Thursday, January 17, 2008

The View From Here

As I look out my window to the water stretched out below, I wonder what view greeted the distant occupant of this house when it was built in 1912. What was life like for former inhabitants of this little town? Did they face the same struggles as a community? Were their heartaches and joys the same as ours today? Was the town close-knit or divided? Has the view out my window changed or remained the same?

Words help to paint pictures, to make the imagined real to the reader. Living in a small town can bring meaning to words only dreamed about in modern suburbia. Community: a body of people living in the same place under the same laws. Home: the social unit formed by a family living together, a place of origin, a congenial environment. Society: a voluntary association of persons for common ends, i.e. companionship, a part of a community bound together by common interests and standards. Such words blend into stories that make a group of individuals into a community, into a town. These pages will document but a few of the stories of my home, Ruston, and give fleeting glimpses of the pictures that might have been seen out my window over the past century.

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 America. Surrounded on all sides by the big city of Tacoma, community connections are strong, neighbors know one another and civic pride is pervasive.

Long before settlers moved into Commencement Bay, the native Americans used this bluff as a burial ground for their dead.[1] The Puyallup tribe gathered food from the shoreline as timber stood tall on the hillside. The view of hillside began to change by the 1860’s as the new community of Tacoma began to develop just to the south. The United States claimed the land to the north at the tip of Commencement Bay as a military reservation, leaving a stretch of undeveloped land between that would become the town of Ruston.

The area might have developed as just another Tacoma neighborhood but for the seeds sown when a lead smelter was located on this patch of land in 1889.[2] Early photos show lumber mills lining the shoreline from Point Defiance along the bay, including sites on either side of the smelter. Once the timber had been cleared, the land would have likely sat vacant until population growth overtook it. But housing for smelter employees brought the area to life long before Tacoma spread around it, creating a separate community at the edge of the military reservation.

Ruston’s tiny shoreline housed many businesses by the turn of the century; besides the smelter, a lumber mill continued to operate to the south as well as a brickyard. On the south side of the brickyard, just outside of town, there was a Japanese housing facility.[3] The military reservation had been opened to the greater community for use as a park, creating a new destination point for many in Tacoma and bringing visitors through the area via trolley car lines that ran north and south down Pearl Street.[4]

Early census data shows that a thriving community was well established even before the town incorporated in 1906. An 1880 census was taken at a logging camp that may have been located in the Point Defiance area. By 1900, several homes are listed in the area along Pearl Street. The industrial nature of the community is clear by the 1910 census. Most of the residences had at least one single man listed as a boarder or roomer. Many of the homes show extended families living together, listing mother-in-laws, aunts, cousins and stepchildren at the same address.

There was a thriving hotel business in Ruston by 1910. Six addresses had over 10 people listed as boarders, with another seven housing at least five roomers. These in-house communities were often immigrants of the same origin. The area around North 49th Street had 17 homes with boarders, with all the occupants born Austria, Sweden or Norway. In the majority of the residences, most spoke Slovenian or Croatian with only one or two who could speak English. Most worked at the smelter. The only exception was a boarding house with 17 Japanese who worked at a sawmill. North 51st Street, which divides the town in half, had at least two major hotels at the bottom of the hill near the smelter gates. One location had a mixture of boarders who were primarily born in midwestern states and worked at a variety of local business. The other had 18 residents from Hungary who spoke Romanian, most of whom worked at the smelter. The area north of 51st Street was single family homes with very few extra occupants.[5]

One of Ruston’s founders was JP Garrison. His story is reflective of many of the turn-of-the-century men who formed the backbone of the community. He moved from Texas to Old Tacoma to live with his cousin without much education. He was sickly and not expected to live long. But he seemed to flourish in his new environment, building one of the first homes in the Ruston in about 1890. He made his early living with a team of horses that he would hire out to clear logs from Point Defiance park. But during the economic downturn of 1890, he sold his horses and went to work for the smelter. JP was one of the first councilmen elected and although he died just after WWII, the family remained active in local politics until the early 1990’s, when his daughter-in-law Etta passed away.[6]

One of the early tasks for the town fathers was to install sewers for these many homes. At one of the first council meetings, 40 property owners presented a petition to the town and agreed to pay $5 each for the construction of a main sewer line. But 9 others protested levying any taxes to pay for the sewer. The motion to build the line passed with only three votes on Dec. 10, 1906.[7] The town later passed an ordinance requiring homes to connect to the system, making it illegal to “maintain cesspools on the premises where sewers were accessible.”[8]

Leslie Tallman was appointed the first town marshal on January 1, 1907. He worked on law enforcement when he was not busy at his smelter job. A street and alley committee was appointed that first year to deal with roadway issues. Mr. Chambers donated “plank enough” to the committee to build a crossing over 51st and Pearl street and the marshal was “authorized to take the matter in hand and see that the crossing was put down in a substantial manner.” The committee originally authorized Seattle/Tacoma Power Company to build a new electrical system with a 50 year franchise, but after objections were raised about features of the powerlines, the full council denied the franchise.[9] This denial apparently caused problems when Tacoma reported that they could not supply power to Ruston because they had contracted with the same Seattle/Tacoma Power Company.

