Early-day Tacoma remembered as a busy, pleasant place
Clayton Rubidge was born in Tacoma in 1902 and lived here all his life. His recollections give us a look at the city at the time. A lifelong Tacoman, Clayton Rubidge dictated his memories about the Tacoma of his boyhood to Joan Hokanson Harelson an unknown number of years ago. In 2015 she sent the memoir to Harry Hokanson. He in turn sent it to his longtime friend Jack Falskow. We’re indebted to Jack for sending it to his former colleague at the College of Puget Sound, Tacoma Historical Society Board Vice-President Dale Wirsing who edited the memoir for this publication.
In turn-of-the century Tacoma people built their homes along the streetcar line. There is an unverified report that the streetcar went down Washington, then up 31st Street to Proctor. There were some tall trees in the area but no woods. Clayton remembered a grove of slim fir trees behind their house. The house in those days had white boards with a wide porch around the front and side, and a garden sloping down in the back.
Washington School was being built at the time when Clayton was a small child (ca. 1900). His sister Alvina was graduating from Lowell School (the 8th grade) and Clayton’s mother was invited to attend. The 4- or 5-year-old Clayton was left with a neighbor, and given a nickel and told he could go to the grocery store at 30th and Washington and buy a piece of candy. A wooden sidewalk was bordered by a very high fence. On this hot June day, Clayton clambered up to walk along the top of the fence. He fell off and broke his leg. To keep his leg in a firm position for mending, he was made to sit with bags of sand supporting his leg. He remembered that this sand came from the building site at Washington School.
The 26th and Proctor shopping and business district was already established in Clayton’s childhood, with Washington School, Beall’s Florists (with greenhouses and an office), Mrs. Coleman’s Bakery, the Paramount Theater and the Proctor Theater, and a grocery store. Clayton recalls the rumble of flat cars on the streetcar line bringing wood at night to Anderson’s wood yard at 27th and Proctor. The wood, in 4-foot lengths, was cut into 16-inch pieces and sold as firewood. Homes were heated either by coal or wood, and some had central heating.
One day the principal of Washington School came into the classroom and told the children not to go home across the Union Avenue Bridge because it had collapsed. That was in 1914 or 1915. Near there, at the end of 31st Street, in the gulch, was a gravel pit. Clayton remembers walking past it when he and the neighborhood children went down to the bay to swim. In the winter, if there was snow, they would slide down Proctor Street and over the bridge.
In 1890 the streetcar line went all the way to Point Defiance Park. North 45th and Orchard was Poor Man’s Corner. It cost 5 cents to get that far, but if you wanted to ride all the way to the park, you had to pay 5 cents more.
One year Clayton visited his aunts in Steilacoom, where they were renting a house from Dr. McCutcheon, on a hill overlooking the Sound. The aunts were two of his father’s sisters. The household included the husband of one of them, and a cousin, who had come from Winnipeg in 1909. To get to Steilacoom Clayton and his mother took the streetcar to downtown. Then they transferred to the cable car that made a loop from A Street, up 11th to K street, over to 13th and down again to A. When they reached 11th and K, they transferred to the streetcar to Steilacoom. It was powered by electricity. and by the time it was approaching Steilacoom from Chambers Creek, it was running out of power, so just before it went up the last hill from Chambers Creek, everyone but the children and the elderly had to get out and walk up to the terminal.
It was an easy-going life in those days. Milk was delivered by horse. The milkman would walk beside the cart and the horse knew where to stop. The grocers would go round in the morning and take orders, returning with the goods later in the day. A bread truck would come by, and also a vegetable truck.
Around the houses there was less lawn. There were lots of roses, and few rhododendrons, only the wild variety brought in from the woods. In those days many people raised chickens, and some had cows or horses. Cows were pastured at the College of Puget Sound.
Clayton’s father worked in the hardware business, for the Hunt-Mottet Company. The company tried to make the employees as happy as they could — without paying them too much. They must have been given a week’s vacation in summer, since Clayton remembered several outings with his father and mother.
One excursion was by boat, to Arletta. They took the streetcar downtown, walked to the wharf, then took the steamer for three hours to a country inn at Arletta, near Fox Island. There the owner of the inn, a Mr. Powell, took people ashore in his rowboat. Clayton remembers his rather stout mother being unhappy about getting into the rocking little rowboat.
When Clayton was about six years old the family went to stay at Mesler’s near the Mount Rainier National Park entrance. They took the train from the Tacoma Eastern Depot, on 26th and Pacific (later the Milwaukee Station). At Ashford they got into an open carriage and were taken to Mesler’s, where they stayed with other summer boarders for a few days. Clayton and his father took the carriage one day to Longmire, where they stayed overnight, and then went on horseback to Paradise, to Reese’s Camp, which was a large tent. Clayton remembers sitting at table, family-style, with James Longmire at the head.
Crowds of people rode the streetcar to Point Defiance Park on fine Sundays. Ice cream was delivered from the Olympic Ice Cream Co. by boat to the Pavilion for the ice cream stands. At the stands people made their own cones with a hot iron press. People went bathing, not swimming; they had picnics, rental boats, and bought ice cream cones.
Over the century the climate has been changing. Clayton remembers his mother saying she hoped the snowballs (the bush) would be out by Memorial Day. Nowadays they are long gone by the end of May. The boys and girls used to skate on the pond in Wright Park, and on Snake Lake.
During Clayton’s childhood downtown Tacoma’s streets were paved. He recalls crowds milling around, and the stores full of people. Union Station was built in 1911. It replaced a wooden structure. Indians came down from British Columbia to pick hops in the Puyallup Valley. They would also sit on the corner of 11th and Broadway and sell baskets.
People traveled to Seattle by boat. Boats left every two hours and took about 1 hour and 45 minutes to reach Seattle. The Flyer, the best known ship, did four round trips a day at 18 miles an hour. The Tacoma was another well-loved boat.
Clayton’s uncle had a dog, Bosun, who walked by himself to the streetcar (the traction line), jumped on when it slowed down at a corner near Tacoma Avenue and went downtown, where he spent the day going up and down in an elevator in a department store.
Clayton attended Washington School for eight years, and then Stadium High School. He also was sent to Mason Methodist Sunday School, but perhaps did not go so often, as he never got the chicken dinner promised to children with good attendance. During his time in high school, in 1914-15, Clayton’s mother had a stroke, and Clayton left school to work at Peoples Store. When his mother died in 1917, both Clayton and his father went to live with an uncle and aunt who lived on Tacoma Avenue. After a stint at Peoples Store, Clayton found employment selling car parts.
His father bought a Model-T Ford, which might have cost $400. There was a gas tank under the front seat. Fuel was measured by a yardstick, every inch representing a gallon. They called it planetary transmission. There were dirt roads, of course, and some paved. A common sign warned: “$25 fine for driving over this bridge faster than a walk.”
In 1920 the family moved back to Washington Street, living with Clayton’s cousin and wife and little girl. They lived there until 1928. Later, Clayton would have a long career with Tacoma City Water.
Clayton remembered the 1920s as all in all a pleasant life, untroubled by great events, moving along in a routine of congenial work and leisure.
Clayton Rubidge died on November 21, 1993, having seen most of a century of life in Tacoma.