Special Reports

South Tacoma Way timeline


American Indians name the prairie land south of Tacoma for its hunting. They call it Elk Trap.

1870s Small dairy farms dominate the landscape.

1881 The Tacoma Land Co., a subsidiary of Northern Pacific Railroad, donates land for a cemetery.

1891 Opening of the Northern Pacific Railroad shops. The facility will grow to become the largest rail operation in the West, building and repairing rail cars.

1891 Land is purchased for the first Edison Elementary School. Until the school can be completed, classes are held at a feed store at South 58th Street and South Tacoma Way.

1892 The first rail car is completed at the Northern Pacific shops.

1895 The neighborhood gets a new name. Edison and Excelsior are history; it’s now South Tacoma.

1900 A streetcar overloaded with passengers headed to a Fourth of July celebration speeds downhill and plunges off a trestle spanning what is now South Tacoma Way. The accident kills 43 people and injures many more.

1907 South Tacoma gets one of its first auto sales and repair shops, in a back alley behind the Red Front Saloon near 54th Street and South Tacoma Way.

1909 The North Pacific Bank is built at the corner of South 56th Street and South Tacoma Way.

1920 The Realart Theater brings motion pictures to South Tacoma Way.

1926 Harkness Rug Co. (later Harkness Furniture) opens on South Tacoma Way. The company opened a rug-cleaning business on Pine Street in 1920, then moved to the main drag. The store is still run by the family.

1926 The northern half of the street changes names, from Edison Avenue to South Tacoma Way.

1927 The Coffee Pot restaurant opens; later it will be known as the Java Jive.1931 South Union Avenue is renamed and joined to South Tacoma Way.

1938 Buses replace streetcars on South Tacoma Way.

1940s Busch’s Drive-In restaurant delights Tacoma teens and families. Car hops serve zombie sundaes, sodas and 10-cent hamburgers.

1941 Steve’s Gay ’90s Restaurant opens. The eatery, with its historic theme and can-can dancers, will grow over the years from a small coffee shop to a restaurant seating more than 700 people.

1942 A USO center opens to serve the recreation needs of soldiers during World War II.

1944 The USO center is given to the city Parks Department. Today, it’s the South Park Community Center.

1946 The B&I store opens. In time, it will become a landmark featuring a circus theme and live animals – including Ivan the gorilla.

1948 The Star-Lite Drive-in opens. 1952 A sparkling Roller Bowl skating rink opens, with what it claims is the largest pipe organ in the Northwest. The rink replaces one that had burned down.

1957 A sunrise Easter service takes place at the Star-Lite. Worshippers need never leave their cars.

1958 Heavyweight boxing champs Joe Louis and Max Baer sign autographs at the B&I.

1959 The South Tacoma Business Club hangs flower baskets along South Tacoma Way.

1961 The Realart movie theater becomes the Realart Square Dance Hall.

1963-64 Interstate 5 opens, drawing traffic away from what had been the main north-south thoroughfare. One businessman predicts: “After 90 days, when most drivers have had an opportunity to drive on the freeway for a while, traffic will actually increase on South Tacoma Way.”

1964 A baby gorilla, soon to be named Ivan, arrives at the B&I.

1967 Ivan moves into a concrete-and-steel cage inside the B&I.

1971 The Golden Dragon Restaurant, located next to the Realart Theater building since 1951, takes over the theater space.

1974 Northern Pacific Shops close. Within a year, most of the facility’s red brick buildings will be demolished.

1977 Steve’s Gay ’90s Restaurant closes.

1979 The South Tacoma Business Club opens a business incubator office on South Tacoma Way, hoping to revitalize commerce.

1984 Larry Anderson’s statue “Coming Home” depicts a rail worker greeting his child. It’s in front of the bank at the corner of South 56th Street and South Tacoma Way.

1985 The Roller Bowl skating rink closes.

1988 Boo Han Market, an Asian grocery, opens.

Early 1990s Animal rights groups call for the B&I to place Ivan in a zoo program where he can live with other gorillas. Ivan’s plight gains national attention.

1990 Business owners debate a new name for the area along South Tacoma Way between South 84th and 94th streets. Some want to call it Korea Town; others favor International Business District.

1992 B&I files for bankruptcy reorganization, and Ivan’s fate lands in a courtroom.

1993 Pal-Do World, an international market, opens on South Tacoma Way.

1994 Ivan is air-freighted to Atlanta to take up residence in the city zoo. In Tacoma, Ivan is gone but not forgotten, as the B&I celebrates Ivan’s 40th birthday.

2004 Developer Hank L. Bardon pays more than $7 million for the Star-Lite property, no longer a drive-in but a swap meet.

Debbie Cafazzo, The News Tribune

Sources: The News Tribune, Tacoma Daily Ledger, South Tacoma Star, “Tacoma: Its History and Its Builders” by Herbert Hunt, Tacoma Daily Index, Pierce County Business Examiner, Tacoma Historical Society, Tacoma Public Library Northwest Room.