By spring of 1907, the fledgling town was ready to build its own town hall. The manager of the smelter, Mr. Rust, offered the town a lot next to the Darr Hotel on 51st street, which the town accepted with construction costs of the new facility estimated at $1762. In the meantime, the town was trying to clean up its image. The marshal was instructed to notify residents to clear up their yards and “put rubbish in barrels and have it hauled away.” An ordinance was passed that authorized the impounding and killing of stray dogs, and Mr. Rust was asked for a location to keep impounded dogs and cattle.[10]

Along with the hotels, a commercial district took shape around the intersection of 51st and Pearl Streets. Most residents lived, worked and played within the five block town limits. To help keep them entertained, the building that is now Coles Tavern on 51st began a theater with a stage lit by kerosene lamps.[11] The neighboring building, now an antique mall, was a grocery store for many years. A large drugstore operated across the street in the building that is now the Antique Sandwich Company. During the 1940’s, a well known jazz club was located in the Showboat Tavern building just south of the theater.[12] Not to be outdone, the smelter had a clubhouse a few blocks away on N. 52nd and Bennett Street. It closed during World War II, but local children continued to sneak in at night and use the bowling lanes and pool tables.[13]

It is unclear what impact the first world war had on this tiny town. But many documents remain that show how World War II affected Ruston. Because the production of copper was important to the war effort, the federal government took over operation of the smelter. Barracks were constructed close by to house the many workers, many of whom were brought in to replace young men who had been called into military service. The smelter produced a newsletter called “The Slag” during the war years that was sent to all former employees. The newsletter was an important reminder of home to those on the battlelines, and a way for them to stay in contact with each other by publishing letters from the servicemen. One wrote, “I wish to add my thanks for sending me the ‘Slag’. It helps link the broken chain between us and home...wishing all...continous success so we can all meet again when the plant whistle blows in the very near future.”[14]

Many who grew up in this town say the world revolved around the smelter whistle. The sound was heard at each shift change, bringing an instant flood of workers to and from the smelter at the bottom of the hill. The whistle was a signal for children to hurry home, the call for firemen to respond to help and it even blew to welcome in the new year each New Years Eve. Even though her husband walked down the hill to work each morning, Myrtle Johnson talked about how the blast was her signal to take the car to pick up him from work each afternoon.[15] John Krillich, who grew up in town, described the rush after the whistle as “the sidewalks were just black with men. It was a veritable parade up and down Pearl Street”.[16]

Ruston has always housed several taverns to quench the thirst of its many hardworking smeltermen. But the small town has its church buildings as well. A Lutheran church is now home to an antique shop at N. 52nd and Pearl Street. But a congregation met there until at least the 1950’s.[17] Just down the street, next to Showboat Tavern, a brick building held Glad Tidings Assembly of God church for many years. Glad Tidings has moved out of Ruston but the building is now home to the Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church.

Over the years, some local eccentrics have taken on legendary status. Sanitary Sam lived on Commercial Street near the base of the smelter stack. He was well known for his collection of garbage. The hillside behind his house was littered with appliances and junk. It is rumored that he died after he was forced to take a bath.[18]

Chicken Olie, who lived at corner of North 50th and Commercial Streets, had a similar reputation. He had chickens, goats and rabbits living in the house. When some young schoolboys were caught shooting pigeons in town, the marshal punished them by having them help clean out the structure after the town had condemned it. It was a daunting task. Rather than wash dishes, Olie would eat off newspapers, each meal adding a new layer to his dining room table. One of the young men noted the poultry company who came to take the chickens and swore he would never buy one of their products again. Town officials moved Olie into a nursing home, burned his old house and built him a new one. He set the new house on fire the day after moving back.[19]

Another location for childhood legends were the old smelter barracks. There were stories about a murder there during the war, and kids would sneak in after they were deserted and skate in the old cafeteria. The area eventually became the home and junkyard of another local legend, Leo Wingard. Leo was often at odds with town officials, creating numerous court battles as the town tried to get him to clean up his property. There are rumors that early in the battle, the town fire department refused to put out a fire at the old barracks, leaving some to wonder if one of the town officials had set the fire deliberately.[20] Leo ran for election on more than one occasion and almost won a seat in 1977 when he tied with Doris Sage. The tie was broken by a coin toss, with Leo losing.[21] He later claimed the election was rigged and sued the county elections department.[22]

The most memorable structure in Ruston over the past century has been the smelter smokestack. It was built in 1917 and stood 571 feet tall on the bluff overlooking the smelter. The structure was built in just 9 months, using teams of horses to cut a deep circular base into the clay soil. It was the tallest stack in the world at the time. But the record did not stand long. An earth-quake the first year caused damage that required the removal of the top ten feet of brick.

