Stadium Bowl awash in history

Stadium Bowl has seen games, speeches, performances, washouts and numerous dedication ceremonies

September 9, 2006 

Stadium Bowl’s 1948 Thanksgiving Day classic was packed as Lincoln High beat Stadium, 13-7. Lincoln went on to Cross State and City League titles.


“Old Woman’s Gulch” was named after fishermen’s widows and formed by torrents of water rushing to Puget Sound.

It quickly lost its name after city leaders filled it in to create a stadium, but the earth-carving water would return time and again.

Stadium Bowl has hosted presidents, opera singers, countless football games and a few floods. The following is a brief history of the bowl, as recorded by newspaper accounts and in Herbert Hunt’s “Tacoma: Its History and Its Builders,” published in 1916.

A marvel at the time, the bowl was built after Stadium High School architect Frederick Heath saw a local newspaperman’s photos of an ancient theater in Greece.

The community raised about $160,000 – the equivalent of nearly $3.5 million today – through donations, School Board funds and five-year passes to all events. The 1910 dedication featured 4,000 schoolchildren forming an American flag on the field.

“Such largeness in conception and exertion reflects the spirit of those who live about it, and justifies calling Tacoma Stadium a poem in masonry, an epic of the West,” Heath wrote at the time.

A year later, President Theodore Roosevelt visited Stadium Bowl and announced: “The building of this stadium will influence your city for decades and will influence every city in the nation. ... I know of nothing like it on this side of the water or abroad.”

For decades, Stadium Bowl was the growing community’s gathering place.

An overflow audience of 30,000 crowded the bowl in 1915 for a re-enactment of the burning of Rome. In the 1920s, residents were treated to circus acts and appearances by President Harding and New York Yankees Babe Ruth and Bob Muesel. John Philip Sousa’s band enjoyed the sharp acoustics.

The bowl hosted many football games, including the first lighted night football game on the West Coast when the University of Washington played the University of Puget Sound in 1929.

But despite engineering efforts, geology would conspire against the stadium.

Heavy rains, and possibly an earthquake, in January 1932 caused a storm drain pipe under the bowl to burst. Thousands of cubic yards of mud were washed from the bowl onto railroad tracks below. Deep in the Great Depression, the city and School Board argued about who was to pay for repairs. In the end, the city recruited the unemployed to repair the bowl.

A 1949 earthquake cracked seating areas and retaining walls and brought total condemnation. A 1954 effort to pass a property tax to rebuild failed.

In 1958 the Stadium Memorial Association was formed to raise money for renovation. Work started the next year on a $60,000 partial restoration, and the games were resumed in November 1960.

Students and supporters continued to seek money for a full restoration.

Finally, in 1977, the U.S. Department of Commerce awarded the city a grant of $2 million, or about $6.7 million today. The bowl was rededicated in the summer of 1980.

The renovation was ruined in October 1981 when a 36-inch storm drain pipe cracked and sent water cascading into the bowl. The erosion sent a mudslide onto Schuster Parkway.

A lengthy lawsuit involving the city, school district and contractors ensued. A six-month jury trial ending in 1984 found the contractors weren’t liable. The city and school district agreed to a settlement pool of $740,000.

Stadium Bowl was rededicated for the fifth time in its 75-year history in October 1985. It seats 15,000 people and still serves as a venue for the school and community.

In 1986, 19 teams inspired by a local doctor, Gordon Klatt, circled the track for 24 hours to raise money for cancer research. The Relay for Life became a signature event of the American Cancer Society and has spread to thousands of relays around the nation.

And this coming week, the bowl will come alive with Stadium High School’s centennial celebration and concert.

Tara M. Manthey: 253-597-8646

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