

Politics has always been tumultuous in this little town, perhaps because it is so small. A tiny community compared to its neighbor Tacoma, Ruston enjoys a sense of a close-knit community, where neighbors know and care for each other. But personalities run strong in such a setting, often played out on the stage of the local political scene. One such stormy period was in 1971. John Krillich, a Pierce County Superior Court Commissioner,[41] was appointed chairman of a citizens committee to evaluate the effectiveness of the mayor and town government. Two councilmembers had just resigned from the planning commission and the search was on for a new building inspector.[42]

In 1978, the mayor took the unusual step of appointing the police chief as head of the volunteer fire department. Five firemen resigned, including the fire chief.[43] Doris Sage had just won her council seat with a coin toss after a tie vote with Leo Wingard.[44] Leo, a second generation gem, would continue to battle the town in various ways until he died at 90 years old in 1997. Although not related to town politics, Ruston has seen the violent death of two of its mayors in recent years. Mayor Pete Brudevold was murdered in 1988 and Mayor Phil Parker committed suicide in 1995.[45]

Space does not permit an adequate discussion in this writing, but no story of Ruston would be complete without a brief look at the smelter and its impact on the town. Decades of worry and forecasts of doom for Ruston culminated with the closure of the Asarco plant in 1985. The town saw its annual tax revenue from Asarco drop from $340,000 to $12,000 in 1987,[46] as well as the termination of the final 500 employees. The volunteer fire department was disbanded and the police force cut.[47]

Many predicted that such an event would destroy the small town and force annexation to Tacoma. But stubbornness and love for the community has kept the municipal offices open somehow. By 1993, the giant smelter smokestack was imploded, and that autumn a unique public planning process was begun. The year-long series of workshops brought into focus the dream of reuse for the waterfront property. Those plans culminated in agreements between the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Asarco and the local municipalities in 1997.[48]

Things are starting to improve for this tiny community now. Along with the plans for the smelter property, Asarco has replaced most of the yards in Ruston to remove trace levels of arsenic and lead left in the dirt from plant emissions.[49] Many residents hope for a new image without the stigma of EPA “contamination” issues haunting them.[50] And the fire department was reactivated in 1986.[51]

Ruston’s historical crown has many gems with its second generation citizens. As the third and fourth generations add jewels to the crown, the town will do well to cherish the memories of its elders and hold fast to their wisdom. With the tremendous changes to the town’s fabric underway, the community must gather the stories and record their collective past. Only then can the future be built on a solid, strong foundation for the many generations to come.


Department of Economic Development Block Grant Application, Town of Ruston, 1987.

Dupuis, Carl. Tacoma Smelter, Conservation Corps Writing Project, 1937.

Environmental Protection Agency Fact Sheet, July 1993.

Morgan, Murray. Puget’s Sound. Seattle & London: University of Washington Press, 1979.

Ruston Market & Deli Menu, 1998.

Smith, Marian. The Puyallup-Nisqually. New York: AMS Press, 1935.

Tacoma Daily Ledger, February 1890-June 1908.

Tacoma News Tribune, July 1971-January 1997.

Tacoma Smelter News, September 1920, January 1921.

The Tacoma Sunday News Tribune And Ledger, 17 June 1956.

Town of Ruston Council Meeting Minutes, 1906-1997.

Town of Ruston Criminal Docket, 1912.

Town of Ruston Ordinance Book Number 1.

Town of Ruston Voter Book 1 and 2, 1906.

