South Tacoma Way, 1936. Rain

Its a yellow light on a turning signal at 56th and South Tacoma Way in 1936. There is a southwest wind blowing the rain into the windshields and people are wearing winter overcoats and snug hats that stay on your head when your hands are tucked into your pockets. This was Highway 99 before the freeway, the main interstate route headed toward Oregon and California. The dense commercial district with it’s bakeries, butcher shops, one cook cafes and drug stores served the surrounding neighborhoods of hand made bungalows and family homes for railroad shop workers. These were the solid plumb jobs for generations of working Tacomans- steamfitters and heavy metal craftsmen that built and repaired the biggest steam locomotives in the world. The vast Northern Pacific yards filled the valley just to the west(right) of this highway view, massive sturdy brick shop buildings the size of football fields, belching steam and flickering day and night with the sparklight from open forges, blow torches and arc welders. By the late 1930’s the once powerful NP railroad was faltering and the big repair sheds were dimming as the Pacific Northwest’s big passenger depots became empty and the highways filled with cars and buses. The last of Tacoma’s streetcars were ending their runs in the 30’s, the overhead catenary lines were being re-rigged with streetlight wires and the rails were being torn up for smoother rides in the air cushioned Ford sedans and long Hudson towncars. Along South Tacoma Way, car dealerships appeared just as the railroad shops faded, like one actor replacing another in a roadside melodrama for the motor age.

south Tacoma way

Written by TacomaHistory

This site is about the way history, in this case of a city and it's surrounds, is remembered or recorded in stories and small bits of memory. It's also about the way images and stories go together, how they inform and enrich each other and how we as thinking people fill in the content between a narrative and a visual document. So here is my city in time past, the way it looked and the people and events that create its character. For more than 20 years I have taught a 5 credit course on the History of Tacoma at the University of Washington Tacoma. With an average of 30 or 40 students a year, each doing a research paper as their primary focus for the course, I have benefited from many paths of inquiry and many researched and assembled stories. Here are some of them in the retelling along with the treasures of photographs and images in the collections of the Washington State Historical Society, Tacoma Public Library, University of Washington Digital Archives, Washington State Archives at the Office of the Secretary of State, Library of Congress, Washington State University, Alaska State Library, and many other archives, libraries and private collections.


  1. This intersection is 54th and south Tacoma way, NOT 56th… as the drug store on the SE corner (Tacoma Drug co.) still stands today, and is easily recognizable…..


  2. Wonderful site and information that would otherwise be long forgotten. I live in the former (and supposedly haunted) “Steve’s Gay Nineties” building and have developed a deep attachment and interest in its splendid past.
    Here are some pictures from another Tacoma site.
    Thank you for this site and preserving otherwise long gone memories.


  3. I live in the former (and supposedly haunted) “Steve Gays Nineties” building which is just off frame on the right side of the picture. Living here I not only have developed a deep attachment to the building and its colorful history—from underground speakeasy to its many restaurants— but try to find every little tidbit of information about its former glory. Thank you for preserving memories that would otherwise be long forgotten.
    Here are some pictures of “my” building from another Tacoma site…


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