The stack saw its share of action over the years. It was news when it got a new coat of paint,[23] and was even used for a wedding in 1929.[24] It was a popular site for protesters, with environmental groups using it for occasional messages supporting their cause.[25] Even after the fires cooled under the stack, banners were hung by the daring who would sneak up its ladder. A local family hung a remembrance to their mother in 1991. Even with sticks of dynamite drilled into its brick, the night before the stack was brought down, a foolhardy radio fan hung a sheet celebrating a ‘blast the stack’ party.[26]

The stack was imploded on January 17, 1993, eight years after the smelter closed its doors. An estimated 100,000 people gathered in Ruston to watch the event. The local newspaper reported that the old smelter whistle would signal the fall of the chimney, not realizing that the whistle was inoperable without steam from the smelter furnaces. So police sirens tried to substitute and shortly after noon, the stack fell in 8 seconds to sound of boat horns and yells, and the bittersweet tears of those watching.

For many the demise of the smelter stack signaled only good things. But for many longtime Rustonites, it was a symbol of the rejection by the larger community of the industrial base that had built not only Ruston, but also Tacoma. It was a reminder of the lean years ahead, struggling to survive without businesses to tax or employees to house. While many in Tacoma were applauding as the dust cleared, some locals were quietly mourning the end of an era and wondering about the future of the little town. Doomsday prophecies about Ruston’s inability to survive without the smelter had been abundant for decades, but somehow the community remains intact almost 15 years after that last employee clocked out.

In many ways, the view from my window has changed dramatically. There is no smelter at the bottom of the hill. Ruston survives as a bedroom community, working out a new identity for itself in the midst of a changing world. Yet much has remained constant. Neighbors know one another here. Families watch each others children grow and new generations take the place of the last. In a word, ‘community’ becomes a verb here in Ruston. Its a great view.

[1] Michael Sullivan, Local Historian, Personal conversation with author, October 1998.
[2] The News Tribune, Smelter flourished in early 1900s, 9 August 1985.
[3] Stanford Atlas Maps, Vol. I, 1912, Northwest Room, Tacoma Public Library.
[4] Murray and Rosa Morgan, South On The Sound, (Windsor Publications: Woodland Hills, California 1984), 104.
[5] Census, Pierce County Washington 1880, 1900, 1910, Northwest Room, Tacoma Public Library.
[6] Lee Garrison, Ruston childhood resident, Personal conversation with author, 13 May 1998.
[7] Ruston Council Meeting Minutes, 10 December 1906.
[8] Ruston Ordinance Number 15, January 1907.
[9] Ruston Council Minutes, 31 December 1906, 17 January 1907.
[10] Ruston Council Minutes, 24 February, 6 May, 3 June 1907.
[11] Bob Fletcher, Local Historian, Personal conversation with author, September 1998.
[12] Tom Collins, UWT Professor, History of Jazz, August 1998.
[13] Bill Baker, Ruston childhood resident, Personal conversation with author, 27 July 1998.
[14] The Slag, May 1944.
[15] Myrtle Johnson, Ruston resident, Personal conversation with author, 14 November 1998.
[16] The News Tribune, Waiting: Asarco-dependent Ruston facing major change in its lifestyle, 13 October 1984.
[17] Photo, Ruston Senior Gathering, October 1998.
[18] Dan Gallagher, Ruston resident, Personal conversation with author, March 1998.
[19] Pete Tallman, Ruston resident, Personal conversation with author, 9 April 1998.
[20] Mary Joyce, Ruston resident, Personal conversation with author, 1987.
[21] The News Tribune, Sage ‘flipped’ onto council, 1 December 1977.
[22] The News Tribune, Elections loser claims ballot was misplaced, 7 December 1977.
[23] The News Tribune, Smelter Stack Looking Prettier, 20 June 1973.
[24] The News Tribune, Legendary Landmark, 15 January 1993.
[25] The New Tribune, Seattle, Keep Your Protesters: Letters to the Editor, 19 October 1984.
[26] Personal knowledge of author.

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