[1] Marian W. Smith, The Puyallup-Nisqually (New York: AMS Press, 1935), 11.
[2] Blaine Johnson, “There was a boom in Ruston’s real estate roots,” Tacoma News Tribune, 13 February 1994.
[3] Cheryl Miller, Local Historian, Personal Interview, 5 November , 1997.
[4] Don Duncan, “Ruston’s 759 Make It Little City Within a City,” The Tacoma Sunday News Tribune And Ledger, 17 June 1956.
[5] Carl Dupuis, Tacoma Smelter, Conservation Corps Writing Project, 21 January 1937.
[6] “Who’s Who In The Smelter: Charlie Harry,” Tacoma Smelter News, January 1921.
[7] Caroline Kellogg, “Time Machine: Ruston: memorial to a gifted man with a vision,” The News Tribune, 9 January 1977.
[8] “Ruston More Than Doubles Population and Assessed Valuation in 18 Months,” Tacoma Daily Ledger,
14 June 1908.
[9] “No Town of Swansea,” Tacoma Daily Ledger, 12 February 1890.
[10] Carl Dupuis, Ibid.
[11] “Incorporate a New Town,” Tacoma Daily Ledger, 12 August 1906.
[12] “Smelter Citizens Plan Big Meeting,” Tacoma Daily Ledger, 2 September 1906.
[13] Town of Ruston Council Meeting Minutes, 12 November 1906.
[14] Voter Books 1 and 2: Town of Ruston, 1906.
[15] Ruston Town Council Meeting Minutes, 17 December 1906.
[16] Ordinance Book Number 1: Town of Ruston.
[17] Ruston Town Council Meeting Minutes, 26 November 1906.
[18] “Sampling Department” Tacoma Smelter News, September 1920.
[19] “Ruston More Than Doubles Population and Assessed Valuation in 18 Months,” Ibid.
[20] Criminal Docket: Town of Ruston, 1912.
[21] “Main Office, Casting House Notes, Refinery Notes, Power House,” Tacoma Smelter News,
September 1920.
[22] “Smelting Department,” Tacoma Smelter News, January 1921.
[23] Owen Gallagher, Former Ruston Mayor, Personal Conversation, 4 July 1995.
[24] Murray Morgan, Puget’s Sound, (Seattle & London: University of Washington Press, 1979), 312.
[25] Pete Tallman, Ruston Resident, Personal Interview, 2 February 1998.
[26] Kim Wheeler, Ruston Police Chief, Personal Conversations, 1994-98.
[27] Tallman, Ibid.
[28] Thomas Aldrich, Asarco Site Manager, Personal Conversation, 1995.
[29] Georgeanne Gallager, Ruston Resident, Personal Conversation, 7 March 1998.
[30] “Ruston Panel Fills Positions, Lauds Downie,” The New Tribune, 4 June 1964.
[31] Verna Holbrook, Town of Ruston Deputy Clerk, Personal Interview, 9 March 1998.
[32] Holbrook, Ibid.
[33] “A Little History,” Ruston Market & Deli Menu, 1998.
[34] Ray Ruppert, “Tiny Ruston Facing New Threat Against Its Independent Status,” The News Tribune,
29 January 1966.
[35] Town of Ruston Meeting Minutes, November 1997.
[36] Bob Lane, “Turing pages: 63 years of Ruston history goes on auction block,” Tacoma News Tribune,
2 November 1985.
[37] Bob Lane, “Ruston May Raze Landmark,” Tacoma News Tribune, 6 July 1971.
[38] Bob Lane, 2 November 1985, Ibid.
[39] Howard Ferguson, “Just About People: Charlie’s the candy man for the children of Ruston,” Tacoma News Tribune, 21 September 1978.
[40] Mary K. Joyce, Ruston Councilmember, Personal Conversation, 1991.
[41] Susan Gordon, “Waiting: Asarco-dependent Ruston facing major change in its lifestyle,” Tacoma News Tribune, 13 October 1984.
[42] Bob Lane, “Ruston Mayor Hears Complaints, Rejects Use of Hall for Hearings,” Tacoma News Tribune, 20 July 1978.
[43] Churchill, “Who’s Boss? Ruston firemen resign,” Tacoma News Tribune, 11 October 1978.
[44] Richard Sypher, “Contested Ruston vote faces hearing debate,” The News Tribune, 16 January 1978.
[45] Personal Experience, 1986-97.
[46] Department of Economic Development Block Grant Application, Town of Ruston, 1987.
[47] Dan Vopel, “Ruston firefighters hang up the hose,” The News Tribune, 24 March 1985.
[48] Barbara Clements, “Old Asarco site is destined for business park and green belts,” The News Tribune,
9 January 1997.
[49] Environmental Protection Agency Fact Sheet, June 21, 1993.
[50] Beth Torbet, Ruston Market, Personal Conversation, 1994.
[51] Jim Pickett, Former Ruston Firefighter, Personal Conversation, 8 March 1998.

No comments: